A wind power project in the Australian state of Victoria has not only fallen victim to one of the country's first serious bouts of wind energy opposition -- but that opposition is spreading like wildfire from the shire of South Gippsland to the rest of the state. Citizens are being encouraged to support a state-wide moratorium on wind development suggested by the National Trust, a major nature protection group. The moratorium could hit the big Portland Wind Energy Project, for which NEG Micon has been picked as preferred supplier for 100-150 MW of wind plant. Meantime, the wind turbines for another Victoria development, Stanwell Corporation's 22 MW wind farm development at Toora, are due to go up this month.
The furore started when councillors in South Gippsland Shire, uneasy about being asked to grant site permits for what could become a series of wind power projects, performed a U-turn in their positive attitude to wind development, withdrawing their support for an application by New Zealand-based Meridian Energy for wind monitoring towers. Yet is was the South Gippsland authority which granted permission for the Toora development within the Silcocks Hill region.
The councillors are now arguing that wind farm siting issues are larger than local government and that the Victoria state government must take a more proactive role in identifying areas where wind farms can be sited. The shire has applied to the state government for assistance to fund a study on the community, economic and social impacts of wind farms, which could cost up to A$500,000.
The South Gippsland local authority performed its U-turn a month after it had decided in favour of Meridian Energy's application to site wind monitoring towers on private property at Fish Creek and Welshpool. In a sudden policy reversal in January, the council unanimously agreed to amend its draft Municipal Strategic Statement to "discourage" any wind developments outside of the Silcocks Hill region, not "encourage" them as previously stated.
Despite the indication that until a study has been conducted the shire will look unfavourably on applications outside of Silcocks Hill, residents are not letting the issue alone. They say they will continue to appeal to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal against the council decision to issue permits for Meridian Energy's monitoring towers elsewhere. The appeal date has not been set.
"We will be opposing every step of the way," says Fish Creek resident Tim Farrell. He is the most vocal member of the Prom Coast Guardians, a residents' group established to oppose wind developments near Wilsons Pro-
montory. The group has staged large and at times hostile meetings discussing Meridian Energy's permit applications. "Monitoring stations are logically and inextricably linked to a wind farm, especially when our area is proven to have a viable wind resource. We will not separate the two," warns Farrell. Residents have complained of a lack of consultation over the Meridian applications and have until now accused members of the South Gippsland Shire of backing the wind industry against the best interest of the local community and the environment.
Although the tide seems to have turned in their favour, opposing residents are looking to the bigger picture and are supporting the National Trust's call for a state-wide moratorium on wind development. The community group, with 30,000 members in Australia, has proposed the moratorium as a way to avoid community division and protect landscapes of "significance." The feeling is that "it's all moving too fast," says the group. "We need time to consider all of these issues before we start developing our coastlines."
Supporters of a moratorium believe it should be enacted immediately and remain in place until a Victoria-wide planning policy on wind farms is developed. Although a moratorium on private land developments is well outside normal state government practice, this position has also been supported by a group of residents in south west Victoria, who are opposing Pacific Hydro's Portland Wind Energy Project (PWEP).
All fingers are now pointing to the Victorian state government and the federal government to provide leadership and direction. Local governments are accusing the state government of passing the buck on the issue, and some residents feel they are having to bear the cost involved with "defending" their regions from a stream of wind developers vying for prime coastal sites.
In line with New South Wales, the then Victoria state planning minister, John Thwaites, directly addressed the issue in mid-January by announcing the establishment of statutory guidelines for processing wind development applications. He also announced the government's commitment for the next four years to buying 5% of its energy from renewable sources.
The guidelines are expected to be available for public exhibition in a matter of months and are intended to create a better understanding of the planning process for wind development. They are to be used by local councils, developers and communities as a guide to the planning process and will include information about appropriate siting and environmental issues.
At this stage, decision-making on Victorian wind developments will remain primarily a local government concern, with projects assessed on a case-by-case basis. While it seems the guidelines are welcomed by all, they are not designed to provide certainty of outcome for developers, local councils or residents. Developers still risk protracted planning appeals if seeking to develop certain coastal sites in Victoria.
Decisions on future Victorian projects, in particular the PWEP which will be determined later this year, will provide the true test. The state planning panel, which heard the last of the verbal submissions to the PWEP at the end of April, will make a recommendation on the project in mid-June.