Coalition choking wind farm dream

An opinion piece on the Victorian Coalitions wind farm policy, published in the National Times, 2011. From the National Times, Feb 22, 2011.

Coalition choking wind farm dreams

A test case beginning this week could determine the future of Victoria’s wind energy industry.

The tiny three-turbine Chepstowe wind farm proposal west of Ballarat will be the first project to be assessed under the Baillieu government’s new wind farm policy.

The policy was widely derided by the industry at the last election because it requires new wind turbines to be at least two kilometres from any dwelling, and bans wind farms from tourist areas and growth corridors, putting some of the state’s best wind resources off-limits.
In effect, the government’s position will make it harder to put up a wind turbine in Victoria than to dig a coal mine.

In recent years, Victoria has seen substantial growth in jobs and investment in the wind energy industry, with the benefits being shared across many parts of the state.

The state has about 427 MW of working wind farms, and another 3192 MW of wind farm projects approved by the previous government are well advanced.

This growth has created thousands of jobs – most in regional Victoria – and kick-started dozens of small businesses that supply and support the construction and operation of the wind farms.

This is a rare good news story in the fraught area of climate change policy. Wind farms appearing across the landscape have become clear signs that a different future is possible, one where we generate the electricity we need without polluting our atmosphere.

Wind energy has the potential to make a big contribution to Victoria’s energy mix, and begin the transition away from dirty brown coal power plants that are driving climate change.

It could also be a new boom industry for Victoria, which has some of the best wind resources in the country. Wind is a proven, economically viable way to generate clean energy, and the cheapest form of renewable energy we can roll out at a commercial scale to begin to reduce our greenhouse pollution.

Thanks to the federal government’s 20 per cent renewable energy target, billions of dollars of investment is poised to flow into businesses and regions that can bring clean energy online quickly.

Victoria’s wind industry was well placed to take advantage of this investment, but now there are fears the money will flow to other states, leaving Victoria behind in the clean energy race.

Although the Coalition gave token support to the target of reducing Victoria’s greenhouse pollution by 20 per cent by 2020, their anti-wind farm policy threatens to do the opposite.

In opposition the Coalition latched onto the anti-wind farm crusade as a way to curry favour with a vocal minority of opponents in regional Victoria.

In government they have a responsibility to lead in the best interests of the whole community.

A survey of wind companies commissioned last year by the Clean Energy Council found that between 50 and 70 per cent of proposed wind farms would be abandoned if the Coalition pursued its policy.

The government has asserted that its policy already applies to new wind farm planning permits, but the necessary change to the regulations has not been formally enacted.

Chepstowe is one of about a dozen wind farm projects planned for the state and in various stages of development, but yet to receive a planning permit. After much toing and froing, Planning Minister Matthew Guy called the project in for consideration by Planning Department officers.

It takes two or three years to get a project to the construction stage, so if no new wind farms are approved while this government is in power, wind farm dependent businesses will face a huge drop in income in coming years.

The projects that have already been approved will sustain some wind industry businesses in the short term, but they won’t have the certainty to expand, and some will simply head interstate, taking the jobs of the future with them.

And claims that wind farms have a number of negative health effects can be disproved by recent research. As was shown in tests in South Australia, there is often more sub-audible noise at a beach than down wind from a turbine.

The damage being done by coal is far worse than a scattering of wind farms across the landscape. And unlike open-cut coal mining, turbines are compatible with other land uses. They also provide substantial income to land owners.

The test case being heard this week will set a significant precedent for the future of this emerging and job rich industry. In many ways it marks a fork in the road in deciding where our state’s energy policy will go. Let’s hope that common sense prevails.

Cam Walker is the campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, Melbourne and created the Yes 2 Renewables website promoting renewable energy for regional Victoria.

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