Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ballot to confirm what's in wind

HYDRO Tasmania will soon know the answer to the $2 billion question dividing a Tasmanian island community.
Do the 1600 residents of King Island, in Bass Strait, want their isolated community to become the biggest wind farm in the southern hemisphere?
Opponents say there will be no escape from the 200-plus turbines planned for the small island, which is only 64km long and 27km wide.
NoTasWind chair Jim Benn says the turbines would be visible from every vantage point on the island.
"We are talking about more than 200 structures which are twice as high as Hobart's Wrest Point casino," Mr Benn said.
Other residents, such as former mayor Charles Arnold, say no one will ever invest on the island -- which was rocked last year by the closure of JBS Swift's abattoir -- if the wind project does not get up.
Hydro Tasmania communications manager Ian Colvin acknowledged the community's views were broad.
But he said the ballot of residents was not a vote to build the farm but for a feasibility study.
"If we do not carry out a feasibility study, neither we, nor the King Island community, will have a full understanding of the project, its benefits and risks," Mr Colvin said.
The electricity generator has promised that unless 60 per cent of the residents polled support the plan it will not progress to spending $8 million over two years finding out if the project is feasible.
However, news that the final decision would rest with Hydro Tasmania's board has set alarm bells ringing on the island.
Mr Benn said the company's representatives on King Island had repeatedly told residents a feasibility study would occur only if at least 60 per cent of residents surveyed agreed.
But Mr Colvin said this week that while 60 per cent would be a good indication for support for the feasibility study, the final decision had always been up to the board.
The board will consider the result of the survey and make a commercial decision at its next meeting -- two days after the survey result is expected to be released.
King Island Mayor Greg Barratt expects the public vote to be very close.
"It is line ball at this stage," Cr Barratt said before Friday's ballot mail-out.
Mr Benn said even if a feasibility study into the project was supported by a majority of islanders, those against the proposal would still protest in the name of bird survival, the island's tourism future and their lifestyles.
"Too right I am a NIMBY," he said. "I don't want this in my backyard and that is fair enough."
Part of any feasibility study will include the potential for Hydro Tasmania to find enough private investment to get the farm built.
Hydro Tas said if TasWind proved feasible it would seek that private equity through joint venture partnerships.
The fact that none of the power generated by the wind farm will stay in Tasmania has fanned the intense public debate.
The King Island project would produce enough power to supply 240,000 homes and provide 5 per cent of Australia's Renewable Energy Target.
The company said it was looking into connecting some of the power generated to the King Island grid.
Mr Benn said turbines on pylons, like those seen off Denmark, could be built between King Island and Victoria instead of laying an $800 million underwater cable to carry the electricity to Geelong.
Residents and economists are divided on what long-term economic benefits the project will bring.
A recently released CH2M HILL Australia report, commissioned by Hydro Tasmania, claimed the wind farm would undermine tourism growth and cost the local economy up to $50 million.
Hydro Tasmania criticised the report for not measuring the economic stimulus provided through port upgrades and local spending during the construction phase.
Hydro Tasmania CEO Roy Adair called the CHSM Hill analysis disappointing, overly optimistic and said the figures used did not stack up.
In contrast, the company said the total predicted economic stimulus would be about $255-$310 million over the project's 25-year life span.
Up to $4 million, which would include a $1 million community dividend to be spent at the community's discretion, would be paid to landowners who allowed turbines to be built on their property, their neighbours and the general community.
A Facebook page has been set up to allow residents to have an informed debate on the proposal.
Commentators, however, say it is hard to have a mature debate before all the facts are on the table.
And that won't happen until a feasibility study is carried out.
The poll to gauge whether King Island residents and off-island landowners support the wind farm concept has begun and counting is due to begin on June 17.
On the same day an overdue State Government-facilitated feasibility study into opening a new abattoir on King Island will be released.
University of Tasmania economist Bruce Felmingham said a professional cost-benefit study needed to be done once Hydro found out it had support for a feasibility study.
"That cost-benefit study will need to identify winners and losers," Prof Felmingham said.
"Hydro Tasmania has every likelihood of making a profit from the power it sells to Victoria, but will it be the residents who are ultimately the losers?"
If undertaken, the feasibility study should be finished in 2015.
If the project is viable, Hydro Tasmania would have to work through regulatory approvals.
If the TasWind project gets the green light, construction could begin as early as 2017 and the farm would take two years to build.