What would Origin and EnergyAustralia know about wind?

Origin and EnergyAustralia argue the RET can’t be met because of community opposition to wind farms. It's hard to see what they base that on given their lack of development experience and research to the contrary.

Origin Energy and EnergyAustralia (formerly TRUenergy) were on the front page of The Australian newspaper yesterday claiming the renewable energy target couldn’t be met because of community opposition to wind farms.

According to Origin Energy, wind farms are causing greater angst in the community than coal seam gas. And Energy Australia felt the around 300 MW of wind installed each year was “already testing the limits of community acceptance.” EnergyAustraia’s CEO Richard McIndoe was cited by the newspaper as claiming that the social licence wasn’t there to ramp up construction of wind farms.

This sounded rather interesting because I regularly talk to people heavily engaged in developing wind farms. These people attend community meetings, talk with local landowners, and deal with planning approval hearings – and this is very different to what they’ve told me. Every one of them of course has a horror story to tell about some particularly challenging people they’ve had to deal with in getting planning approvals. Often these people live several kilometres from the nearest turbine, or even outside of the local community, such as just about everyone involved in the Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation.

But they generally find that if you take the effort to consult extensively within the community, you can get a large proportion of the community on-board.

So it poses the question – do Origin and EnergyAustralia actually know what they’re talking about?

In this week’s chart of the week, I’ve gone through the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics November listing of power projects recently completed, under construction and in development. What it reveals is rather startling and has made it to our chart of the week.

There are 92 projects listed by BREE totalling around 17,500 megawatts, of which Origin has one project of 300 to 450MW and Energy Australia has two totalling 198MW. As a proportion of overall capacity either recently completed or in development, they are tiny.

Wind power generating capacity recently completed, under construction or under development

Neither Origin Energy nor EnergyAustralia are particularly serious in getting their hands dirty in wind farm development. Instead it falls to companies like Wind Prospect, Infigen, Pacific Hydro, NP Power, Windlab and Epuron to spend the time having cups of tea with the farmers and dealing with the assorted crackpots stirred up by the front-group the Landscape Guardians. Origin and EnergyAustralia then typically come in after the planning approval is in place to acquire the project or buy the power output.

EnergyAustralia has of course had a particularly bad experience with the Waterloo and Stony Gap wind farms.

In the case of Waterloo, it has been the victim of a misinformation campaign that has led its wind farm to be blamed for a rather bizarre set of problems in the town. These range from a dog that apparently stares at walls, difficulty sleeping and even chickens laying yolkless eggs.

This actually motivated Dave Clarke, who operates the website Wind in the Bush, to go out to Waterloo and sleep in his swag adjacent to the turbine to see what all the fuss was about. You can read his full experience here. It turns out that in spite of having nothing but a bit of canvas to protect him from the evil sound emanating from the turbine, he slept soundly with no ill effect. He also found a range of what must be mutant kangaroos that seem to also be immune to the turbines insidious infrasound.

In terms of Stony Gap, the project was rejected 3 to 2 by a local council with minimal explanation for the rejection. Arbitrary decision-making on planning is always frustrating, but many others have managed to successfully steer wind farms through to approval in the SA.

Developing wind farms is not an easy job and if done badly you can get a community off-side. There are select regions of the country, such as immediately south of Adelaide and the Gippsland region within around 100km of Melbourne that most experienced developers steer clear of due to the high prevalence of urban farmers and tree changers. In addition, the astro-turf group of the Landscape Guardians and their offshoot of the Waubra Foundation spread all manner of misinformation amongst local communities that developers have to repeatedly dispel at much time and expense.

But for Origin and Energy Australia to assert that there isn’t a social license to operate for wind farms in this country is preposterous given their small part in actually developing wind projects. The CSIRO actually undertook an investigation of this very issue via a series of case studies, concluding in a 2012 report that:

“There is strong community support for the development of wind farms, including support from rural residents who do not seek media attention or political engagement to express their views. This finding contrasts with the level of opposition that may be assumed from the typically ‘conflict-oriented’ portrayal of wind farm proposals in the popular media.”

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