In Hunter coal country, buzzwords like “transition” and “diversification” are littered though reports from think tanks and industry groups trying to chart the future of the resource-rich valley.
Likewise, multi-million-dollar government transition funds and expert panels have been announced to solve the region’s big question: What comes after coal?
Not wind farms, according to a concerted group of landholders on undulating cattle country east of Muswellbrook.
The land has been earmarked for the Bowmans Creek wind farm, a 56-turbine project spread across more than 16,000 hectares to be developed by renewables company Epuron.
The proposed turbines would be 220 metres tall – higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
It is one among almost a dozen wind farms in the NSW planning system as the state government pursues green energy through five Renewable Energy Zones (REZs).
REZs are well advanced in the Central West, New England and Riverina, with the Hunter and Central Coast next in line for government attention.
But the proponents of some projects are facing communities that are indifferent or vehemently opposed to wind technology.
Fear of ‘industrial development’
The NSW Department of Planning, which is assessing the Bowmans Creek proposal, received 148 public submissions on the project.
Ninety-three per cent of respondents were opposed.
The majority of respondents were from Muswellbrook and neighbouring Singleton, but some hailed from as far away as Wagga Wagga and Randwick.
Of Muswellbrook’s 16,000 residents, 67 wrote to the department opposing the project and none were in support.
The primary concerns of nearby landholders include noise, the visual and environmental impacts and land devaluation.
“I didn’t buy out here to look at an industrial development,” Brigitte Thomas said.
“It’s going to ruin my home and the homes of many other people.”
Ms Thomas, who lives four kilometres from the nearest proposed turbine in Muscle Creek, listed solar, hydrogen, nuclear and coal as more appealing sources of power.
The promised 150 construction jobs and 15 ongoing jobs were dismissed by residents like Nigel Wood.
“At the moment, there’s plenty of jobs around in the Hunter Valley and it doesn’t bring that much money in,” he said.
“The [coal] mine jobs are very lucrative jobs that support the whole area.”
Mr Wood previously worked in management positions with several coal companies.
In a statement, Epuron said it had made various design changes to minimise impacts of the project.
The company rejected claims about land devaluation and pointed to “independent studies by the New South Wales government”.
Financial compensation and a good-faith engagement between proponents and landholders is key to wind farms gaining a social licence, according to Andrew Bray of the Australian Renewable Energy Alliance.
“Let’s work out how we can make the project fit – and maybe that means less turbines, maybe the turbines are moved, maybe there’s less roads or the roads are rerouted,” he said.
Mr Bray said there would be shortcomings in any location, but most problems could be overcome.
“What we’ve found in project after project is that there’s a lot of concerns before a project goes up,” he said.
“But actually, once the project is approved, constructed and goes ahead, it doesn’t turn out to be some of the things that are mentioned.”
But some farmers in the NSW Southern Tablelands believe they are reaping the rewards of wind.
Dimity Taylor’s property near Goulburn is less than 2km from turbines on the Gullen Range wind farm.
“I cannot remember the last time I heard the turbines, the conditions have to be perfect to be able to hear the turbines,” she said.
“I find them really beautiful, particularly during sunset when the light’s reflecting off them.
“There’s farmers that can now be more viable on their farms, but also businesses in the local towns that have really benefited from the extra economic activity that’s happened because of the wind farms.”
‘Be careful,’ Joyce warns
A number of wind farms are also proposed for the New England region, in the electorate of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
He warned the NSW government to “be careful” with the development of wind farms, which were turning into a “red hot issue”.
“It’s not all a bowl of cherries in this space and that’s why you’ve got to keep your base load power going,” Mr Joyce said.
“People turn up and say, ‘I don’t want them and if you give me one, I’m not voting for you’.”
NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean has been contacted for comment.
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