Windswept King Island, lying in Bass Strait between Tasmania and the mainland, is being touted as a potential blueprint for what the country’s electricity grid might look like in the future.
But right now it is also emerging as a battleground for the minds of locals over proposals for what could be the largest wind farm in Australia. And it could have implications for the future of renewable energy developments in the country.
King Island and its 1,200 inhabitants are already set to become a test-bed for a $46 million project from Hydro Tasmania and other partners that will combine wind energy, solar power and battery systems to reduce the island’s expensive reliance on imported diesel fuel.
As we reported last year, the combination of renewable and dispatchable power sources, and other technologies such as smart grid solutions, demand management, and electric vehicle charging, will provide an insight into how such systems can be integrated on a larger scale.
As exciting as this project might be, a more pressing drama for the Australian renewable energy industry is being played out over a separate proposal known as the TasWind project, to build a massive wind farm of up to 200 turbines – with a capacity of 600MW or more and worth up to $2 billion – and install a high-voltage undersea cable to export that electricity to the mainland.
The impact on the island – which has been feeling the effects of a recently closed abattoir and a declining dairy industry, and which relies almost entirely on fishing and tourism – would be considerable; not just the presence of 200 turbines (the island already has a handful of smaller ones), but the economic injection of jobs and an industry that could generate up to $300 million in revenue each year.
Should the islanders agree to the offer or not?
That’s a question for them, but just how this proposal is managed is also emerging as a wind energy test case of strategy in communications and community consultation, and more prosaically as a battle of will and influence between the anti- and pro-wind campaigners. The implications for the wind industry generally could be significant.
Hydro Tasmania has been applauded for taking a text-book approach on consultation with the community; helping to establish a local forum called the TasWind Consultative Community (TWCC), a group of 17 locals who are organising a series of meetings to share and discuss information with the residents, and invite outside experts to talk on the issues. State owned Hydro Tasmania says it will only go ahead with the project if a majority of islanders vote in favour in a few months time.
But it seems that TWCC and even Hydro Tasmania have been blindsided by the machinations, and the pretensions, of the anti-wind lobby. A meeting on Friday this week – one of many scheduled – was to have featured three speakers described as “independent” experts on wind farms and health issues, but in fact comprised three dedicated anti-wind campaigners – Sarah Laurie, David Mortimer and Donald Thomas – who have often worked in concert.
This fact appeared to have been missed by the TWCC, but on discovering this information, it appears that the TWCC “postponed” the invitation for Laurie and invited instead Gwenda Allgood, the pro-wind mayor of Ararat Rural Council in Victoria, where the Challicum wind farm is located.
But now it seems that the TWCC efforts to “clear the air” are being undermined by a small group of anti-wind farmers who have invited Laurie to speak at a separate meeting this evening. Members of the TWCC have asked Laurie to not appear at that meeting, suggesting it would compromise her status as an “independent.”
Laurie likes to be described as a medical expert investigating health problems at wind farms. The wind industry say she is no more than a dedicated anti-wind lobbyist who heads the anti-wind Waubra Foundation, and has never been called as an expert witness in any official inquiry into wind noise.
But they are aware of the ability of the likes of Laurie and others to influence local opinions. Even the ability to enrage a small group of residents is proving to have an impact on some developments. And the power of suggestion, as academics Simon Chapman and Fiona Chrichton have discovered in their separate research, has been an extremely potent weapon in the wind energy debate. Their conclusions were that wind turbine syndrome was most likely caused by scare campaigns.
Pro-wind activisits – concerned that most in the King Island community are not aware that Mortimer and Thomas are rusted-on anti wind farm campaigners closely aligned with Laurie – have launched their own campaign to influence residents, ensuring that many have seen Chapman’s and Chrichton’s research, and arranging for the insertion into the local paper of an analysis by Mike Barnard which tackles some of the claims of the foundation, particularly its assertion that Laurie is called on as an expert witness, which the TWCC initially took at face value.
Barnard has also written on the Chapman/Crichton research.
It’s fair to say that the wind industry has been taken aback by the ability of anti-wind campaigners – and their supporter, many described as rich, NIMBY landowners – to breathe so much fire into their campaign, and of their ability to leverage the angst of a tiny minority and create enough rage to convince a large majority to walk away from a controversy, even a manufactured one. They have managed to have the issues around wind farm health issues referred endlessly to Senate committees and health enquiries, and have signed on support from a solid group of Coalition parliamentarians. They have been influential is securing policies such as the 2km setback in Victoria, which is holding back new wind projects in that state, even if similar policies are now being rejected overseas.
A spokeswoman for Hydro Tasmania confirmed that the TWCC had invited Laurie, Mortimer and Thomas to make a presentation to the community, and that the TWCC had decided to postpone Laurie’s visit. But they appear to have been taken aback by her decision to travel anyway, and speak at another meeting.
“Hydro Tasmania supports the TWCC providing independent and balanced views to help the community develop an informed opinion on the TasWind proposal,” the spokeswoman said. “Hydro Tasmania continues to provide information to the community information on a range of issues.”
“It is hard to fault the company’s genuine attempt to engage meaningfully with the community,” said one observer. “But if Laurie was genuinely an advocate for good outcomes for communities, she would realise that her endorsement of the anti-wind rally is undermining a genuine community consultation process – and robbing the community of a chance to make its own important decision on its future. Moreover, the wind industry will learn that early consultation is perhaps not much better than poor consultation.”