Did anti-wind ideology cause Coalition to ban Lord Howe Island turbines?

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New documents reveal that then environment minister Josh Frydenberg went against department advice when he decided to block two wind turbines on Lord Howe Island.

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A wind turbine. Source: Pexels
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The Coalition’s deep-seated ideological opposition to wind energy has reared its ugly head again this week, with the news that Australia’s current Treasurer and then environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, ignored his department’s own recommendations to block development of two turbines on Lord Howe Island in 2017.

The decision to reject the turbines was revealed by RenewEconomy at the time, but now The Guardian via a Freedom Of Information request, shows that Frydenberg went against the advice of departmental experts in blocking the turbines, foiling widely supported island plans to ditch diesel generation in favour of a mix of solar, wind and battery storage.

As reported in 2017, the project – which in 2014 won a $4.5 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and a $5.6 million loan from NSW Treasury – aimed to install 500kW of wind (two mid-sized turbines), 400kW solar PV and 400kWh of battery storage.

The Guardian report confirms that the minister took the “unusual action” of blocking the wind component of the hybrid renewables project, deeming it “unacceptable” under the terms of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

As we noted at the time, Frydenberg had argued in particular that the two wind turbines would have an “unnacceptable” impact on the Island’s World and National Heritage values, and particularly on its ‘visual landscape’.

The decision was described by Lord Howe Island Board manager of infrastructure and engineering services, Andrew Logan, as “very, very disappointing.”

“We’ll have to go back to the drawing board to some extent,” he told One Step Off The Grid, “because we have a grant from ARENA based on the wind, solar and battery.”

And that is where the project has stayed – largely because, as Logan also pointed out at the time, removing wind from the equation fundamentally changed its economics, which depended on repaying the loans using the savings from reduced use of diesel fuel.

A feasibility study 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.

As the Guardian also notes, Frydenberg’s captain’s call on the wind turbines looks all the more “unusual” when you take into account that the project had the strong support of a majority of the Island residents, of the governing board of the island (LHIB), and of the federal government’s own ARENA, which was forced to withdraw its $4.5 million in funding after the decision.

Among the Island-based supporters of the project was Craig Thompson, who submitted this article to RenewEconomy back in 2017 expressing local frustration – and bewilderment – about the minister’s decision.

“Sustainable clean energy for a World Heritage site like Lord Howe should be mandatory,” Thompson wrote. “We should be setting an example to the whole world, not being held back by a Ministers political ideology or personal opinion.”

So was it ideology that got in the way? It’s impossible to say. But the federal Coalition has a long track record of wind farm antipathy, which has been openly expressed by numerous of its members, from former Treasurer Joe Hockey to current energy minister Angus Taylor.

In 2014, Hockey described the turbines of a Canberra wind farm as “utterly offensive,” in an interview on 2GB Radio. A year later, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused wind turbines of having adverse human health impacts and described them as “visually awful” – again while taking on 2GB.

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