In the small town of Nundle, a story of rural change is playing out. The picturesque little New England town of 289 people, nestled in the Great Dividing Range, has traditionally relied on farming and increasingly tourism to keep it ticking over.
The Hills of Gold Wind Farm has reversed the usual expected lines of division. A section of those born and working in the district are generally in favour of the green energy project and the income it may bring, while tree changers or retirees are opposed.
Construction of the farm is slated to begin in 2022, pending approval from the state government, with the project consisting of up to 70 turbines generating up to 420MW of power.
With a height of 230m, the turbines are among the largest in Australia with the nearest turbines less than 10kms from Nundle’s main intersection. They could be visible from as far away as Tamworth, with the production site looping around the ridgelines to Nundle’s south east.
The project’s owners, French multinational utility company Engie, who took over the project after buying out original developer Wind Energy Partners in 2020, promise cash and jobs, which some locals see as a welcome revitalisation for the town. Others see the project as a threat to Nundle’s character and the unique environment of the surrounding hills.
Rob Schofield, proprietor of Nundle’s only pub, The Peel Inn, was born and raised in Nundle, and comes from a long line of locals.
He feels that the windfarm could bring a much-needed boost to the town, which lost jobs after the amalgamation of Nundle Shire Council with Tamworth Regional Council.
“The town’s getting smaller, not bigger,” Schofield said.
“We had the [Nundle Shire] council, here in town; they had 30 guys employed, we had a butcher, a baker. The school used to have 160 kids – now it’s 48.”
Schofield points out that the town’s main drawcard of tourism is nice – as a publican, he welcomes it – but the last four years of drought and the Covid lockdown proved how tenuous a tourism-reliant economy can be.
‘Green energy has to start somewhere’
That fragility is reflected in the numbers. Visitors to the New England north-west region were down 32.3% in December 2020, with a loss of approximately $400m in tourism dollars from the previous year, according to Destination NSW.
Steve Whale, who owns the Machina coffee stall on Nundle’s main street, also feels the project could directly benefit the town in the short and long-term, as well as supporting the green energy the project will supply.
“They’re scheduled to decommission Liddell power station, which powers everything around here, in 2023,” says Whale.
“Now, every time I’ve asked someone who’s against this project what’s the alternative? No one ever says anything. They always say ‘I love green energy, just not near me.’ It’s not a valid argument.”
Engie has promised to create a community enhancement fund, paying a rate of up to $3000 per wind turbine per year during the operation of the wind farm, which is expected to be around 25 years. The project could result in up to 200 direct jobs during construction and 30 potential jobs post-construction within the region.
Peter Andrews, a mechanic who worked Hunter Valley coalfields, understands the desire for green energy and welcomes the development.
“If it didn’t come through, it wouldn’t worry me. But I think it should – everyone wants green energy and it’s got to start somewhere,” he says.
‘Right idea, wrong place’
The chief opponents are members of Hills of Gold Preservation Incorporated (Hogpi), a community group “representing residents and landholders”.
Their objections range from environmental concerns, to a loss of character for the town and the feasibility of the project itself.
Megan Trousdale, who runs the Odgers & Mclelland Exchange Stores along with her husband, Duncan, is worried it will change the character and natural beauty she fell in love with, which inspired her to move up from Sydney.
The Exchange Stores has attracted attention from outside the region, developing into a handy online business with its enamel bakeware, artisan kitchen goods and gardening tools.
But it’s the town’s tourism appeal that makes Trousdale proud and she is afraid the installation of wind turbines on the ridgeline will destroy the area’s natural appeal.
“We’ve got an amazing community that has been working really hard to attract tourism, and we’ve had some incredible success,” Trousdale said, mentioning that the town has won both state and national tourism awards.
“Not many towns can claim that fame, let alone towns of 300 people.”
Logistics alone could kill the windfarm. The road proposed for the project contains several extremely tight switchback curves known locally as the Devil’s Elbow which would be impossible for trucks carrying the 80m-long blades to navigate, according to Trousdale.
Brian Tomalin, a former long-term resident of the Nundle hills and former director of the Namoi Catchment Authority and New England Livestock Pest and Health Authority, claims that the site is “the right idea in the wrong place”.
“We inquired of Pacific Hydro about putting a wind turbine up there, and they said the location’s unsuitable – there’s too much turbulence.”
Tomalin, along with another Hogpi member who did not wish to be named, also stressed the importance of the ecosystem along the ridge, which is habitat for quolls, koalas, and rare trees like vulnerable small-fruited mountain gum.
Dr Robert Banks, a soil scientist engaged by Hogpi, said the soil on the ridgeline is inappropriate for the construction of both the roads and the turbine pads, and warns that such construction could cause land slips during heavy rain.
“The land class there is the same as Thredbo,” Banks said, with the concrete structures increasing runoff that could result in landslides.
Engie’s Andrew Kerley said wind farms were commonly located on ridgelines and in terrain similar to the proposed Hills of Gold Wind Farm site and its location was chosen because of its “high natural wind resources and access to existing electricity transmission infrastructure”.
“It is important to note Dr. Robert Banks’ assessment is desktop based and without the benefit of site-specific knowledge,” Kerley said. “The new project amendments are supported by geotechnical assessment, as well as the design and construction expertise of an Australian-leading wind farm construction company.”
The majority of land used for the project belongs to local Jim Robinson, who said he was excited by what the project could bring to the businesses and community.
“I expect it will bring many more visitors into the area. I actually approached the original proponent, as I’ve had an interest in renewables and knew that my property was situated in a good location for a wind farm,” Robinson said.
“I definitely believe that the project will provide real benefits to the community and is a step in the right direction towards reducing our carbon footprint.”
Responses to the over 600 submissions Engie has received are due to be released on 29 October.
Peter Andrews, who supports the windfarm, isn’t too concerned if it doesn’t happen.
“I think most people are just thinking we should just hurry up and go one way or the other, so then you can just move on – either hurry up and get into the bloody thing, or walk away.”
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