A small 5-turbine wind farm project with an innovative share ownership model has become the first wind energy project in the state of Victoria to receive council approval in recent years.
The application for the Coonooer Bridge wind farm – with five turbines of up to 150 metres tall to be built near the town of the same name, north-west of Bendigo – was approved by the Buloke Shire Council on Wednesday night.
It is a notable project for several reasons. It is the first wind farm proposal to gain approval from a council in the state since former Premier Ted Baillieu introduced restrictive planning policies in 2011.
And the project – located between the towns of Charlton and St Arnaud, about 90km northwest of Bendigo – is also the first in Australia to find a way to combine corporate and community ownership, and the first renewable energy project in the country with an ownership structure that includes the local farming community in this way.
In all, 30 owners of property sited within 3km of the planned wind farm have been offered shares, including one family with turbines on their land. All have taken up the offer, despite the concerns about wind energy of some. Windlab, a spin-off from the CSIRO which has developed an expertise in identifying strong wind resource areas, retains the majority stake.
“We wanted to create a fair and open relationship with all landholders around the site, not just the landowners who would lease land for turbines,” says Luke Osborne, director of Coonooer Bridge Wind Farm Pty Ltd, who spent 12 months putting the agreement together.
“We met a great community who were prepared to listen and work with us. They have made the project earn its place in their region. Along the way this group of landholders have made an important contribution to renewable energy in Australia by demonstrating that a collaborative approach can maximise the benefits to regional Australia as well as avoid heated planning disputes.”
The structure and the approach of the project will certainly be studied with great interest by all those involved in the Australian wind industry, given the issues surrounding planning regulations in various states, the controversy over the Taswind proposal on King Island, proposed new rules for wind monitoring, the continuing push for studies into the health impacts of wind turbines, and a planned anti-wind rally in Canberra next week.
Nearly all of Australia’s 2,500MW of wind energy has been built under a conventional corporate structure. Just two small wind farms Australia have been developed with community ownership – Hepburn Wind in Victoria and Denmark in WA – although others are working on plans. Corporates are also experimenting and Infigen Energy is looking at the idea of selling one turbine to the local community in a proposed wind farm near Orange.
Osborne says that the structure is a bit of a hybrid between the community ownership model of the two-turbine Hepburn Wind Farm and the community models developed successfully in Europe.
“We wanted to spread financial benefits beyond the landowners, and we’ve done that through share ownership scheme,” Osborne says.
“We haven’t got a silver bullet here … we’ve got something that makes renewable energy a little more acceptable to rural communities. But I really want to acknowledge the community of Coonooer Bridge. They have done a great thing for renewables and given us all a bit of a lesson.”
Osborne says the project application has generally proceeded smoothly, but the shire did consider a small number of submissions in the planning process, and the developer needed to address those.
“Not everyone wants to live near turbines,” he says. “We hold enormous respect for a community prepared to air and work through differences of opinion in a productive manner. We will continue to look for more ways to make this project a positive part of the local economy.”
One family, Clinton and Carolyn Olive, have a farm alongside the proposed wind project, but will not have turbines on their property.
“No-one really wants these things in their backyard and we do have some misgivings about the visual impact on our community,” the Olives said by email. “But we feel on balance the community involvement, the environmental benefits, the grant program and the potential for jobs alleviates some of our concern.
“If this project can bring even one or two new families to the town then that is a positive to our community. We have all the facilities here, great sports clubs, schools, a new hospital on the way, we just don’t have enough people using them.”
The project and the local landholders have designed an annual grant program aiming to support local community initiatives. A pilot of the program will be rolled out in coming months.
Osborne’s own family hosts turbines on a property near Bungendore, so he says he understands some of the issues. He says he has seen first hand that wind energy can help economies be more resilient in times of drought, and to diversify the local economy. But to date, only the landholders were making a dollar out of it.
For the project to proceed, however, it will need to find a major corporate consumer of electricity to buy the output. And Osborne said that he hoped that the good relationship with the Coonooer Bridge landholders would be valued by the market.
“Renewable energy is overwhelmingly supported by the Australian population. This project can deliver that energy and also play a positive role in a small farming community.”
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