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Grant Piper is on the frontline of the renewable resistance, a growing grassroots movement against plans to “industrialise” traditional farmland, turning regional communities into “modern-day power stations”.
But in this turf war, there’s a power imbalance.
The New South Wales government is building a new network of high-voltage transmission lines across the state to open up new renewable energy development, and it has the power to take the land it needs.
One line is set to slice through a corner of Mr Piper’s property in Uarbry, in the Central West, where his family has been farming for more than a century.
Farmer sitting on a tractor in a field with cattle behind him.
“You’re negotiating with a gun to your head and that’s not a fair negotiation,” Mr Piper told 7.30, standing on a ridge looking out over rolling green hills that extend to the horizon.
“It’s divided the community.”
He was worried about the bushfire risk, disruption to his cattle operation, and the impact the transmission line could have on the future value of his land.
However, his immediate concern is what he sees as a lack of proper consultation with the community.
A metal fence on a farm with a sign saying ‘Don’t Overpower Us!’
“It’s done as a fait accompli,” he said of the process. “They assume the project’s going ahead.”
The state-owned EnergyCo wrote to the Pipers last year seeking to acquire a 70-metre-wide easement through their property and to begin compensation negotiations.
But in that letter, EnergyCo made it clear that it “may need to commence the compulsory acquisition process” if the two parties failed to reach an agreement.
More than 90 property owners will be affected by this project and Mr Piper said he was one of the lucky ones – some will have transmission lines and towers cutting across their properties, right in front of their houses and sheds.
In a statement, EnergyCo said it had been “actively engaging” with the community and has reduced the number of landholders who will be affected by the project.
Almost all of them have reached an agreement, which EnergyCo said was its “strong preference”. But not the Pipers.
When asked if this was simply a case of Nimbyism – or “not in my backyard” – Mr Piper responded: “It’s true, I don’t [want it to happen here].”
“We’re destroying the village to save the village,” he said.
Mr Piper travelled to Canberra this week, along with hundreds of landowners, to protest Labor’s ambitious renewable energy target and to call for a Senate inquiry into the clean energy transition.
Within six years, the government wants 82 per cent of Australia’s power to come from renewable sources (up from 32 per cent now) backed by a new network of high-voltage transmission lines. It’s seen as crucial to achieving Australia’s 2030 climate target.
The Central West is set to play a key role in the transition after being declared a Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) – one of five in NSW – chosen for its strong potential for new wind and solar farms that’ll be needed to power the nation as coal-fired power stations close.
Slated to produce up to six gigawatts of power, it’s been labelled a “modern-day power station” and official documents acknowledge “concerns about potential and perceived visual impacts and industrialisation of the local and regional area”.
Developers have swooped. In this REZ alone, more than a dozen projects are in the pipeline, including the 117-turbine Spicer’s Creek Windfarm near Rebecca and Andrew Glencross’s merino farm in Gollan.
“I am really afraid because I feel like they are putting these projects out into regional communities because we’re the path of least resistance,” Rebecca Glencross told 7.30.
“Everyone in rural NSW is feeling quite disempowered at this stage.”
Because of their proximity to the proposed project, the Glencross say they were asked to sign a “neighbour” agreement by the developer, Squadron Energy, which offered to pay them $10,000 per year to compensate for the visual impact.
It came with a confidentiality clause that would not only forbid the couple from discussing the agreement with anyone else but would also prevent them from objecting to the wind farm itself.
“Then it gets you thinking about our neighbours, have they signed these agreements? Can they talk to us about these things?” Ms Glencross told 7.30.
Squadron Energy said its neighbour agreements were “industry standard” but encourages, and assists, landowners to seek independent legal advice.
Confidentiality clauses are included, it said, to protect personal and commercially sensitive information.
“Landowner and neighbour agreements, which are mutually agreed, provide an opportunity for landowners and neighbours to share in the financial benefit of the project development,” Squadron Energy CEO Jason Willoughby said in a statement.
But the secrecy, according to Ms Glencross, has become a “huge source of conflict” in her small community, fuelling paranoia about who’s signed up for what project and how much money they’re being offered.
Farmers hosting wind turbines can earn around $30,000 per turbine per year over the life of the project, providing an enviable passive income in good years and bad.
Those hosting new transmission lines are eligible for a negotiated one-off settlement; in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, the state governments have attempted to sweeten the deal by offering ongoing compensation payments too.
In the heart of the Central West, Dubbo’s Mayor Mathew Dickson believes the opportunities are vast, from the thousands of jobs during construction to the millions of dollars renewable energy companies are pumping into the region through community benefit funds.
His council, for example, asks developers to provide a payment worth 1.5 per cent of the project’s total value.
“I did meet with some farmers recently … and some of them asked me, ‘How do we stop these projects?'” he said.
“I joked that you’d have better luck standing on Bondi Beach and stopping the tide coming in than you will stopping these projects.
“They’re going ahead; we need them to go ahead.”
But he can also understand complaints about poor consultation.
“If you don’t communicate what’s happening then people lose trust in what you’re doing,” he told 7.30.
Deepening community opposition is causing delays to both renewable and transmission projects across the country.
With time and cost pressures rising, and ambitious targets to meet, the federal government asked Energy Infrastructure Commissioner Andrew Dyer to come up with a blueprint to smooth the transition.
His report found developers “prospecting” for potential wind and solar projects were causing “distrust, uncertainty and anxiety” in many regional communities.
“We’re now in an era where we’re building new transmission lines which opens up whole new corridors for development of wind and solar, and it does bring with it a new era of people seeking to develop projects that may or may not happen,” Mr Dyer told 7.30.
“Communities are getting fatigued from the deluge of projects, be it transmission lines or the accompanying generation plants that go with it.”
Mr Dyer has made nine recommendations, all accepted by the government, from better planning and complaints-handling processes to tighter regulations to weed out cowboy developers.
“We do need to build this infrastructure to get the job done, but if we don’t do it properly, the community backlash will stop it,” Mr Dyer said.
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