The chief executive officer of Moyne Shire Council says the “unprecedented” proliferation of wind turbines in the region must be reckoned with for the government’s renewable energy transition to succeed.
Brett Davis said Moyne was on the front line of the energy revolution in Australia and was seeing the challenges of the net zero transition before any other areas. “This change is beginning to happen throughout the state, but we are way ahead of it,” Mr Davis said. “Moyne is uniquely placed in the state at the moment because it has been dealing with renewable energy for 20-plus years, but also because the scale and concentration of wind farms here is unprecedented. There are lessons here and we have that lived experience.”
Victoria has set a series of strong emissions reduction targets since 2021, aiming for a cut of 28-35 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025, a 45-50 per cent cut by 2030, 75-80 per cent by 2035, and net zero by 2045. The state has already cut emissions by about 30 per cent, but estimates suggest its renewable energy generation will have to grow 15-fold to reach net zero.
Wind energy has led the renewable sector so far in Victoria, but efficient generation is determined by whether a location is naturally windy, combined with its proximity to existing high-voltage transmission lines. As a result, Victorian wind farms have sprung up in specific pockets of the state, most notably, Moyne.
And while there are already hundreds of turbines in the west and north-east of the shire, hundreds more are going through planning approval and experts have said hundreds more – possibly thousands more – would have to be built in the area to reach net zero. Mr Davis said Moyne was already being transformed by the industry.
“If all the planned wind farms in Moyne are taken up, that’s 12 per cent of the shire’s 5500 square kilometres of land. The area covered by wind farms would be greater than the entire Wyndham municipal area,” Mr Davis said. “In a visual impact sense you could have an uninterrupted view of turbines all the way from Darlington to Mortlake. That’s the scale of what we’re dealing with. “It’s that industrialised landscape. This is really an industrial revolution for renewable energy.”
The council voted to harden its stance against new wind farm projects in September 2022, “strongly recommending” the state government not issue any new permits until it had set strategic guidelines for the new South West Renewable Energy Zone surrounding Moyne. Mr Davis said the most urgent question was the “cumulative impact” of so many projects in one area.
“The thing that keeps the wheels turning at our end is what is our ultimate capacity for turbines? Because there are already 400 there and there are 400 coming,” he said. “Does the state need to consider that OK there may be capacity, but can others carry that load? There are other windy shires in Victoria. Does it all have to be in one corridor?”
The council has been calling for the state government to develop more rigorous renewable energy policy for several years. Lately it has been joined by wind farm developers and their opponents, who have said the ambitious transition will fail if the state’s vague and outdated policy isn’t fixed soon.
The government has made big changes since 2021 to ramp up its renewable transition, establishing VicGrid to coordinate its six new renewable energy zones, and relaunching the State Electricity Commission to get a tighter grip on the state’s energy system. A state government spokesperson said finding the appropriate level of renewable development in an area was a key plank of its planning process.
“VicGrid will develop the Victorian Transmission Plan, which will determine appropriate levels of renewable energy development across our Renewable Energy Zones by considering key land use, environmental and community issues early in the planning process,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Davis said since the establishment of VicGrid there appeared to have been significant strategic planning and policy progress. “We had the secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action John Bradley and the VicGrid CEO Alistair Parker here in July,” he said. “They’re undertaking their strategic land use assessments right now and assure us that will be completed sooner rather than later. I have concerns around timing but I hope VicGrid can start to bring that together for consultation late this year or early next year. They assure us that’s where they’re headed, so we can only take them on face value.”
Strategic land use assessment would include issues like brolga guidelines, which have sat in draft form for years and created controversy in the Planning Minister’s assessment of the Willatook Wind Farm in July 2023. One area Mr Davis said he had pushed since becoming chief executive was community benefits and the “social licence” of the wind farm developers.
“Social licence is all about getting better deals for the communities, not just the host farmers,” he said. “I’m pleased to see that’s moving in the right direction with some of the more recent wind farms, but there’s room for improvement. “We have about 12,500 households in Moyne and not one of them is getting a direct energy benefit from having wind farms in the shire, yet we are on track to host 800 turbines and 3 gigawatts of generation, enough to power 2.5 million households.”
Mr Davis said a council survey from early 2022 showed nearly 90 per cent of residents favoured renewable energy, “so on the face of it that says the community is in favour”. “But at the same time there are communities that are directly affected by it who will tell you that’s not the lived experience on the ground, and the council has to listen to that, because they are the ones who have to live with these things around them for 25 years,” he said.
Mr Davis said the council had to “walk a very fine line” to balance community expectation and the planning and environmental reality the turbines were “going to come, it’s the shape and form of that process that isn’t clear”.
He said nothing could make up for the transformation of the landscape when a wind farm was built. “I don’t think you can ever provide the necessary compensation. So it’s more a matter of getting legacy investment out of that, do you pool funds to invest in local swimming pools to keep them going, do you boost investment in local health centres?” he said. “It’s about being targeted and strategic. I’d hate to think it gets thrown away on the old footy jumpers, scoreboards and cricket nets. There’s a place for those, but given the scale of investment there really needs to be legacy infrastructure that shores up the community for the next 20 years.”
Mr Davis said he hoped the government could bring in some guidelines that would standardise community benefit schemes. “At the moment it’s a patchwork quilt of outcomes across the state.”
A spokesperson said the state government expected wind farm developers to tailor community benefits to the requirements of the local area and regional infrastructure was an important part of that. “Community needs to be at the heart of our planning and ensuring the benefits of the energy transition are shared fairly,” the spokesperson said. “That’s why we created VicGrid to give landholders, regional communities and traditional owners more say on how transmission infrastructure is planned and developed.”
Mr Davis said the next issue coming down the pipeline was “decommissioning”, deciding what would happen to wind farms that had exceeded their usable lifespan. “That is becoming a live issue for us with wind farms like Yambuk and Codrington nearing the end of their designated term, so what happens there?” Mr Davis said. “We look forward to the state government issuing some guidance on that, because if those turbines have to go into landfill the good generated by those wind farms is undone somewhat.”
Wind farms have become an increasingly divisive issue for the council, one that Mr Davis said “comes into the council chamber quite a bit”. He said the scale and concentration of the developments made controversy almost inevitable, but if the council could fight for its fair share that would make a difference.
“There are really good opportunities out there, whether that’s renewable jobs, or perhaps developers building housing that can be passed on to the community,” he said. “It will never recompense for the fact there’s now a turbine there, but getting that legacy infrastructure right will still help.”
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