King Island's renewables vision

Strong leadership could see King Island become as well known for renewable energy exports as it is for beef and cheese, with the Hydro Tasmania wind farm just the beginning.

In 2012, King Islanders were trusted to determine the fate of a proposed wind farm. On Monday, the results of a community vote were announced.

Despite an aggressive scare campaign backed by wealthy NIMBYs and big PR, a clear majority of the community voted for a feasibility study into a 600MW wind farm proposed by HydroTasmania. The result shows that King Islanders won’t be fooled by anti-wind energy spin.

The two-year feasibility study will examine the economic, technical and environmental aspects of the wind farm proposal. The community will now be able to get all the information to needed to make an informed choice about the wind farm proposal.

The green light for the feasibility study is great news for King Islanders and their economy.

With the closure of its abattoir in late 2012, a shrinking population and increased shipping costs, the Island desperately needs a new economic lifeline. That hope may come from the proposed TasWind wind farm.

If the 200-turbine project proves viable, the investment, income and employment it would generate could rejuvenate the economy.

Early estimates suggest the wind farm would create 500 jobs during construction and up to 60 ongoing jobs. In terms of ongoing economic benefit, the wind farm could pump $7-$8.9 million into the economy each year for the life of the project. Then there’s the lasting benefits of an upgraded Port of Grassy.

What other economic opportunities are there for the Islanders if the wind farm goes ahead?

Located in the middle of the Bass Strait, between Tasmania and mainland Australia, the Island is not only buffeted by strong winds. It is exposed to the strong currents of the Southern Ocean.

According to one local entrepreneur, the NEM connection would allow King Island to become a renewable energy powerhouse. David Kerr believes ocean energy has excellent potential to complement the proposed wind farm. The combination of wind and ocean energy, Kerr argues, will allow for the high-voltage undersea cable to be fully utilised while increasing the reliability of the NEM.

Given the urgent need to address climate change and renewable energy valued at a premium, Kerr’s ideas have weight.

A future King Island equipped with an operational wind farm and connected to the National Broadband Network will open up unexpected economic opportunities.

New economy giants Google and Apple are committed to 100 per cent renewable energy. Both have a history of locating data centres near renewable energy installations. A data centre based on King Island powered by the wind and cooled by the Southern Ocean is plausible.

The idea has parallels with Google’s Hanima data centre in Finland. In 2009 Google obtained a decommissioned paper mill with the aim of repurposing it as a server farm powered by renewables. The forward-looking company entered an agreement with the Swedish-based O2 to purchase the output of the 72 MW Maevaara wind farm. The server farm’s use of arctic seawater to keep the servers cool is an additional sustainability feature worth noting.

King Island’s closed abattoir could be a candidate for such a project. If it were to come to fruition, the Island would secure its economic future by tapping into the two high-growth sectors of the 21 Century –renewable energy and information and communications technology.

As it heads further into the century, King Island may become as well-known for exporting high-value renewable energy and data as it is for fine cheese and beef.

Of course, these visions for a stronger and more resilient King Island rest on political leadership. Wind farm opponents fought a feasibility study tooth and nail and nearly scuttled the proposal before the community had reliable information about the wind farm’s potential benefits.

King Island Mayor Greg Barratt should be applauded his efforts throughout the first phase of community consultation. Under his leadership, Council issued a statement of support for the feasibility study and called for the end to community division stoked by the anti-wind farm campaign.

King Island will need more leaders of this ilk to ensure a civil and rational discourse about the proposal occurs. 

Over the next two years the viability of the King Island wind farm will become clear. And with it, the future of King Island’s economy.

Leigh Ewbank is Friends of the Earth’s Yes 2 Renewables community coordinator. He has visited King Island on several occasions to observe the community consultation process. One of these trips resulted in him becoming known to Islanders as the Vegemite Man.