A wind farm proposed for Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands has won state government approval, after years of delay and vocal opposition from a local anti-wind group.
The 225MW Mt Emerald wind farm – which would be the first large scale wind farm in the state – was given the green light on Friday by Queensland Deputy Premier and infrastructure minister Jackie Trad, with strict conditions including that the project’s 63 turbines be located at least 1.5km from any existing residence.
The wind farm’s developer, RATCH Australia, said on Monday they welcomed the decision, which would create up to 155 jobs, $150 million of direct investment into the Queensland economy, and improved electricity security for Far North Queensland, generating enough energy to power 70,000 homes.
“Over the past four years the Project development team and specialist advisors have worked with Mareeba Shire Council and State government to develop the best possible plan, construction process and operational protocol for this unique site with a very high wind resource,” said the company’s head of business development, Anil Nangia.
“We intend to work with the community to ensure locals benefit from the Project, for example through the establishment of a Community Benefit Fund.”
RATCH, along with project partners Port Bajool, have been seeking approval to develop the project near Mareeba for more than four years, but have come up against strong local opposition.
The Cairns Post reports that a community survey of residents living within 5km of the proposed site found 90 per cent opposed it.
In mid-2014, the former Newman government took over the approval process for the project, following a request to do so by the Mareeba Shire Council.
The project’s director, Port Bajool’s John Morris, then called on the state government to make a decision on the $380 million project by January 30, but this was further delayed when the state election was called.
Of course, the Coalition lost that election to Queensland Labor, which has promised to take the opposite approach to renewables than Campbell Newman and his team, and grow the industry across the state.
In a statement on Monday, Minister Trad said that approving Mt Emerald wind farm was in line with this promise, as well as with the Far North Queensland Regional Plan 2009-2031 energy objective.
“This project will employ up to 200 workers over a two-year construction period, with ongoing employment for up to 15 local workers over the life of the wind farm,” she said.
“This will generate direct and indirect economic benefits to the local, regional, and national economies.”
Trad also assured residents she had listened to their concerns about the development, and addressed them through measures including the setback rule and strict noise limits.
“As part of the approval, the State requires the proponent, Mount Emerald Wind Farm Pty Ltd, to comply with a number of strict conditions, including daytime and night time noise limits which are equal to, or better than, standards in other states like Victoria and South Australia,” she said.
But residents are still not happy, calling on the federal government to intervene, and threatening legal action via the locally-based Tablelands Wind Turbine Action (TWTA) group.
“We’ve got 2,500 people living within five kilometres,” said TWTA spokeswoman Lee Schwerdtfeger.
“We’ve got people in other states reporting major problems out to 10 kilometres, so that’s to do with sleep and all sorts of health issues.
“It’s just too big for an area that’s as intensively farmed as ours.”
The project is, indeed, subject to further approvals, including on flora and fauna from federal environment minister Greg Hunt.
Under Tony Abbott’s leadership, the federal government has not been the biggest fan of wind energy, and is currently overseeing yet another inquiry into the effect of wind turbines on human and animal health.
But Nangia said the company was confident of winning the federal approval, and then of sourcing the debt and equity to build the wind farm.
“RATCH is large power station and owner and operator,” Nangia told RenewEconomy in an interview. We will use some of our own equity and … (Australia’s banks) will be very happy to help finance this renewable energy project in northern Queensland.”
Nangia also noted that, while the wind farm did not require state or federal funding, it would benefit from the retention of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) currently being reviewed by the federal government.
Mareeba Mayor, Tom Gilmore, also welcomed the project’s approval, saying on Monday he was relieved the state government had made a decision.
“I think that the majority of the community are probably supportive, although I have no real understanding of that,” he said.
“The important thing … from my perspective, is the widening of the economic base for our Tablelands region and for the Mareeba Shire Council in particular.”