Turbines toasted from 183km away
By Michael Giles
WHERE would you expect the opening of one of South Gippsland’s biggest-ever infrastructure projects, the $300 million Bald Hills Wind Farm, to be held?
If you said “on site at Tarwin Lower-Walkerville” you’d be wrong.
Last Friday, the ‘official launch’ of the fully-operational, 52-turbine project was staged, not in the region hosting the facility, but at a swanky event MC’d by actor Shane Jacobson of ‘Kenny’ fame in ‘The Residence’ function room on the 8th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne.
No expense was spared.
It was silver service and expensive business suits all the way. And there wasn’t a dusty road, school bus, black baldy steer or a 125 metre-high wind turbine in sight.
Not unless you count the “majestic” structures that featured in a highly-produced, pre-lunch film about the making of the Bald Hills Wind Farm, which unsurprisingly didn’t make reference to the dead koalas, industrial unrest, planning disputes, noise complaints lack of local jobs or community divisiveness that has dogged its development over the past decade.
In fact, from 183km away, the Bald Hills Wind Farm looked pretty damn good and speaker after speaker, including the State Minister for Energy and Resources the Hon Lily D’Ambrosio and the Deputy Consul General of Japan, Takeshi Tanabe, said so.
Which is exactly the point isn’t it?
The closer you live to these massive, sometimes noisy, visually intrusive structures; the harder they are to like, unless you are being handsomely compensated as one of the host farm owners.
All, or almost all of the Tarwin Lower and Walkerville families hosting wind turbines were at Friday’s three-course, sit-down feast, complete with a choice of wines and stand-up comedy act.
“I hope you put in your paper that the vast majority of people in the district think it’s a good idea,” said Lindsay Marriott, one of the host farm owners, after the speeches and presentations had been completed.
However, while the local beneficiaries were invited to the slap-up celebration, their neighbours, those impacted during the construction phase and afterwards, by loss of property value, loss of amenity and allegedly, by debilitating noise and infrasound, were not.
They weren’t even accorded the courtesy of being told the event was being held.
“I didn’t think they’d be interested,” said Bald Hills Wind Farm General Manager, Matthew Croome last week.
Nearby farmer, at Walkerville, Don Fairbrother, whose home is little more than a kilometre away from the nearest turbine, has been an opponent of the wind farm project from the beginning.
A fit man, unaccustomed to illness, he’s lately been waking up with severe headaches.
When a north wind is blowing, the sound from the turbines is almost unbearable while working outside in the paddocks, he says.
Mr Fairbrother said he didn’t know the wind farm was being officially launched last Friday until contacted by the Sentinel-Times for comment on Sunday.
“What, they opened it at the Hyatt in Melbourne?
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous to be holding the opening of a $300 million facility, located in South Gippsland in Melbourne,” Mr Fairbrother said.
“What did they think, that we were going to create a disturbance at the opening?
“They’ve held the opening of the state’s other big wind farms on site, at Macarthur (formerly AGL owned) and also at Challicum Hills (Pacific Hydro) near Ararat which is just as it should be.
“This excludes the locals, it’s ridiculous.”
Mr Croome said it was done purely for logistics. Most of those involved with the project, he said, were not from South Gippsland.
It helped that the Grand Hyatt is over the road from the Mitsui Group’s head office in Collins Street.
Seated at 12 tables of 10 in the Verandah Room of the exclusive ‘Residence’ function room at the Grand Hyatt was an impressive list of luminaries including the Deputy Consul General of Japan, Takeshi Tanabe, the Chief Operations Officer of Mitsui and Company Limited (Japan) Takeshi Kanamori, CEO and Chairman of Mitsui and Co (Australia) Yasushi Takahashi, and the Minister for Energy and Resources, the Hon Lily D’Ambrosio MP.
South Gippsland Shire was represented by its Manager Economic Development, Tourism and Customer Service, Danny McDonald, who had the chance to network on his table with representatives from Ausnet, Wind Energy Victoria, engineering consultants, communications executives and Clare Vlahopoulos from Mitsui and Co (Australia).
First to speak was Mr Takahashi.
“It is great to be able to say it has really started after 10 years,” he said, noting that the project had been 100 per cent owned by Mitsui from the outset enabling the firm to gain considerable technical know-how along the way.
But he stressed several times it had taken 10 years, indicating some level of angst by the firm.
He said the project had come in “on time and on budget” and claimed it had enjoyed 100 per cent support from the State Government, the South Gippsland Shire Council, the landowners, the construction company and “all of the stakeholders”.
The Minister Ms D’Ambrosio praised Mitsui for bringing its head office and the Bald Hills project to Victoria and said the government had made changes that would encourage the development of more wind farms in the state, including reducing the exclusion zone around houses to 1km and introducing a $200 million ‘Future Industries Fund’ to create jobs and attract investment in the renewable energy sector.
She said there were still 17 more projects in the pipeline and stressed how good this investment would be especially for jobs in regional Victoria.
Asked by the Sentinel-Times afterwards what the government could do to ensure that jobs and contracts actually went to local people, given the fact that Mitsui’s contractors mostly floated in its Bald Hills’ workforce, Ms D’Ambrosio said the government could consider that issue as part of its own tender for 100kW of renewable power but was unlikely to apply the condition to private projects.
The Minister was also asked what she would say to the nearby residents who were being affected by the noise and infrasound made by the turbines.
“There have been numerous scientific studies conducted, none of which concluded that there were any risks or health impacts. That’s the way it is. I’m not going to argue with science,” she said.
Other speakers included Mr Kanamori from Mitsui in Japan, the Deputy Consul General Mr Tanabe and the sole South Gippsland local to speak, Jeremy Rich, the chairman of the Bald Hills Community Fund.
He was the only speaker to acknowledge that the project had “created challenges for the community”, saying he hoped the community fund would be a vehicle for continued engagement with the community about the benefits of renewable energy.
But he said that now the facility was in place, it could be used to enhance South Gippsland’s “clean and green” image.
A broad range of local community groups received grants of between $400 and $3000 in the past year but not all of the annual allocation of $25,000 was distributed. The rest will be rolled over into next year.
Mitsui & Co (Japan) is one of the biggest diversified companies in the world with a market capitalisation of more than $32b (AUD).