Napthine has no medicine for wind power pain

There was hope that new Victorian leader Denis Napthine would alter the highly restrictive planning rules governing wind farms. This morning those hopes were dashed, but changes could mean less turbines and cheaper energy.

Newly minted Victorian Premier Denis Napthine has announced a ministerial reshuffle that has kept Matthew Guy in his position as minister for planning while ensuring his closest rival and former energy minister, Michael O’Brien, is kept very busy as Treasurer. Nicholas Kotsiras has replaced O’Brien in the energy portfolio.

With Kotsiras views on energy policy largely unknown, concern in the energy sector centres on what Guy’s retention of planning means for the highly restrictive planning rules governing wind farms.

Earlier today on ABC Melbourne’s John Faine program, Napthine stated that the existing policy would not be changed. Napthine explained that the policy, where any household within two kilometres of a proposed wind farm has the right to veto the development, was an explicit part of their election commitments and therefore needed to stay. 

Jon Faine then pointed out that there was also an explicit election commitment on teacher pay which they had decided to reconsider, so why not wind farms? But Napthine said the policy struck the right balance, while pointing out that he recognised that construction of wind farms generated valuable jobs in regional areas.  

It is generally believed amongst wind farm developers that former premier Ted Baillieu rather than Matthew Guy was the primary driver behind the two kilometre veto policy. So there was some hope in the renewable energy industry that with the resignation of Baillieu, planning requirements could be re-evaluated.

Napthine would know better than most politicians the potential jobs and investment that flow from construction of wind farms. Macarthur, the largest wind farm in the country is currently under construction smack bang in the middle of his electorate. In addition he has several other wind farms operating in his electorate, plus a number under development. 

And lastly his electorate also contains the wind tower manufacturing and maintenance business Keppel Prince. He was clearly cognizant of this employer in his interview with John Faine, when he criticised wind farm developers for using towers imported from overseas.

But Napthine and Guy must also grapple with a highly vocal sub-section of the community that are vociferously opposed to wind farms and will fiercely resist any relaxation of planning restrictions. For example, the Victorian president of the anti-wind lobbyists, the Coastal Guardians, was reported by the Herald Sun on Saturday stating:

‘‘If Dr Napthine reneges on that policy [restricting wind farm development], I’ll break his arms.’’

While Napthine’s arms might be in danger, Victoria is in prime position to capture the lion’s share of several billion dollars of investment about to pour into large-scale renewable energy projects as a result of the Renewable Energy Target.

It has better wind speeds than NSW, spare network capacity and plenty of wind development sites. While WA, Tasmania and SA offer better wind and have numerous projects on the drawing boards too, a range of other constraints are inhibiting development. 

It should be noted that Victoria already has 3000 MW of projects with a planning permit, so this shouldn’t be a complete show stopper. However if a developer wanted to alter the project’s dimensions, even in a relatively small way, then they will find themselves back at square one, triggering the requirement to gain permission from all households within 2km, even if they can’t even see a single turbine from their home. 

It turns out that this could be quite an important issue.

Many of the projects with planning approval were laid out several years ago, and another few more years may pass before they proceed to construction. Over this period wind turbine designs have moved on – in particular blades have got longer. Such designs deliver more energy for each turbine, meaning less turbines dotted across the landscape and reduced costs for energy consumers in order to achieve the RET. Potentially a win-win outcome for all concerned. 

But to accommodate the new blades, the layout of some wind farms will need to change relative to what is set out in the planning approval. 

Firstly, even if a developer wished to increase heights of turbines by just five metres on what is already approved as a tall 130 metre structure, they’d need to get permission from all households within two kilometres even if they couldn’t see the turbine. 

Secondly, with longer blade lengths, the wind turbulence wake downwind from a turbine becomes longer. Turbulence reduces the efficiency of wind turbines and increases wear and tear. Indeed it’s possible that warrantees on turbines can be voided if they are located too close downwind from another turbine.

This may mean the location of turbines needs to be rearranged from what is set-out in the approval, and quite possibly the number of turbines reduced. But again this would trigger the need to obtain permission from households within two kilometres.

While some might like to threaten violence if rules are changed even slightly, the reality is that 3000MW of wind farms are already approved. The blanket application of a hard two kilometre rule may not actually stop a significant number of these wind farms from going ahead, but it could mean that the community as a whole has to pay noticeably more than they should to meet the Renewable Energy Target.

It could also mean more turbines are installed than is actually necessary.