Friday, July 31, 2009

A glimpse of the future for Victoria's hilltops

Adam Morton

The Age, August 1, 2009

SOME will tilt at them, but it would seem a pointless exercise: a surge in windmill construction is set to recast the Victorian landscape.

Two needs — offsetting the state's electricity-hungry new desalination plant and meeting an incoming national renewable energy target — are to trigger a huge expansion of wind power across the state.

The desalination plant dreamed up by Steve Bracks, John Brumby and John Thwaites in 2007 will transform not just the Wonthaggi coast, but parts of the Western District, too.

Energy giant AGL estimates it will need to build roughly 180 turbines to offset the power needed to run the plant once it starts operating in 2011. This will be extra power on top of the national target.

It announced that work on a 32-turbine farm at Oakland Hills, near the Grampians, would start in October. This is expected to be followed by a 183-turbine farm at Macarthur, north-east of Portland, with about 300 megawatts capacity.

"For us, it is all about Macarthur," says AGL merchant energy manager Jeff Dimery. "It will be the biggest wind farm in the southern hemisphere when it is constructed, and will more than meet all the energy requirements of the desalination plant." If it does hold this title, it may not be for long. At least two larger wind farms are proposed elsewhere in the country.

The likelihood they will get off the ground will increase dramatically once a renewable energy bill before the Senate is passed.

The Liberal Party supports the central point of the bill, which is to force electricity retailers to buy a fifth of their energy from clean sources by 2020. Energy analysts say unless it is changed the overwhelming majority — more than 90 per cent — of this investment in the short term will be in wind, easily the cheapest form of renewable energy.

Much of this will be in Victoria. The state has eight wind farms with 266 turbines. To date this accounted for less than 2 per cent of Victoria's energy generation.

Compare this with what is proposed: 20 farms with 850 turbines have been approved and are waiting to finalise finance and manufacturing deals so they can be built.

Another 27, with more than 1000 turbines, are at proposal or planning approval stage."If you look at a wind map of Australia, alongside Tasmania and South Australia, Victoria is the most attractive wind-yielding state," Mr Dimery says.

According to Environment Victoria, the proposed wind farms could be enough to replace one of the state's brown coal-fired electricity generators.

Pacific Hydro chief executive Andrew Richards says Victoria initially missed out on renewable projects in part because of a slow planning process, which took twice as long as South Australia and NSW. He says this is changing, but not fast enough. "Other states are more flexible," he says.

On a more positive note, he says Victoria was the first state to introduce its own renewable energy target.The impact of this was dulled by uncertainty over the delayed national target.

Wind power has faced criticism it cannot be relied on for baseload power.

The Energy Supply Association of Australia says the efficiency rating of Victoria's wind power plants last year was about 30 per cent because of fluctuations in wind strength.

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