Australian Energy Market Operator chief Daniel Westerman has described the major transmission upgrades proposed for across the National Electricity Market as some of the “hard realities” of the transition to renewables, as community push-back against the massive projects continues to build.
Speaking in his first public address since taking the helm at AEMO, Westerman said that while critical grid upgrades like the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project were making promising progress, they were also meeting opposition from communities “being asked to shoulder the burden of construction and hosting” them.
Westerman noted that the Western Victorian Transmission project, for which AusNet and its commercial arm Mondo are in the process of narrowing down a preferred final route, is the first major greenfield project of its kind in more than three decades.
“We’re just not used to building transmission,” Westerman told the CEDA luncheon in Melbourne on Wednesday. “And there’s a complex web of issues that do need to be dealt with from community and social licence to deal with this type of infrastructure.
“I think that’s really important as we think about our energy system into the future, which means that new transmission does need to get built, and early engagement, early and often, with communities across the industry is the easiest way through.”
The comments coincide with release of a new set of community guidelines from the federal government’s Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, whose role was expanded from overseeing community engagement by wind farm developers to take in solar farms, big battery projects and transmission infrastructure upgrades.
The commissioner, Andrew Dyer, said this week that the new guidelines on such matters as lease and licence agreements had been released to assist host landowners to navigate negotiations with renewable energy and transmission project proponents.
“We are seeing an increase in complaints from farmers about unfair or unclear agreements and this is one of a number of actions we are taking to better equip landholders,” Dyer said in comments to RenewEconomy on Tuesday.
Where these complaints were coming from was not specified, but tensions have been simmering over AusNet’s plans for the western Victoria transmission upgrade, with several community members quitting a consultation group set up by AusNet Services, alleging “misrepresentation, deception and lack of empathy.”
The massive project will involve the establishment of two new networks links; a 220kV overhead line from Bulgana in Western Victoria to a new terminal north of Ballarat, and a second 500kV line from Ballarat to a new Sydenham terminal station on Melbourne’s western edge.
AusNet just under two weeks ago narrowed down a single corridor for its preferred route for the project, ahead of a decision on a final or “exact” route, which it said would be informed by consultation with landholders and take into account existing residents and significant environmental and cultural sites.
But as RenewEconomy reported on Monday, the resigning CCG members described the June 30 announcement by AusNet as “the last straw,” saying the network company had broken its promise to notify them about the preferred route before the media.
Similar battles are also brewing in Tasmania, over links being built to upgrade the island state’s network in the north and to accommodate major new wind projects, and in New South Wales over the $2.1 billion HumeLink transmission upgrade being built alongside Snowy 2.0.
“It is in all of our interest, essentially, in making energy affordable, not to dismiss the concerns of these communities, because they are truly felt,” said AEMO’s Westerman on Wedensday as part of his speech.
“The solution, I believe, is to create the critical social and community licence for the infrastructure by working with communities, early on, in a collaborative way; to listen to and address their concerns and to support a smooth energy transition that truly delivers for all Australians.
“AEMO needs to transform itself. It’s essential that we open ourselves up to all stakeholders, from the big end of town to the homeowner,” he said.
“This energy transition is a shared task, it calls for a paradigm shift in collaboration and cooperation, and we will play our role under my leadership. AEMO will work closely and collaboratively with governments, industry, and communities to design the affordable, reliable energy system that Australia needs – an energy system that’s capable of handling 100% instantaneous penetration of renewables at any moment of the day, by 2025.”