South-west in front line of wind war

IT’s an unusually warm day in April and the Premier and local MP Denis Napthine has just told a packed marquee that he loves wind farms. 

Those in the tent are the who’s who of the wind industry — bosses from energy and climate groups, land owners, reporters and staffers who have been flown in for the official ribbon-cutting of the Macarthur wind farm. 

But outside the ceremony at a side gate, a small group of protesters want to see the turbines switched off and other planned turbines scrapped all together. 

Some are locals, others are protesters from other states armed with placards about health effects or dead eagles. 

It might not be apparent in Warrnambool but the south-west is very much a part of the ideological and economic battleground over green energy. 

Get into the debate and it’s a rough issue with two sides unafraid of bruises.

Both sides of the wind debate are holding their breath until a federal review into the renewable energy target (RET) decides on the 20 per cent national green energy goal by 2020. 

There are roughly 230 turbines spinning across the region. Another 300 have permits to go ahead but construction has only started on several. More than 600 proposed turbines have no permits at all, pending environmental approvals or planning. 

Those in the pipeline will hinge on the RET staying in place. 

Communities near Port Fairy, Hawkesdale, Penshurst, Dundonnell, Willatook, Mount Fyans and Hexham could all be affected by the outcome. 

Developers have some reason to be nervous. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has signalled change is on the way, arguing the green target is leading to higher power costs. 

“We’ve got to accept though, that in the changed circumstances of today, the renewable energy target is causing pretty significant price pressure in the system and we ought to be ... an affordable energy superpower,” Mr Abbott said. 

His chief business adviser Maurice Newman also wants the RET scrapped. 

There’s another headache. 

The government is going to investigate health problems reported by wind farm locals. 

While a date isn’t set, a spokesman for Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane told The Standard the review is certain to kick off early this year and will probably be undertaken by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). If the NHMRC does investigate, its findings will probably be dismissed by wind opponents who claim the body just reviews what’s already written and known. 

Opponents want a full panel of doctors and acousticians to investigate instead. 

Moyne Shire is already investigating health claims from residents around Macarthur under its own local health and well-being act after a tense meeting between locals and councillors in September. 

Energy and major projects officer Russell Guest said council health officers have interviewed 13 residents and would interview another nine before a report is handed to councillors in March. 

Wind developers hoping to build in the south-west face hurdles from councils and the state and federal governments. 

Councils like Moyne Shire want rock-solid guarantees their roads won’t be pulverised during construction. The Victorian government has heavy planning restrictions on how close turbines can be to homes and Canberra holds the purse strings on green energy credits and policies that make them viable. 

If state Labor wins power in November it has promised to scrap a Coalition law giving land owners power to veto turbines within two kilometres of their homes. 

And then there’s Portland. 

If anyone stands to lose from fewer wind farms it’s 150 tower workers at Keppel Prince, already embroiled in a battle against cheap imports from China and Korea. 

If orders for towers decline any more, families and the broader Portland economy could suffer. 

Premier Denis Napthine has made his position clear. He’s sided with the tower jobs and doesn’t believe the turbines are behind health problems. 

But he won’t change his government’s setback laws. 

Construction is under way at several wind farms. Portland and Mortlake South will both take shape soon but there are more than 1000 turbines across Victoria with planning permits going nowhere. 

Wannon MP Dan Tehan has cleverly walked a fine line. He supports Keppel Prince but has effectively deferred any opinion on health impacts until a federal study has been completed. 

In the meantime wind opponents count him as an ally. Economic decisions on the RET and whether turbines deserve to be taxpayer-subsidised are more likely to decide if the towers go up than anything else. 

For now, don’t expect to see any ribbon-cutting anytime soon. 

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