With ample wind and its proximity to the poles and wires feeding energy across Victoria’s Western District, the once struggling town of Mortlake has become a hub of energy – literally.
The town sits within the Moyne Shire, which now supplies one-third of the state’s renewable energy and is set to double that output when current wind farm developments around Mortlake become operational.
But for all the benefits the burgeoning enterprise brings to the region, the turbines have also blown up local tensions between perceived winners and losers of the windfall, and ongoing distress for those who feel their lives have been disrupted.
The scene playing out across the hills and paddocks of this prime area of farming land provides a window on the opportunities and challenges being navigated nationally as the economy makes the environmentally necessary move towards renewable energy.
Reflecting the story at the federal level, there was a lack of leadership locally in assisting the community through this transition, says Tony Goodfellow of the Australian Wind Alliance.
Locals have natural reservations about the renewables enterprise and what it will mean for their communities and their lives. Consultation is needed to inform, maximise benefits and minimise any harm, Goodfellow says.
Observing what has played out as the turbines have sprung up across Moyne Shire, local councillor Jim Doukas says there’s been a notable and in some instances enduring split within the community.
“Sometimes, once that wedge has been driven, people who have been lifelong neighbours and friends are no longer friends.”
Fuelling those divisions are sharply differing opinions on the visual, health and noise impacts of wind farms, again mirroring the debate at the national level, but in this context, it is up close and personal.
One farmer, David Allen, says that wind farming in the area has lowered his quality of life. His family has been farming a grazing property north of Mortlake since 1906.
Two years ago, the Salt Creek Wind Farm began construction next door.
“There was never any discussion about it from a neighbourly point of view,” Allen says. “The impact of the turbines was downplayed, and the company made no mention of the power lines. When they did, they were evasive in telling us where they were going.”
Now that the farm is operational, the serenity of the western plains landscape that they enjoyed for four generations are “completely destroyed”, he says. “The noise itself is like a freeway just over the hill.”
The aesthetics have also been confronting. “Every time we come back from getting the mail in the morning, all we can see dominating the skyline are these huge big towers about 150m high.”
When the Dundonnell project is complete, and if the Mt Fyans Wind Farm goes ahead – the proposal for 87 turbines scattered across 14 properties is now going through planning approvals processes – Allen’s property will have turbines and transmission lines to the north, east and south-west.
Other locals distrust wind energy companies owing to a perceived lack of consultation on the transmission line for Tilt Renewables’ Salt Creek project, says the Wind Alliance’s Tony Goodfellow.
The 50km line runs between the farm and a substation in Terang, with 36- to 42m-high poles and wires zigzagging over main roads.
“We learned some hard lessons through the Salt Creek process,” says Clayton Delmarter from Tilt Renewables. “We obviously didn’t do quite as much consultation with the community around [the transmission line], largely as a result of it not being required.”
Goodfellow says that, since the line was built, planning legislation was changed to require community consultation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of divide are those benefiting from the economic activity created by a thriving wind farm industry.
One of them is Peter Thulborn, who owns The Food Store in Mortlake and has recorded a 18 per cent higher sales in the past year. Anticipating another 25 per cent boost over the coming summer, he has taken on four staff members.
Based on figures from Tilt Renewables and Acciona, which own Dundonnell and Mortlake South projects respectively, 300 jobs will be created in the construction phase of the farms, with 15 to 20 ongoing positions when the farms are up and running.
The projects are two of six winners at the State Government’s renewable energy auction last September, part of the Victorian Renewable Energy Target (VRET) scheme.
VRET projects are required to aim for local content targets, and both companies are making efforts to increase economic benefits to the region.
“Acciona will recruit the operations and maintenance team, where possible, from the local area,” says project manager Andrew Tshaikiwsky.
Keppel Prince is manufacturing tower modules for both sites in nearby Portland, and Tilt Renewables is working with a wind turbine assembly centre at the former Ford Motors factory in Geelong.
Acciona’s Neighbourhood Benefit Program, rolling out around the Mortlake region, is an industry first, according to Goodfellow. It has allocated $180,000 for gift cards valid at local businesses to compensate those within 4km of the project.
As part of its benefit–sharing program, Tilt Renewables donated $500,000 to a construction project for Emma House Domestic Violence Services in Warrnambool.
Another requirement of the VRET scheme is substantial community consultation, and both companies have hosted community forums and invited locals to visit their offices with concerns.
But there are still some issues the companies aren’t addressing adequately, Cr Doukas’ argues, and until they do the likelihood remains of further rupture in the community. “When they start prospecting, everything is very secretive. They talk to people under confidentiality and pay people X amount to not discuss it publicly.”
Farmer David Allen says the project next door to his property has deflated its land value, and others have bought land recently only to find themselves in the same position a year on.
Another issue raised by Cr Doukas is the increase in bushfire risk due to above–ground transmission lines.
“Especially in high wind conditions, and [if] there is debris in the air, they only need to arc out to get a spark and away we go.”
At the community’s request, Acciona will be the first in the state to bury its transmission lines, at an extra cost of $2.4m.
Tilt Renewables is still planning to build another above– ground transmission line.
“The simple fact is that the Dundonnell project would never have happened had it had to wear the cost of under grounding,” project manager Delmarter says.
“I fully accept that there are concerns around fire safety and road safety, and all those things are comprehensively built into the design process for these projects to ensure that they are as safe as possible.”
This story is part of the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism’s contribution, via The Junction, to the Covering Climate Now initiative, a global collaboration of more than 220 news organisations worldwide.