Powerlines and potatoes: the renewable energy transmission project causing angst in central Victoria
By Tim McGlone, The Guardian
In the central highlands north-west of Melbourne, farmers are fighting plans to install 85-metre towers through their properties
For the past year, “PISS OFF AUSNET” has been expertly mown into the rolling green hills at Blampied in Victoria’s central highlands. The quaint, 157-year-old Swiss Mountain Hotel has panoramic views of the scene, which is surrounded by farmland.
Despite the serenity of the setting, the message reveals a community of farmers and tourism stakeholders allied in a dogfight against the company behind the Western Victorian Transmission Network Project (WVTNP).
AusNet, a private company controlled by Canadian alternative energy giant Brookfield Asset Management, plans to install 220-kilovolt and 500-kilovolt towers to carry renewable energy from the state’s west to the city. The towers will be up to 85 metres tall – as big as the MCG light towers – but it’s not just the view they’ll be obstructing.
Landholders say they will affect their livelihoods. They want the network built underground. Ugly stoushes between AusNet employees and landholders refusing them access to their properties have marked an increasingly bitter situation in recent months.
‘It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up’
On the surface, developing renewable energy at a time of increasing climate disaster seems pretty straightforward.
A 190km transmission line will carry wind and solar-powered energy from a power station in Bulgana in western Victoria to Sydenham in Melbourne’s north-west. The project is expected to power more than 500,000 homes with clean energy, provide emissions savings of 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, and provide about 300 jobs.
What’s not to like?
“We’re not against renewable energy,” says Kain Richardson, a potato farmer from the region. “We just want it done the right way, and this is not the right way.”
The area around Blampied is considered among the best soil for potato growing in Australia. Once built, farmers anticipate they will be subject to restrictions on the kind of machinery that can be used beneath the powerlines, and believe they will be unable to irrigate entire paddocks of crops.
AusNet has disputed this.
“Last year, engineers fast-tracked a study into land and machinery use along the line to provide certainty to landholders, who were understandably worried about continuing their operations,” an AusNet spokesperson said.
“We have confirmed that farming can continue under the proposed transmission line, including irrigated horticulture.”
A lack of trust between the two sides means this assurance has gone largely ignored.
For Shaun Cleary, the issue is closer to home than for most. A sixth-generation local farmer, he and his wife, Danika, recently built a house at Smeaton, about 10km from Blampied, on a property that has never left the family. A long driveway flanked by cattle and sheep paddocks – and the hayshed the couple got married in – leads up to the house.
Prior to construction, the couple spoke to members of the community who were confident the powerlines wouldn’t run through their property. Consequently, the Clearys went ahead with their build.
At some point between pouring the cement and the finished, red-brick farmhouse, it became apparent that the powerlines would run right through the property, as close as 40 metres from the house. The hayshed may need to go.
Now, just weeks after receiving their keys, the Clearys are unsure if their house is livable.
“It’s a bit hard to be excited, to be honest, with all this hanging over us,” Cleary says.
“It’s the last thing I think about before I go to bed, and it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up.
“The whole community’s up in arms about it. I mean, spuds are spuds, fair enough, it’s a livelihood. But it’s more than that. What about living with them?
“Our boys are going to be playing every day beneath powerlines, walking to the bus every day underneath them.
“We’ve got this brand new house, and we don’t know if we can even live in it.”
Executive director of WVTNP Stephanie McGregor says the final route has not been confirmed yet, and that the company has taken community feedback onboard and provided land liaison officers.
“We’re aware of Mr Cleary’s concerns and are still working closely with him to better understand his situation and the potential impacts the transmission line may have on his property,” she says.
“Planning, design, assessment and decisions about approvals for this project will continue until approximately mid 2023, and there’s still a lot more work to do before we submit the final proposal into the Victorian Government as part of the independent Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process.”
The push for an underground network
The farming community’s solution is to build the network underground along the Western Highway, reducing the impact to landholders and primary producers.
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which awarded the tender to AusNet, is a public company under 60% federal and state government ownership, with the other 40% in industry hands. Its regulatory plan requires it to deliver a least-cost project.
But a November 2021 report from AusNet indicated an underground route would cost 16 times the original $300m estimate to put it above ground.
Moorabool Shire, the local council, disputes this report.
“AusNet’s summary report into underground construction options was publicly released late last year without technical review, nor input from the technical reference group (TRG) for the project, of which council is a member,” the chief executive of Moorabool Shire council, Derek Madden, says.
“We recently commissioned a technical review of the summary report by HVDC [high-voltage, direct current] experts, which has raised significant concerns about its accuracy,” Madden says.
“It has been concluded that the summary report ruled out the HVDC underground option based [on] what is considered flawed assumptions about the technology available.
“It is essential that these assumptions be reviewed, and the conclusions revised as soon as possible.”
The farmers point out that this is a 100-year project, and that anything that affects primary production is more expensive longer-term.
According to McGregor, WVTNP is considering undergrounding in accordance with the EES scoping requirements, with a preliminary report released in 2021.
She says that whilst the council’s analysis did acknowledge the increased cost of undergrounding, “it did not account for a number of critical factors”.
McGregor said these include terrain such as steep hills and ridges, technical and space constraints associated with the Western Freeway, Aboriginal cultural heritage, and biodiversity values.
“The cost of undergrounding a critical project of this size must also be taken into account, as ultimately it is all Victorians who will pay for this project through their power bills.”
According to McGregor, there is “a race” to secure sustainable energy for Victoria.
“Over the past 12 months, coal-fired electricity generators in the Latrobe valley, that Victoria relies on, have announced they will shut down earlier than originally planned, so renewable transmission projects are needed now, to keep the lights on and electricity prices down,” she says.
A spokesperson from the Victorian premier’s office said the project is still in planning, referencing the EES process, and saying “local residents, farmers and interested members of the public will have an opportunity to have their say on the project”, once that is lodged.
But AusNet says the project’s EES wouldn’t be lodged until the end of the year, six months later than the original timeframe of mid-2022.
Compensation has been offered to some property owners to the tune of $200,000 for every tower that would be installed into their property. For potato grower Rod Guthrie, who is projected to have 10 of his properties affected, that would mean a payout of $2m. He says he never even considered the offer.
“It’ll be like we have to start again,” he says. “We’ll have to shift the fences, re-do the irrigation mains, it’s just gonna totally destroy us.
“We didn’t want any part of it.”