Tangled wires: Are transmission lines the new battle front for renewables? | RenewEconomy

Tangled wires: Are transmission lines the new battle front for renewables?

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A significant battle is shaping up over a 200MW wind farm proposed for Tasmania’s north-west, but it’s not the prospect of turbines – or the renewable energy project, itself – that is upsetting locals.

The point of contention for the UPCA\AC Renewables Jim’s Plain project, which late last week got the green light from Tasmania’s Environmental Protection Agency, is the new network infrastructure being built to connect the project to the island state’s main grid.

And the push-back from locals, concerned that major new transmission lines will impact valued landscapes and natural habitats, signals a new frontier for renewables growth in Australia – a battle that, largely, will have to be fought by network companies. New links between the country’s state grids are a fundamental plank of the 20-year blueprint from the Australian Energy Market Operator.

In the case of Jim’s Plain, which UPC\AC is developing alongside the 340MW (and potentially 1GW) Robbins Island project to the north, two transmission lines will be required to accommodate the projects on the local grid.

The first line, which is being developred by UPC\AC, will link the Robbins Island project to Jim’s Plain and then extend from Jim’s Plain to Hampshire (see map below).

From Hampshire, another link needs to be built, due to the existing line from Smithton to Burnie already being “overcommitted.” That new major line, which is being built by TasNetworks, would link the north-west part of Tasmania to the network hub of Sheffield. And this is where things get a bit more complicated.

While UPC\AC needs that second link from Hampshire to Sheffield to enable the energy generated by its wind farms to power Tasmania, this is by no means the sole motivation for the transmission line project.

TasNetworks, the government-owned distribution company, needs it too. The new line is considered an essential grid upgrade to accommodate other major renewable energy projects, as well as the new undersea cable proposed for construction between Tasmania and the mainland, the Marinus Link.

The Marinus Link is the centrepiece of Hydro Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation aspirations and numerous proposed wind developments, all of which
support the Tasmanian government’s recently ratcheted-up target of 200% renewables by 2040.

Of course, people living in the state’s Loongana Valley community had not bargained on having a 60-90 metre wide easement with 45-60 metre high transmission line towers as part of their view.

Local opposition, including from the Nietta Action Group, last year sent UPC\AC back to the drawing board on its originally proposed design for TasNetworks link to Sheffield.

Since then, TasNetworks has essentially taken over that part of the new transmission line and is working hard to engage with the community and take on concerns over the proposed pathway for the link.

Meanwhile, a new action group has formed, this time called SOLVE (Save Our Loongana Valley Environment), with the stated mission of rejecting “claims being made by the PR companies hired by TasNetworks to justify the transmission line route” and sending the amended proposal back to the drawing board again.

“The beautiful north-west Tasmanian Loongana Valley, and the community who live there, are under threat from UPC-TasNetworks’ proposed transmission line, which will see a 60-90 metre wide easement plough through the valley, and 45-60 metre high towers dominate the iconic views, including Black Bluff and the Leven Canyon,” a media statement from the group said last week.

“The transmission line will divide the narrow valley, 17 kilometres from Cradle Mountain, and cause widespread damage to critical habitat for threatened species, contaminate water supplies, increase fire risk, and harm local tourism and land values.”

SOLVE says it is calling out “failures of basic planning” and the avoidance of genuine multi-sector consultation on the plan. It also paints a picture of TasNetworks “acting on behalf of UPC” and of UPC as an “offshore renewables company” with little interest in doing what is best for Tasmanians.

David Pollington, UPC\AC’s chief operating officer, rejects these notions.

“Yes, UPC will get the benefit of that connection and will have to contribute to the cost of the line,” he told RenewEconomy in an interview last week. “We’re not the only one though. TasNetworks is developing this as part of the Marinus Link project, which supports many other wind farms.

“UPC\AC has investigated many options to connect the Jim’s Plains and Robbins Island projects to the network, including upgrading or duplicating the existing line from Burnie to Smithton, which is about 50 years old. Upgrading that transmission line route would be unacceptable to a lot of people, affecting high-value agricultural land, towns and cities.

“The Marinus Link provides a fantastic opportunity for Tasmania to contribute to Australia’s reduction in emissions, develop new industry and create valuable export income for Tasmania.”

Being a developer of large-scale wind projects, Pollington has a better understanding than most about the importance of community engagement.

“No one wants a transmission line, and if there was another way to do it, of course we’d be doing that. But we’ve been out to community and we’ve had very little negative feedback on our transmission line from Robbins through to Hampshire,” Pollington told RE.

He says the company has held in excess of 20 community drop-in sessions in Tasmania’s north-west about the projects.

“We open these drop-in sessions for around three hours and we talk to everyone who wants to come along. along. The sessions are configured to allow people to explore issues briefly or in more detail with the team members developing the project, one on one or in small groups.

“In addition to the drop in sessions we have conducted many presentations and information sessions to a wide range of stakeholders such as industry bodies, landowners, interest groups, contractors, councils and politicians. If people have asked to meet then we have happily arranged to meet whether it is at our offices a local café or their homes,” Pollington said.

“The constant sniping at us as a ‘multnational’ company is a little unfair. …Robbins Island and Jim’s Plain are 25 per cent locally owned. This is similar to most of the opertational wind farms in Tasmania, which are majority foreign owned.

“The whole UPC\AC team is Australia-based and the CEO and myself are Tasmanian-based and proud to have headquartered the company in Tasmania.”

For TasNetworks’ part, it is working to try to minimise the environmental impact of the new line by using mostly corporate forestry land for its route. It is also hoping to minimise the visual impact of the line by keeping all possible native vegetaion intact, and minimising land clearing along the length of the easement.

In an emailed statement to RenewEconomy, the company said that as the Transmission Network Service Provider (TNSP) for the electricity in Tasmania, it was required to respond to proponents, such as UPC\AC, seeking to connect to its network.

“TasNetworks operates within a range of regulatory frameworks, which requires it to find the most efficient solution for customers, whilst minimising potential impacts on the community and the environment,” the statement said.

“In its planning, TasNetworks has sought to identify transmission development corridors using robust criteria that cover a range of values and constraints including environmental, social, economic and cultural – as well as considering cost and constructability.

“TasNetworks is still working through the process to reach a final route for the Hampshire to Staverton section of the proposed North West Tasmanian transmission developments and is committed to going back to communities and landowners with the outcomes of this analysis around the middle of the year.”

And it isn’t the only Australian energy network company navigating this tricky new terrain. The bid to find the best and most economically feasible solution to accommodate multiple major new renewable energy projects while taking into account competing values and trade-offs will be a major focus on the mainland, too, with links being proposed for construction between the National Electricity Market states, and within them, between designated renewable energy zones.

In Western Australia, the massive Asian Renewable Energy Hub will require four high voltage direct current (HVDC) cables offshore, and onshore overhead and underground transmission line, with up to 50 metre tall pylons spaced every 450 metres along the transmission corridor.

Overseas, Germany has faced similar problems with the planned expansion of its power grid lagging behind the European nation’s ambitious renewables roll-out due to citizen protests and planning difficulties.

As Clean Energy Wire reported last year, Germany will need another 1,600km of transmission lines and upgrades on a further 2,900km by 2030, according to recommendations by the four transmission grid operators.

At a German grid conference at the beginning of this year, experts warned that power grid expansion would become the German energy transition’s next big “object of hate” if it wasn’t handled very carefully.

Christian Schorn of transmission system operator TransnetBW told the conference TSOs were already experiencing opposition from citizens’ groups at “every step” of the grid planning process, Clean Energy Wire reports. He said following resistance against the “Suedlink” power highway, it was decided to use underground cables in a new planning process.

Back in Tasmania, there is still time to learn from others’ mistakes and make the process as painless – and beneficial – as possible for all parties.

“There are a range of significant renewable energy generation and storage opportunities in the State’s North West, including wind and pumped hydro projects,” TasNetorks told RenewEconomy.

“We aim to develop a network that facilitates these future developments, including Battery of the Nation and Marinus Link.

“These developments can provide significant local jobs, economic growth and investment attraction opportunities spanning years, and support the NEM to transition for low cost, reliable and clean energy.”

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