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Local support for St Patrick Plains Wind Farm: “It’s a no brainer, we have to do something about climate change and every little bit counts.”

- Tony Goodfellow, Victoria/Tasmania Coordinator, RE-Alliance.

In a sleepy part of Tasmania, where daily life is largely dictated by the rising of the trout, a new wind farm is on the cards. St Patrick Plains forms part of the Central Tasmanian Renewable Energy Zone, the backbone of renewable generation replacing fossil fuels. 

It’s an ideal spot for a wind farm; tucked in the windy highlands, not far from Cattle Hill Wind Farm. There’s good Tasnetworks transmission line capacity, following the line from Hydro Tasmania's first power station at Waddamana, and it’s on private land used for sheep grazing. The view most people see of the wind farm is driving past - it’s nestled in the plains among the trees, surrounded by higher land so there are limited distant views. Shacks in the area are generally focussed towards the lakes and lagoons and only a limited number of houses have slight views of the wind farm. 

RE-Alliance recently conducted community conversations around the role of Tasmania in climate action, the benefits from the community benefit fund, jobs in the area, and how impacts are being successfully addressed - such as IdentiFlight. Here we look at community sentiment towards the proposed development. 

Climate

Teresa Nichols lives near Arthurs Lake. She knows the country well, being a local volunteer ambulance driver for 20 years. Teresa retired last year and at 72 says, "I think I've done my duty." A busy job "all hours of the day, night, snow." Talking about the proposed wind farm Teresa says, “It’s progress, everything else is changing you’ve got to go with the flow.” 

Great Lakes resident Dr David Meacheam is an academic who retired to central Tasmania. He talks about climate impacts that devastated Tasmania in the past and the need to close coal fuelled power production:

“I look back on the 2019 fires here and they were massive. There was nothing natural about those fires, they burnt a huge area, and we won't see that country recover in my lifetime. It all came out of the dry lightning strikes, which are symptomatic of climate change and so I support the development on Patrick Plains, which is the current Epuron development. I see it as essential, that as each wind turbine gets commissioned, it brings forward the day that we’ll see the closure of a coal fired generator on the mainland.” 


Photo: Dr David Meacheam with one of his favourite catches, a Central Highlands brown trout (supplied)

Owen Porteus, born and bred in Smithton, has been in North and Central Tasmania “all my life”. Now retired in Buninyong, he visits Central Tasmania every year to flyfish. Owen saw one of the first wind farms in Tasmania go up at Woolnorth, where his brother was also employed. Owen talks about a need to protect the planet:

“We live on this planet and we need to do everything we can to preserve it. If you talk about that area [Great Lake, Tasmania] one of the ways to preserve it is renewable energy. If we keep burning coal or fossil fuels then that’s certainly going to impact that area just as much as anywhere else.” 

Farm owners, Paul and Shauna Ellis own the land where St Patrick Plains wind farm will be located. They say their adult children encouraged them to build the wind farm, saying, "It’s a no brainer, we have to do something about climate change and every little bit counts." Shauna says, "It was a family decision. It’s renewable energy, how can you not do it? We do feel an attachment to this place. It was a big step. We had to make sure the land would be rehabilitated at the end of the life of the wind farm."

Farming is in Paul’s blood, following his grandfather and great grandfather, and he plans to operate around the wind farm. He believes the wind farm has been on the drawing-board for 15 years: 

“At the end of its life the wind farm will be pulled down and it will look like it is now, the only thing that’s left is roading that the landowner wants.” 

Paul says that there’s a fund that accrues over the lifetime of the wind farm for decommissioning, if the landholder chooses that in the future, which he describes as “an elegant solution.” 

Jobs and benefits 

In an open letter of support, Kate Walker and John Barnett said “initiatives that bring a financial return to communities are sorely needed, and this will be an exceedingly well‐run, democratic, exemplar demonstration of this in practice.” Long term, funds distributed locally will have a great impact (previously covered in our report Building Stronger Communities and the Community Benefits Handbook). Community members also recognise the positive economic impacts of the wind farm development.

Geoff Herbert runs the Bothwell Garage. Geoff’s family has hailed from Tasmania since the “ball and chain.” He says, “we’re a wind family there's no question about that,” and believes in the role for renewables in Tasmania:

“We’ve gotta look at renewable energy, there’s no question. We’ve gotta go forward, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. Wind, solar you’ve gotta have your finger in many pies – you can’t just rely on water or hydro. We’ve gotta multi-task and rely on every avenue of mother nature.”

Geoff also highlights the employment opportunities the wind farm can generate:

“There are 10-20 people working at Cattle Hill wind farm and St Patrick Plains is going to be double that – 20-40. During the build of Cattle Hill it was such a great atmosphere and St Patrick Plains will be no different. There were trucks, cranes, and retail sales. 18 months of pretty intense sales. We’ve got wind and ample of it – why don’t we take advantage of it?” 

Photo: Part of the tower for Cattle Hill Wind Farm parked at the tiny Bothwell Garage (supplied)

Dr David Meacheam has experience in local volunteering and ensuring benefits from wind energy are seen in the community:

"I look at the Cattle Hill wind farm development, it's just to the south-west of St Patrick Plains. They put up $120,000 p.a. to community funding and I sit on the panel overseeing community funding decisions. And Epuron promises $130,000 per year, you're talking about a quarter of a million per year going into community groups and facilities. That’s really significant and will make a big difference to the infrastructure up here, and to community programs up here, so I welcomed Cattle Hill development for that reason and I welcome St Patrick Plains - it’ll pay good dividends to the community."

Local support

Locals also highlighted support for the wind farm, noting that opponents do not speak for everyone and that they are a minority within the community.  

Teresa said there is great support from the community: “It doesn't worry me and I don't think there's a lot of people against it. There was some paperwork at the store and people were signing it left, right, and centre, saying that they don’t have anything against it.”

This petition in support of the wind farm was started by two locals and has been signed by over 273 people from four sites near St Patrick Plains including Bothwell, Arthurs Lake Roadhouse, the Great Lakes shop and Miena Lodge. The petition is addressed to the Tasmanian Government and outlines reasons why the community supports the wind farm - noting jobs, site suitability, and wind resource amongst other reasons - and more people continue to add their name in support.

Environment

The environment is a priority for landholders Paul and Shauna Ellis. Shauna says, “We love our land. This land has been in Paul’s family for well over 100 years, there’s no way we would agree to do something that is detrimental to it.”

Shauna says there’s 434 hectares that is ‘covenanted’ which means it's protected: “I believe all farmers are conservationists - if they don’t look after the land they wouldn’t have a business.” 

Paul also speaks of his efforts to look after cider gums on his property: “They are on the endangered list. We now have a deer-proof, possum-proof fence. A lot of work has gone into that.” Paul says weed management of ragwort and Californian thistles will be easier to control with better access from roads built with the wind farm. 

Photo: Cider gums at Paul and Shauna Ellis’ property (supplied) 

Paul says IdentiFlight, technology to protect eagles in the region, has been successful: “I’m comfortable with the technology. It’s a solution and working.” And Shauna agrees: “As for the eagles, with modern technology that is not an issue any more.” 

The wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania are endangered, which is why this innovative technology is being used based on optical technology and artificial intelligence to shut down the turbines when an eagle approaches - a mitigation technology we have previously explored

Geoff Herbert said the current system at Cattle Hill is “fantastic” and notes that Peter Downie, the landholder, cares deeply about the eagles and the environment. However, Dr David Meacheam believes conservation of the eagles is being misused by some opponents:

“The local petitions that are circulating against these developments are addressed wholly in terms of these turbines killing wedge-tailed eagles, in fact you read the first couple of paragraphs and there's no mention of the wind farm, ‘do you want to protect eagles da da daa’ so of course you sign. But you read on and it’s only when you’re well into the petition that you realise that you are opposing the wind farm development. I think that’s intellectually dishonest. The petition is really about defeating wind farm developments, not protecting eagles. There’s no recognition of the wind farm technology at Cattle Hill and which Epuron have undertaken that they will use at St Patrick Plains wind farm.”

Owen Porteus, who lives near wind farms at Buninyong, believes climate change is changing the landscape. He says, if we like it or not, we need to act on climate change and conservation:

"Wind energy that’s being generated around Australia and Tasmania is critical to preserving the area. That’s my view and I think it’s pretty short sighted if you look at the aesthetics and say, "I don’t want to put that there because I don’t like the look of it". Well, the option is, is that you don’t have it and don’t have the area pristine as it is or was."

"Living in Buninyong we’re surrounded by them - I think I can see three from Mt Buninyong - so again, there was some opposition to them but that’s gone and people learnt to love them and they don't even feature in your life anymore, they are not an issue."

Teresa talks about neighbours to Cattle Hill and said, “A girl I used to work with lives on a farm down below them and she said they don’t worry her.” Dr David Meacheam also mentions how noise can be easily mitigated:   

"I come from an area of New Zealand where some of the very first turbines were put in place, in the mountain range between Palmerston North and Dannevirke, so I'm accustomed to seeing the turbines, and whenever I go over there I tend to stop under one of the turbines to remind myself how relatively quiet they are."

Larger context

Tasmania has an important role in Australia's shift from fossil fuels. The Australian Energy Market Operator’s long term plan of the energy transformation plots multiple pathways. One path is the Step Change model, which is most aligned with a safe climate and is the most ambitious for the renewables roll out. The latest plan for the energy system shows that Tasmania will play a critical role in closing coal as soon as possible. Tasmania also needs to “electrify everything” as it moves to net zero carbon. All sectors, including transport, housing, electricity, industry and farming need to move away from fossil fuels and there’s still a big job to achieve that. 

The open letter of support, previously mentioned by Kate Walker and John Barnett, also touched on the larger context: 

"Wind farms could be an essential part of the National Electricity Market to achieve a carbon‐neutral power system. Tasmania could then meet the bulk of its energy needs through wind power, since strategic placement of wind farms would minimise variability in generation. This project is not only good for our area and Tasmania, but the whole country."

The WWF recently ranked the nation’s states in a scorecard for their "leadership and urgent government action" for moving Australia toward a "zero-carbon energy powerhouse." Tasmania came out on top, because the state has a 200 per cent renewable target. This means there will be more wind farms in the state and Central Tasmania is particularly well positioned for wind farms: there’s good transmission and it’s very windy.

With the energy transition comes opportunities for local communities, something that RE-Alliance is keen to be a part of and has a history of advocating for - see our Submission to the Tasmanian Government on the Draft Renewable Energy Coordination Framework.

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