House swap: I’ll take wind turbines over a coal mine

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Both coal plants and wind farms face opposition from those who have to live nearby. But which would you rather have as a neighbour?

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Wind turbines. You either love them (like 75 per cent of us), or hate them (15 per cent). Or, you couldn’t care less.

Coal mines: you either love them, like those who reap their profits (20 per cent), or you hate them (80 per cent), like those who have to live near them.

The problem of differing public attitudes to energy sources has been discussed at great length and with an increasingly hollow invective. To break the logjam, we need a mechanism of comparison that satisfies people’s intellectual, emotional and political intelligence.

With coal and wind, we have two power plant technologies that achieve similar outcomes: they both send electricity into the national electricity market. Coal currently provides around half of the world’s electricity today. Wind is a more recently exploited resource, but in Denmark, one of the world’s leading green economies, it is going to power half of its economy by 2020, and Scotland is aiming for 100 per cent renewable electricity by the same date, with most of that also coming from wind.

Australia’s wind resource is twice as good as Denmark, so we could, perhaps, also run half our economy on wind. Solar power, already beloved of rural and urban Australians, is a given, and it’s uptake will steadily track up as costs of panels and solar baseload plants with storage go down.

So if both coal and wind can power the remaining portion of our future energy needs, which should we choose?

One choice is coal: it’s considered cheap by its supporters, though opponents pointing to associated health costs and fossil fuel subsidies would beg to differ. The other choice is wind, which costs a little more at the moment, though it’s price is rapidly coming down (it’s already matching fossil fuel costs in Europe and Brazil) and supporters cite benefits for the environment, the climate and a sustainable future.

So here’s a proposal for what we could do to break the deadlock, in a style suited to the latter-day Australian political environment. Given the flashpoint of the public’s opinion on coal and wind comes from those who have to live nearby, we could run House Swap, a reality TV-style program where the participants exchange their home’s proximity to one energy source to another

First, we recruit people who live in Anglesea, the outdoor-loving, surfing community and holiday resort on the Victorian Coast. At one end of town, 800 metres from the primary school, is a coal mine and coal-fired power station. Despite the protests of locals, it has recently been delivered an entitlement to expand and continue polluting for a further 50 years. Another option could be the people of Wybong in the Hunter Valley, where the local mayor recently apologised and expressed “a deep sense of shame” for allowing a coal mine to proceed.

At the same time we offer a swap to the handful of residents complaining about the Capital Hill wind farm near Canberra, or the Waubra wind farm in central Victoria. Those opposing the wind farms in NSW and Victoria will swap houses with those opposing the coal mines.

It would be interesting to see how residents cope with a different technology and the impacts that each has on the community – wind turbines with their questionmarks over noise and visual amenity, and coal mines, with the soot, and smell, and documented health and community issues.

At the end of the 12 months both groups will be asked if they want to return to their original homes.

Given that half the residents of Wybong in NSW have already abandoned their homes, we can probably assume a relieved return to bucolic paddocks by 50 per cent of the participants. For the poor buggers leaving country properties for grubby houses in impoverished towns beside coal mines, we’ll play a misty eyed recap of their last year and hope that reality TV fame translates to a lucrative new career path.

Alternatively, we could play the role of TV fairy godmother, Backyard Blitz style. We could redirect some of the $7 billion per annum of fossil subsidies, recently identified by the Grattan Institute, to shut down the coal mines and the coal-fired power plants they feed. We would back-fill the overburden as part of site remediation works (put the piles back into the holes), offer existing employees a share buy-in and erect wind turbines where the coal mines used to be. It’s already been done at a number of coal mine sites in the USA.

Problem solved.

Matthew Wright is Executive Director of the climate and energy security think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions http://beyondzeroemissions.org

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21 Comments
  1. simon 8 years ago

    those who came to anglesea might naively believe that a windy day is a good day to hang out the washing. they would soon learn the opposite is true !

    • Chris Fraser 8 years ago

      Simon might have local knowledge, but Anglesea in the summer – beautiful.

  2. Matt Robinson 8 years ago

    I’d hate to live near either. Give me a nuclear plant over both!

    • agnes 8 years ago

      fair enough Matt, but you’ll have to live next to the nuclear waste too. May I please have another wind farm as a neighbour.

      • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

        I would even be OK with the waste. Safer than having one of those ghastly windmills fall on me!

        • jarrah 8 years ago

          Matt…Go live in Fukishima. I’m sure you’d be able to grab a REALLY cheap house there….and enjoy it for the scant number of years you’d be able to enjoy living in a holocaust zone which will not go away for 250 000 years….cause you’d survive maybe 5 years before succumbing to several rather awful forms of cancer. THATS WHAT NUCLEAR POWER MEANS. WIND, SOLAR AND OTHER RENEWABLES WILL NOT FRY THE POPULATION. The idea of a turbine falling on you is, frankly, absurd.

          • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

            Oops! Did that turbine just fall over? Is it in fact the SECOND one?!?

            http://tinyurl.com/7fqdwkb

            Oh, and this one exploded!

            http://tinyurl.com/cdvj5q6

            Oops….

            Lighten up Jarrah. I’ll live wherever I want to live. Still I’m touched by your concern.

    • Jake 8 years ago

      Aha! But Mr. Robinson, that’s a trick answer, for you would be living next to an empty space for the majority of the show, and a construction site for many years after! Nuclear takes quite a long time to build and permit properly.

      • Matt Robinson 8 years ago

        HaHa! Good one, Jake! And quite true, regrettably 🙁

  3. Howard Patrick 8 years ago

    http://www.solarreserve.com/what-we-do/csp-technology/

    Matt

    This site gives a glimpse of things to come.

    Imagine how much renewable energy can and will be produced around Australia in the coming decades?

    Three of them between Townsville and Mount Isa would produce a significant proportion of the electricity needs of the region.

  4. Rick 8 years ago

    Great idea Matt. Have TV producers contacted you yet?

    While I support renewable energy, your comparison may be a little simplistic since the number of wind turbines (and therefore land area and number of neighbours potentially affected) required to provide the same power as a coal fired power station is very large, particularly when you take into account wind’s intermittency (and similarly for a solar thermal power plant). While the impact on each ‘wind neighbour’ may be lower than for a coal mine/power station, when you multiply the impact by the number of people… Anyway, its a complex issue as you well know.

    • Matthew Wright 8 years ago

      Over 1 million people live within 1km of wind farms in Denmark. (Many of those even closer) And the ridiculous law in Victoria is about 2km buffer zones.

      • Howard Patrick 8 years ago

        It is a shame NSW’s Minister Brad Hazzard does not know this.

        Hazzard has taken up his leaders policy of opposing renewable energy and has decided to do an noise audit of three wind farms in southern NSW.

        The farms have, of course, already been audited but that is no impediment to Hazzard wasting Government revenue.

  5. Marmaduke 8 years ago

    Well done making this point.

    Its such a pity the State governments have turned against wind while turning a blind eye to the damage caused by mining and gas extraction!

  6. Jenny 8 years ago

    I was once driving through the Hunter Valley when I passed a billboard opposing a proposed wind farm. It was in front of the moonscape of an open cut coal mine and downwind of two coal fired power stations. I was not sure if someone was taking the piss.

  7. Josh 8 years ago

    My parents live less than 1 km from the Hepburn windfarm. They love it, no issue with noise or any of the other complaints that only seem to affect Australian’s. In fact, we all love sitting outside and watching them slowly turn in the wind. It is a beautiful sight to behold. Give me a wind farm over a coal mine/plant any day

  8. Ian 8 years ago

    Nobody who has visited a wind farm and a coal power station would take more than a quarter of a second to come to a decision!

  9. Beat Odermatt 8 years ago

    Of course everything has become so much better near a coal mine these days. I spoke to ex residents of old Leigh Creek in South Australia. During hot summer days the dust from the overburden dumps and coal mine apparently caused so much dust in homes, that the dust had to be removed in buckets. Sometimes the black dust reduced visibility down to less than 100 meters. During winter,smoke from spontaneous combustion was so bad that many residents found it difficult to breathe.
    The town was demolished and a new town was built during the early 80th about 20 km south of the mine. Spontaneous combustion remained a problem at the mine for a long time afterwards. Some of the fires continued to burn for many years. Smoke from spontaneous combustion and coal fires covered large areas of the mine and made working very unpleasant.
    If we add the dust from the coal train travelling a few hundred kilometres to Port Augusta and the smoke from the power station, then wind power seems clearly a cleaner option.

  10. Wendy 8 years ago

    A poorly sited development causes problems for its neighbours, whether it’s a wind farm, block of units, shopping centre, coal mine, new marina, whatever. Saying you’d prefer one obnoxious development over another is a silly comment and is implying that we all have to put up with the lowest common denominator. Wind farms are opposed mostly because they try to put them too close to people’s homes in residential areas that have never been previously designated for industrial development. The developers don’t even have to apply to have the land re-zoned as industrial. Would anyone like their peaceful residential area turned into an industrial zone at the stroke of a pen without any compensation for the loss of your residential amenity? This is what people living next to inappropriately sited wind farms have to face. If you think that people in Europe like living next to wind turbines you obviously haven’t looked at the many websites of the European organisations fighting poorly sited wind farm developments in their neighbourhoods.

    • Matthew Wright 8 years ago

      Wendy if you could disconnect from industrial society, disconnect and power your own house with solar panels you made yourself, and scale your solution to society then I accept your answer.

      Otherwise it is a choice between people dying from coal mining related lung and heart disease, cancer and more or the sight of beautiful wind turbines gracefully turning in the wind.

  11. Charlene 8 years ago

    At least living within 48km of a wind farm doesn’t make you 3-4 times more likely to die prematurely, which is more than can be said for living near a coal mine….

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