King Island contemplates the power of wind

Tapping King Island’s massive wind resource for an energy-hungry Victoria is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Some islanders think otherwise. [28 May 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Windbreaks of remnant tea-tree forests give shape to King Island’s rich beef and dairy pasture land. On the horizon are turbines of the island’s existing 2.5-megawatt wind farm, at Huxley Hill, near Currie.

On huge white towers, high above a green, undulating landscape, polished blades flash in the sun. The only sound is a swish as each blade passes overhead, moved by the invisible wind.

With its clean white lines representing a polar opposite to the main fossil resource for electricity, coal, wind power is the icon for clean energy in a post-carbon world.

Some would challenge this. One objection is that wind can’t produce power continuously and on demand, an attribute called “base-load power”. Detractors have long said that this disqualifies wind power as a genuine alternative to “base-load” coal, but it’s an argument going nowhere.

A single wind farm can’t produce power continuously, but numbers of them connected in a grid can come close. Linked with other sources such as solar or hydro — surplus wind power can be used to pump water uphill back into hydro storages, for instance — wind could conceivably power most of Australia most of the time. A solar (rooftop or thermal) linkage is an option already beginning to work in South Australia, whose historical reliance on coal-fired electricity is starting to disappear.

There, significant investment has brought wind power’s share of total generation up to 21 per cent — and for short periods above 70 per cent. Port Augusta’s huge coal-fired power stations have been forced to close down for long periods in recent years as a direct result of the success of wind power.

South Australia has significant wind resources, but Tasmania’s are greater, a fact not lost on a consortium planning a 100-turbine plant at Cattle Hill, on the Central Plateau near Waddamana. Hydro Tasmania is the big Tasmanian player, already operating wind farms at Woolnorth in the far northwest and Musselroe Bay in the northeast, currently coming on line. Now it’s turned its attention to King Island, which comes close to being the windiest place in Australia.

The island’s proximity to energy-hungry, cash-rich Victoria encouraged Hydro Tasmania to put together a concept for a $2 billion, 200-turbine, 600-megawatt wind farm there. The idea, released last November, includes laying an underwater cable to allow electricity to be exported to Victoria.

For the 1700-odd people of King Island, this is huge. If it goes ahead the project would inject up to $310 million into the island’s economy, including a “community dividend” to be determined by islanders, and upgrade shipping and communications infrastructure. It would operate from 2018.

But there’s a snag. Objections on grounds of wind power’s unreliability may be starting to fade, but other rationales are moving in to take their place. Wind power is said to be massive industrialisation, an economic albatross, a blot on the landscape — and even a threat to human health.

If I were into conspiracy I might think there are people out there who just don’t want clean energy to succeed. But let’s keep an open mind on this.

The King Island story is shaping up as a classic. The island’s mayor, Greg Barrett, supports Hydro’s proposal subject to the approval of the community at large. This is to be gauged in a survey of adult residents, and if 60 per cent agree, an 18-month economic feasibility study will then go ahead.

The survey was supposed to have happened already, but it’s been postponed as a result of a community meeting and is now to be on 7 June. But the King Island Council has just been presented with a 434-signature petition calling for the whole idea to be scrapped.

The chairman of the “No TasWind Farm Group”, Jim Benn, who organised the petition, maintains that the feasibility study will put King Island into “suspended animation” for two years, stifle investment and drive down property values.

The group’s long list of complaints also alleges that the turbines would destroy the island’s unique place in the world and put at risk proposed elite golf course developments at Ocean Dunes (near Currie) and Cape Wickham in the island’s north. And if anyone still thinks the wind farm might be good for the island, there’s the matter of human health.

This claim has history, dating back a decade or so to anti-wind farm campaigns in Britain and other European countries. Since then a host of opposing groups have sprung up in North America and Australia.

When arguments about landscape started to lose traction, wind-farm opponents found human health an effective alternative line, alleging that low-frequency sound and electro-magnetism emanating from wind turbines causes an array of health problems, mainly neurological.

There’s nothing like a health scare to get people motivated. Government and independent studies in Europe, North America and Australia have found wind turbines have no discernible effect on human health. A review by the Victorian health department released early this month said the same.

But people can discard a scientific study if it doesn’t suit their purpose, and all the peer-reviewed science in the world won’t persuade rusted-on anti-wind-farmers that health isn’t an issue. King Island anti-wind farm campaigners aren’t relying on the health argument, but its inclusion in their complaints list suggests they’ll seize on anything that will help their cause.

Money doesn’t seem to be an issue. Jim Benn’s group has engaged a Sydney PR company, Wells-Haslem, to develop their website and help with their campaign. The firm has links to the recent Australian tour by Lord Monckton of Brenchley.

I wouldn’t dare tell King Islanders what they should or shouldn’t decide on 7 June. But there’s a lot to like about the TasWind proposal. It would be a crying shame if it were to be derailed because people were falsely persuaded it could damage their health.

• Prof Lesley Hughes, Climate Commissioner and Chair of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, will speak to the question, what does climate change mean for northern Tasmania? in a public meeting tonight organised by Tamar Natural Resource Management. At the Reception Room, Launceston City Council, St John Street, Launceston, at 6 pm tonight (Tuesday 28 May).

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