By HARRY CLARKE | EXCLUSIVE
COUNCILS at the coal face of Queensland’s rapid development of renewable energy projects hope that a review of laws around the installation and operation of wind farms will address major concerns they have that the industry is having an overall negative impact on their regions.
Concerns raised by Goondiwindi Regional Council and Southern Downs Regional Council about the mega $2 billion, 360 turbine MacIntyre wind farm being built within their council areas comes as the State Government reviews its Wind Farm Code designed to protect communities from adverse impacts of the renewable energy developments.
Goondiwindi Mayor Lawrence Springborg said the rollout of the renewable energy industry had “got ahead of itself” and that communities were suffering from housing pressures and an increased need for local infrastructure maintenance that the project was causing.
“More needs to be done in the area of commissioning and regulating renewable energy projects and they (should) be subject to the same conditions as the resource communities are – coal and gas – because they’re not,” he said.
“The approval process is basically automatic because they’re considered projects of significance to the state pushing its renewable energy targets.
“I don’t have arguments with that, that’s their target, but what’s happening is our communities are left with all the social consequences and the growing pains that come with it.
“When it comes to wind generation our (local government) involvement is virtually negligible except on conditioning local roads. Beyond that we’re an afterthought and the communities are left scrambling.
“You’ve got housing pressure, you’ve got workforce pressure, there are infrastructure issues because your infrastructure can’t really keep up.”
Springborg was also critical of the fact that under Queensland law, wind farm developers are not required to submit development applications to councils as the approvals process is handled by the Queensland Government through its State Assessment and Referral Agency.
“Councils are basically not involved in the approval,” he said.
“There is no development application process with council. At best they’ll come out and tell us what they’re going to do.
“We’re not saying that the state should cede approval to us in any way whatsoever, that’s their prerogative, but there should be at least some sort of referral agency or there needs to be some sort of development application process for local governments to be involved.
“We need the ability to be able to front end these processes a lot more with regards to infrastructure agreements and those sorts of things.”
WATCH: Animation flyer-over of the MacIntyre Wind Precinct
The MacIntyre Wind Precinct is one of the largest onshore wind energy projects in the world, and the largest in the southern hemisphere.
It comprises two sections – the MacIntyre wind farm and the Herries Range Wind Farm – totalling 360 turbines and spanning 36,000 hectares (90,000 acres).
It’s located about 60km west of Warwick but much of its footprint falls within the Goondiwindi Regional Council area.
Once completed the wind farm will have the capacity to generate 2GW electricity which its developer, Spain-headquartered renewable energy giant Acciona, said was enough to power 1.4 million Australian homes per year.
Its construction is generating about 1,500 jobs however the workforce will reduce dramatically to about 35 during the operational period, which is expected to last 30 years.
The State Government this month announced a review of wind farms in Queensland, pledging to create clearer bench marks for managing developments of numerous projects currently in the pipeline.
The review aims to improve guidelines to protect high ecological and biodiversity value, identify and assess viable haulage routes, highlight rehabilitation requirements and expectations and require developers to investigate the impact wind farm constructions will have on local workforces and accommodation.
“Queensland has some of the world’s best wind resources that can be harnessed to power hundreds of thousands of homes with cleaner and cheaper energy,” Deputy Premier Steven Miles said.
“To support this progress, we need clear and predictable regulatory frameworks.
“The Palaszczuk Government committed to a review of the planning framework for renewable energy development and we are delivering on it.
“We have listened to the community, and worked with other government agencies, local councils and stakeholders to establish the issues to be addressed in the review.
“Wind farms in Queensland already undergo a thorough assessment process.
“This review is designed to strengthen those protections for communities and the environment, while creating certainty and clarity for industry with clearer benchmarks for managing environmental and construction impacts.”
Acciona has had a 600-man workers camp at the site of the MacIntyre wind farm to accommodate an influx of staff and contractors in the region during the project’s construction phase.
Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Vic Pennisi (pictured below) said despite the initiative, the town of Warwick was in particular experiencing social pressure due to rent increases, and that he was also concerned about plans for wind turbine materials once the project was decommissioned.
“When it comes to renewable energy, it’s really at its infancy, so we’re at where coal seam gas was 20 years ago,” Pennisi said.
“In our region there are a lot of unanswered question for example, what happens at the end of the life of these turbines – do you dig a hole and bury them?
“That’s going to be up to the local government that is in that area to deal with. Why should that be an impost on the community.
“When negations take place nobody wants to commit to anything which is why we go to government (and say) ‘you guys need to help out out here and put the parameters in’.
“The State Government approves the projects largely without any input of local government, so we have to live with the approval of the State Government so that’s a deficiency. As a local government we should at least be a concurrent agent during the approval process.
“The turbines are largely in the Goondiwindi Regional Council but the roads that they access the turbines on are largely in Southern Downs Regional Council and the closest landfill is in Southern Downs Regional Council.
“How much oil is those those turbines and in the gear boxes and how often does it need to be changed, and if that oil needs to get changed, who’s going to take it?
“Is it going to be the government where they’ve got an oil collection (facility) and what the volume of that? Should the ratepayers fund that? Is that fair and reasonable?
“One of the others issues that it creates is that accomodation is at a premium, so accomodation providers use it as a tool to increase rental prices. Where you might have been getting $300 a week, now you’re getting more than that and in many cases double that.
“So that puts pressure on social housing and those people who are not highly paid and it forces them out of accommodation because they can’t afford it. It creates some social issues that we have to deal with.
“We want to make sure that our community is not disadvantaged with the rest of the state being advantaged.
“It’s almost like a marriage – you need to discuss whether you’re compatible before you walk down the aisle.
As part of the development application process, energy project proposals are required to undergo assessment under the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and all projects have to comply with relevant legislation including the Native Title Act, QLD Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, Nature Conservation Act and the Planning Act, among others.
A spokesperson for Acciona, developer of the MacInture Wind Precinct, told the Caller the company welcomed the government’s review and hoped for clearer frameworks around wind farm construction and environmental impacts.
“The MacIntyre wind farm has created hundreds of jobs for locals during construction and sourced hundreds of millions in contracts from the local area and the region. The high paying skilled jobs during operations will greatly benefit the small towns around the project,” the spokesperson said.
“We’ve listened and responded to community concerns about impacts on housing caused during construction. Availability of housing in local towns was identified early during development and in our Social Impact Assessment and is why we built a 400 person work camp on site before expanding its capacity to 600 to accommodate additional workers on site.
“At the end of a wind farm’s lease, the resource is still there. For us it’s a discussion with landowners if they’d like to renew the lease and if the project is still viable we’d go through the process to re-permit with planning and environmental regulators and re-power the site for another 30 years. Properly maintained turbine lifespans can last 40-50 years.
“In the event that a wind farm is decommissioned, as part of our lease agreements and development approvals we return the land to its original state. As part of our commitment to recycling and a circular economy – our colleagues in Europe have been working with partners to develop technologies to recycle blades turning them into frames for solar panels. We’re also looking at other industrial uses for blades to be used as an input in concrete manufacturing.
“These decommissioning and recycling technologies are being developed in Europe where many fleets of turbines are much older. By the time turbines in Australia start to need large scale recycling the technology will have matured, advanced and be well deployed here.”
The company also highlighted its investment legacy projects to support the communities most directly impacted by the wind farm’s construction.
“So far our investment into legacy projects is $1.2 million,” Acciona’s spokesperson said.
“We’re proud of the legacy the project is leaving within the community and the investments we’ve made including the removal of telecommunications blackspots at the project site, funding support for the Goondiwindi Council Regional Art Trail, upgrades to the Karara Community Hall, Energy Savings Program with Queensland Farmers’ Federation as well as the significant amount of work with local Chambers of Commerce about procurement and supply opportunities.”