Plans to install a hybrid renewable energy plus battery storage microgrid at New South Wales’ Lord Howe Island, and slash its diesel fuel use, have hit a major political snag, after the federal energy minister intervened to rule out the wind power component of the long-awaited, ARENA-backed project.
The project – which has been in the works for some six years now, and in 2014 won a $4.5 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and a $5.6 million loan from NSW Treasury – was to install 500kW of wind, 400kW solar PV and 400kWh of battery storage, in an effort to cut the island’s diesel usage by two-thirds.
Just one year ago the Lord Howe Island Board called for tenders for the installation of the first stage of the project’s development.
But the Board’s manager of infrastructure and engineering services, Andrew Logan, said Minister Frydenberg had ruled, late last week, that the impacts of the proposed two 250kW wind turbines on the Island’s World and National Heritage values – particularly on its ‘visual landscape’ – were unacceptable.
The “very, very disappointing decision,” he said, meant that the wind turbine component of the project would “not proceed in its current form,” while the rest of the project – slated for completion later this year – might not proceed at all.
“We’ll have to go back to the drawing board to some extent,” Logan told One Step Off The Grid on Tuesday, “because we have a grant from ARENA based on the wind, solar and battery.”
Logan noted that feasibility studies conducted by consulting group Jacobs had found that a combination of solar, battery and wind was going to achieve a 70 per cent reduction in the island’s diesel generation, while a solar and battery only system would cut diesel by just 35 per cent.
This meant that removing wind from the equation fundamentally changed the economics of the project, which depended on repaying the loans using the savings from reduced diesel use.
Logan said Frydenberg’s intervention was based on the visual impact of the turbines on the island, despite the fact that there would be only two of them, at around half the size of the average land-based variety.
“These are unique tilt-up and tilt-down (turbines), and don’t need big cranes to install them,” Logan told One Step.
“We were about to go out to tender, we had at least two good options for turbine manufacturers who could deliver what we wanted.
“We looked at noise, we looked at infrasound, we looked at impacts on birds, visual impact,” he said. “We didn’t think they would be show-stoppers.”
But the federal Coalition’s low opinion of wind energy – and particularly of its ‘visual impact’ – is nothing new. Several of the party’s most senior ministers, and its former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, have variously described wind farms as “utterly offensive”, “a blight on the landscape”, “hideous,” and “visually awful”.
The Lord Howe Island Board, meanwhile, has weighed up the environmental impacts of not shifting to a renewables microgrid, for an island that sits 600km off the NSW coast and depends on just 120kW of privately owned solar PV, and three 300kW diesel generators.
“With transporting diesel across the ocean and across the island, there’s the risk of spillage into the marine park and also on the island which is a World Heritage site,” Logan said in September 2015.
“So we certainly want to reduce the impact of that.”
Not to mention the economics: “Lord Howe Island is 600km off the east coast of Australia and, like other remote off-grid communities across the country, is heavily reliant on diesel generators that are costly to run and subject to volatile fuel prices,” ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said in 2014, when the funding was announced.
Frischknecht said at the time that the project would transform the energy generation profile of the World Heritage site, which is home to a permanent island community as well as being an iconic Australian tourist destination.