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King Island’s wind turbine syndrome: Fact or fiction?

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It seems that the residents of King Island are being presented with what appears to be the most invidious choice – hosting a multi-billion dollar, 200 turbine wind farm, or preparing for an influx of up to 45,000 swingers (golfers, that is) in plus-fours and other doubtful clothing choices. Or they could choose both.

Each will have impacts on visual amenity and the local economy.  But there is growing concern that they won’t get the opportunity to get their facts rights because it seems that Tasmania’s main electricity company is being outmanoeuvred by a small, but well-resourced group of anti-wind campaigners.

Hydro Tasmania was forced on Tuesday to make a public intervention in the debate over the mooted $2 billion wind farm – which is getting increasing national media and industry attention – after a local committee released what it claimed to be a thorough economic analysis of the impact of the project.

The analysis, prepared by CH2MHill, a large global consultancy group, suggested that the 200 turbine, 600MW wind farm would deliver less economic benefit than two mooted luxury golf courses over a 20-year period. The extent of that extra benefit depended on the “growth scenarios” of golfer numbers.

Hydro Tasmania rushed out a statement damning the report, including the fact that the study did not even entertain the possibility that a wind farm and the golf courses could go hand in hand. Hydro CEO Roy Adair accused the report of “crystal ball-gazing” and labeled some of the assumptions, such as the projections of up to 20,000 annual visitors at one golf course and 25,000 at the other, to be over optimistic.

“In our opinion the latest report includes figures that don’t appear to stack up. It also has some incorrect assumptions about TasWind and some very optimistic forecasts,” he said. The study, which can be found here, was also criticised for not considering the economic benefits of port upgrades and NBN access that would go with the wind farm, and for downplaying the numbers of full-time employees at the wind farm, once operating, and where they would live.

Adair’s intervention, however,  betrays a growing concern that the TasWind proposal will not even get to first base – which was to be approval from the 1,500 or so islanders to go ahead with a $30 million feasibility study. A vote on that proposal will be held next week.

Hydro had hoped that a full-scale feasibility study would give careful analysis of the potential economic impacts and benefits, a study of where the wind farm could be located, and the potential impacts and benefits of that on the local community and businesses, including the mooted golf courses.

And, crucially, it would give time for careful reflection. As it is, emotions on the island are running hot. Pro-wind campaigners concede that the anti-wind faction has proven to be extremely resourceful, importing several noted anti-wind activists, hiring a Sydney PR firm well known for its support of controversial issues, and even taking control of social media (the King Island Facebook page is said to be administered by the anti-wind side).

It is clear that the tactics of the anti-wind group is to avoid further analysis and reflection, relying instead on a fear campaign about wind turbine syndrome. (The island has hosted several small turbines for many years and has had no documented complaints, until one mainland anti-wind campaigner arrived and complained on his first night of being overwhelmed by symptoms caused by a turbine 4kms away.)

The prospect of the islanders rejecting even a fact-finding mission and not looking at some of the options is exasperating some of the less-partisan members of the community, frustrated that decisions and positions were being taken on the first bits of information given to the islanders.

“We have an opportunity, the first of its kind in any community in Australia ever to negotiate terms, conditions and even other options that can benefit our island, our neighbor states, Australia as a whole and be an example … in the renewable energy future the rest of the globe is embracing,” one said.

The details of what is happening on King Island probably appear quite provincial to outsiders, but it is exactly the dynamic that developers of wind farm projects can encounter in local communities, and the wind energy industry is looking on with concern. Not because a no-vote in King Island would have direct consequences on other projects, but it would be a hugely symbolic victory for the anti-wind movement.

As it is, the wind energy industry faces uncertainty enough for even approved projects because of  concerns about the future of the renewable energy target – which means that utilities are not signing contracts and banks are not financing – and the growing anti-renewables positioning of many in the Coalition, soon to be in government.

Adair said Hydro Tasmania strongly believed that if a feasibility study was not undertaken, neither the business nor the King Island community would have a full understanding of the project, its benefits and its risks to support a good decision-making process.

Hydro Tasmania will conduct a survey of the King Island community’s views on whether or not the project should proceed to feasibility from June 7-17. It will be done independently of Hydro Tasmania by EMRS with the results expected to be known shortly after.

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  • George Michaelson

    In economies where the direct beneficiaries of windfarms are the local landholders and residents, (germany?) I sense a significantly lower level of complaint.

    Is part of the problem, that the King Island farmers haven’t been given rights in this situation which match their expectations? a 200 element wind-farm sounds like 200 poles, 200 tracks, each of which have an implied consequence for the land, and land-rent.

    I would love to understand what % of the package returns to the land-holders themselves, and what part of the problem here is because Tasmanian land rights held by the state, don’t empower the farmers (squatters? are they leasehold on state lands?)

    • wideEyedPupil

      Go to any large wind farm in Australia and you will hear very few (if any) complaints from landholders. They love farming wind, even if they are just agisting someone else’s turbines ;-)

      The problems (as paddybts indicated) can sometimes arise when those who miss out on $$ but who live close to the turbines, sometimes much closer than the landowner, build resentments at their outcome compared to the beneficiaries. In other countries (it gets said) that there are more equatable distribution structures that do make payments to non-landholding neighbours.

  • paddybts

    A few thoughts on King Island.
    Perhaps if Hydro Tasmania offered the residents of King Is. (all of them) a tangible benefit for hosting 200 wind towers, they might do better at defusing the scare tactics of the anti-wind mob.
    One of the major problems I’ve observed with wind farms, is the massive disparity between the farmer/landholder who gets rent from the power company and the neighbour who gets none.
    Naturally, the landholders should get rent from the power Co for the towers and infrastructure located on their land, but they’ll probably be a minority of the total population.
    Telling everybody else that it’s all for the general good of the community, because of jobs/ tourism/ green power/ name your cause of the week/ is all very well.
    But it generally comes out as what it is. Corporate spin to shave costs.

    How about Hydro Tasmania gets serious, by offering all King Island residents concessional power rates. *Seriously* cheaper power costs. Let’s say a base tariff @5c Kwh for everyone.
    I haven’t a clue as to what they pay now. Or even what annual power usage is on King Island. But I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the windfarm’s total output.
    If they can offer real financial rewards to the islanders, then fake doctors, dodgy health reports and astroturfing by the fossil fuel lobby stand a much poorer chance of spreading their misinformation.

    • johnnewton

      Paddybts – good ideas

    • Di Elliffe

      Good idea. Another strength of many overseas projects is the opening up of the proposal to investment by local residents. And that such projects will not move ahead until a good percentage of the scheme (at least 50% would probably work) is bought by locals.

    • Miles Harding

      Spot on, paddybts!

      It’ll never happen, corporate greed being what it is!
      Even better would be to be able to invest in the project, the last community wind farm project I heard of has a decent rate or return.

      A golf course under the turbines will give the floggers a whole new book of excuses for their triple bogies :)

  • Chris Fraser

    The well-being of King Island residents would be more impacted by the risk of a long-drive golf ball in the head. They should ditch the golf completely.

  • James

    Giles, you forgot to mention that the committee who release the report is the local steering committee set up by the wind farm proponent, and that the proponent also paid for the report by CH2Mill. The report was not an economic analysis but a subjective socio-economic analysis, which if the report is read, does actually discuss the possibility of the wind farm and golf courses co-existing. It also basically states that whatever happens wind farm or not, King Island will not be affected, and is certainly not a report damning the wind farm proponent. Although controversy makes a good article, please stick to the facts.

  • Russell Yann

    I have been watching this development with interest over the past few months. It seems today that the vote came in just short of 60% and pacific hydro is moving to the next stage of feasibility. Given the organised and well funded nature of the anti-wind proponents I was surprised at how well it all went.