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October 19th 2010 print

Max Rheese

Wind review needed

The premise underpinning the pursuit of renewable energy through wind power, at any cost, needs urgent review before we move from the current 266 turbines in Victoria to the planned total of 1228, as well as massive planned expansion in South Australia and NSW.

Desalination is not the only policy lemon

Two weeks ago a group of ordinary Victorians gathered near Daylesford in central Victoria to protest the start of a project that could be the most expensive production of electricity in Victoria’s history. They were joined by the Australian Environment Foundation  and others from across rural Victoria who have already experienced the debilitating effects of living near existing wind farms.

This community owned wind farm consisting of just two turbines is nominally capable of producing just 4 megawatts of power. These two turbines come at a direct cost to the Victorian taxpayer of $1.7m in subsidies and a further $11.6m in capital costs borne by the community. $13 million for 4 megawatts of power – when the wind blows. This is approximately 30 per cent above the notoriously expensive benchmark establishment cost of wind produced power. This is set against the backdrop of a 56 per cent rise in electricity bills over the last couple of years in Victoria and a 61 per cent rise in NSW.

The premise underpinning the pursuit of renewable energy through wind power, at any cost, needs urgent review before we move from the current 266 turbines in Victoria to the planned total of 1228, as well as massive planned expansion in South Australia and NSW.

Most people view the advantages of wind produced electricity through rose tinted glasses – and why shouldn’t they – as they have not been privy to the facts. Energy companies and governments are not keen to discuss the facts.

Wind is free, significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is environmentally friendly, right?

Wrong on all counts.

There is already a plethora of scientific analysis and medical investigations from existing Victorian and overseas wind farms to give pause for reflection over the stated and implied benefits of rushing headlong into a planned massive increase in wind farms over the next few years.

The fuel source of wind power, wind, is of course free. The generation of power from wind and getting it into the grid however, is typically two to four times more expensive than other forms of electricity, which is why the purchase of wind power is mandated by government, requiring electricity wholesalers to purchase it – otherwise they would not. This expensive, subsidised electricity is of course paid for by consumers. Energy Supply Association spokesman Brad Page said recently in the media he expected the cost of electricity to double in the next few years and then rise again.

Numerous technical studies in Australia and overseas demolish the claim wind power will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to any useful degree if utilised at more than a token five per cent of the grid, as the inconsistency of actual power generated by wind will require back-up with gas turbines to maintain all important grid stability. Needless to say, gas turbines will produce emissions.

If meaningful levels of wind power are costly to produce and cannot reduce emissions by any significant amount many would still argue higher electricity bills will help reduce the amount of energy we consume. This may well be true, but no prizes for guessing who will suffer most and first from increased power bills. Is driving up the price of electricity for the sole benefit of wind farm operators really an innovative solution to future energy demands?

The third fallacy of wind power is that it does no harm to to the environment. If only this were true we might still accept little or no reduction in emissions from costly wind power as the price we must pay to diversify our energy sources, while giving bill subsidies to those who cannot pay and do not share the zeal for expensive ‘feel good’ power.

The official response in Victoria to claims of ill-health that debilitates people living in the vicinity of wind farms is there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support such claims.

This is unsurprising given this is a relatively new phenomenon in Victoria, but the evidence of serious health effects is accumulating fast. What is remarkable is these health concerns in Australia are echoed with striking similarity from others living near existing wind farms overseas.

Probably the most telling example of the known effects of wind farms is from the Victorian government’s own guidelines for wind farm development.

In recognition of the landscape and environmental values embodied in many National Parks, wind energy facility developments are not permitted on any land subject to the National Parks Act. 

No such blanket exemption exists for people, communities, landscapes or heritage values in the 80 per cent of Victoria that is not encompassed by national parks. This confirms environmental values are prioritised over people and communities in the establishment of wind farms. 

The drivers for the establishment of wind farms are a mixed bag of political incentives to gain support for meeting a renewable energy target, regional jobs and investment by large energy companies ultimately subsidised by taxpayers, rather than an evidenced based energy plan for the future. 

In many ways the intended outcomes of the government’s Renewable Energy Action plan mirror the debacle of the Our Water Our Future plan that saw a policy induced water crisis afflict Victoria over the last decade or so. This crisis has been ‘fixed’ with an expenditure commitment of $7b for a desalination plant and a pipeline removing water from one catchment to another. Political fixes for a poor policy framework that will cost us millions for decades to come. 

Victoria, and other states, are heading down the same path with the Renewable Energy Action plan as it pertains to wind power, as it will not reduce emissions to any significant degree, will produce expensive electricity and be an increasing blight on people and the environment. 

The community deserves an independent review of the premise underpinning the adoption of large scale wind power generation to avoid a costly repetition of a political solution, as seen with the water crisis, before we are committed to any more long-term contracts and wind farms. 

Max Rheese is Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation