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Transmission social licence: Some parting reflections

– Kate Kotarska, Policy Manager, RE-Alliance.

This is my final blog for RE-Alliance, as I start a new position with the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water on Monday. It is a reflection piece on what I’ve learnt working at RE-Alliance over the last two years and with the industry and Government prior to that. 

I grew up on two farms, one in the Southern Highlands of NSW, which had a large transmission line running through it and a second property between Bathurst and Orange on which we ran a few hundred merino sheep.

I am not now nor have I ever been a commercial farmer, though I have a strong affinity to the land I grew up on and which my family still owns.

I live in Mudgee, within the first Renewable Energy Zone to be rolled out by the NSW Government, and have heard first-hand from landholders about the challenges posed by new renewable energy developments and the new transmission line, which will be built between Wollar and Elong Elong.

Eighteen months ago in our report Building Trust for Transmission we made the case for improved consultation practices between transmission companies and affected landholders and increased compensation arrangements for both hosts of new transmission infrastructure and neighbours within visual sight of the line. We also advocated for the development of community benefit funding.

As mentioned in our blog Building trust for transmission: what’s been achieved?, transmission companies have made progress with the landholder consultation methods and some have substantially increased their staffing levels in this area. 

There has also been progress in NSW with the development of the Strategic Benefits Payments Scheme (SBP) for private landowners. Under the SBP scheme, private landowners hosting new high voltage transmission projects critical to the energy transformation and future of the electricity grid will be paid a set rate of $200,000 per kilometre of transmission hosted, paid out in annual instalments over 20 years, linked to the Consumer Price Index.

In NSW, there is no compensation for affected neighbours and no mandated community benefit funding for transmission projects. Other states are yet to develop similar payment arrangements, though we understand that several states are working on developing reforms of a similar nature to those implemented by NSW.

Of course, for some landholders increased financial compensation and benefit sharing arrangements are still not acceptable and re-routing the line, or not having the line at all, or undergrounding it, are the preferred appropriate solutions.

The increased costs of technologies such as undergrounding, if implemented, would be borne by all electricity consumers, including the most vulnerable. This is not to discount the use of underground transmission lines in some circumstances. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines have been used before in Australia including for the Directlink and Murraylink Interconnectors and the Basslink Interconnector.

It is important to remember that these new transmission lines are needed by all of us to connect the new solar farms, wind farms and storage developments to our homes and businesses. Without them it is quite literally a case of lights out.

Transmission lines aren’t an attractive addition to a property, as I know from my own experience living in a house only a few hundred metres from a major transmission line. That said, most farming activities can continue, with some modifications, for example to irrigation equipment.

There are substantial environmental impacts from the clearing required when the line runs through bushland. This applies to both public and private bushland. We’ve been interested to read some of the research from overseas by Renewables Grid Initiative in Europe on developing wildlife corridors under transmission lines. Our Advocacy Manager, Lu Allan, wrote a blog on this subject last year.

We continue to advocate for strategic land use mapping to inform the design routes for new transmission lines. This mapping would map prime agricultural land, culturally significant land, highly biodiverse land and overlay with existing parameters such as proximity to the existing grid, as well as solar and wind resources, and try to facilitate a route with the least impact on communities and sensitive ecosystems. Our vision is for a nationally coordinated, standardised map that can be used by transmission businesses and the renewables industry to build an energy system that is nature positive, culturally sensitive and community minded.

We hope that the Federal Government’s Regional Planning Initiative may grow into something like this vision. Any reforms should build on the Victorian Government’s approach which includes a new strategic land use assessment geospatial mapping exercise to identify the lowest impact corridors for transmission development and new generation.

As I move from a policy advocacy role to a policy development and implementation role within Government, I thank all the landholders, transmission industry representatives, renewable energy company representatives, representatives from Government agencies and market bodies, Traditional Owner representatives, and climate movement representatives who have helped inform and implement our policy advocacy suggestions over the past two years. I hope we can continue to work closely together in future. I know RE-Alliance will continue to advocate for the interests of regional communities within the energy transition, which is now well underway.

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