Residents of the town of Nundle are calling on the New South Wales government to impose the same standards of community consent for existing renewable development proposals as it has for the state’s new renewable energy zones.
As the first two of five REZs were declared in the central west-Orana and New England regions, the NSW government’s electricity infrastructure roadmap mandated that “renewables are developed where regional communities want them”.
There has been an overwhelming expression of interest in response. As a result, the member for Northern Tablelands and NSW agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, said the government had “the luxury of supporting only the best projects that benefit the community, maintain the highest and strictest development standards and maximise local renewable jobs and investment in the region”.
Communities with existing renewable development proposals say they are frustrated that these standards do not apply to them, with Nundle residents citing the Hills of Gold windfarm proposed in 2018.
Megan Trousdale, an executive member of the community group Hills of Gold Preservation Inc, says at the forefront of community concern is the conviction that their town is an inappropriate location. There have been 666 submissions from a town of under 300 people, with two to one opposing the windfarm.
She called on the government to follow its own mandate for renewables – “community consent and least environmental impact”. The state’s director for energy infrastructure and zones, Chloe Hicks, has previously said social licence was central to the delivery of REZs, the electricity infrastructure roadmap and its enabling legislation.
Trousdale cited Middlebrook solar farm at Loomberah, 30 minutes’ drive away, and massive solar and wind projects near Coolah as “great examples of minimum objection at public meetings, in the media and during public exhibition. That says community consent.”
Chris Eagles, a farmer who lives on the southern side of the Great Dividing Range, said: “Can you imagine the outrage if this happened to the Blue Mountains? Yet it is the same range with the same environmental values.”
He added: “The reason projects in remote and rural areas are attractive to the government is that they impact fewer people. It is precisely because there are less people in these areas that the environmental values are so high.”
Phil Spark, an ecologist engaged by the community group, opposes the project in its current location. “I support renewable energy 100% [but] we’ve got to get it in the right places to have the minimal impact,” Spark said.
The project’s environmental impact statement identified a total development footprint of approximately 513 hectares (1,270 acres), with more than 206 ha of native vegetation to be cleared, including threatened fauna such as koalas, squirrel gliders and booroolong frogs, and flora including a variety of red, ribbon and mountain gum species.
While the environment impact statement says a biodiversity offset strategy will mitigate this, Spark said he did not believe in offsetting “at all”, especially in places like in Nundle where the conservation value was high.
“You destroy what’s there today with the intention of someday regenerating the same habitat,” he said. “You’ve got all those years until that happens and in the meantime species can decline and become locally extinct.”
In addition to community concerns about the effect on wildlife and the flow-on effect to tourism, there are serious concerns about the appropriateness of the terrain itself.
Dr Robert Banks, a soil scientist engaged by the community group, said the area proposed for the project was unsuitable for the construction of both the roads and the turbine pads, as steepness and soil characteristics meant construction could cause land slides.
Banks said landslips would cause further problems, including large sediments entering the upper catchment of the Chaffey Dam and the Isis River that flows into the Hunter, which would impact water quality as well as the dam’s capacity to hold water.
The windfarm developer Engie’s general manager, Andrew Kerley, previously told Guardian Australia, “Dr. Robert Banks’ assessment is desktop based and without the benefit of site-specific knowledge.”
Banks said in response that his assessment was entirely field-based.
“I’m the author of the mapping, which is based on thousands of hours of fieldwork, as well as thousands of soil tests relevant to the region in question,” he said. “I know it well because I have driven, dug and walked over most of the footprint in the course of my work.”
Kerley said: “Engie is committed to developing the Hills of Gold Wind Farm and to making a positive economic and social contribution to Nundle and the New England region. We’re continuing to engage with our stakeholders to ensure the development minimises any proposed impacts to biodiversity and heritage.”
He told Guardian Australia Engie had “undertaken several additional technical assessments to identify where these impacts could be further mitigated”.
Trousdale said the minority of submissions supporting the project expressed eagerness for local job creation. Her group was concerned that the project’s benefits had been overstated, she said, with the developer first estimating the ongoing jobs at 35, later reduced to 16, and the community organisation Re-Alliance’s estimating in its submission that there would be 12 ongoing positions.
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment told Guardian Australia: “The NSW Government expects all projects to work closely with local communities to make sure they are building in the right places that complement farming and other land uses.”
The nearby Liverpool Range windfarm attracted fewer than 100 submissions, some of whichvoiced concerns about the impact of visual and sound pollution. But Greg Piper, a member of the project’s community consultative committee, said on the whole “the community has been quite supportive”.
Piper said there would be long-term economic benefits, with money coming into the community through the voluntary planning agreements, and from his point of view it was a question of: “Do we want coal or wind turbines?”