Environment | Michael Green

Articles

Renewed interest in renewables

WOODEND residents are staging a renewable energy revival, spurred by the incoming state government.

The local sustainability group is launching two green energy projects: a new solar energy scheme and the resurrection of a longstanding plan for three community-owned wind turbines.

Today, at the Sustainable Living Festival in Woodend, Energy and Resources Minister Lily D’Ambrosio will announce a $100,000 grant for a 30-kilowatt solar farm.

The panels will be installed at the old timber mill, where the tenants’ ongoing electricity bills will be reinvested in further solar panels. It will create a “perpetual fund” for community renewable energy, says Ralf Thesing, president of the Macedon Ranges Sustainability Group.

Last week, D’Ambrosio announced a $200,000 grant for the central Victorian town of Newstead to become fully powered by renewable energy.

She says the new government will “support and stand alongside” communities such as Newstead and Woodend, who are planning “to better control how their energy is made and where it comes from”.

“Everywhere I go, whether it’s metro Melbourne or regional and rural Victoria, people love renewable energy,” D’Ambrosio says. “That’s why we’re seeing many communities coming up with plans to make renewable energy part of their everyday life. They’re bottom-up approaches and they’re a terrific boon for local jobs.”

The Andrews government is preparing a “renewable energy action plan” and finalising the guidelines for its $20 million “new energy jobs fund”. It will also release a discussion paper on community-owned wind power.

For the clean energy advocates in Macedon Ranges shire, the election result was transformative. “It changes our situation completely – from being banned, we’re now unbanned,” says Barry Mann, who is helping coordinate the wind power project.

In 2010, under the previous state Labor government, the group was awarded a $50,000 grant for a wind monitoring mast. But the funding wasn’t finalised until after the Liberal party won the election. Within three weeks of handing over the cash, the new government had imposed a wind power “no-go” zone over the entire region.

“It was pretty clear to me that the policy wasn’t based on any evidence or community consultation. It was a purely ideological thing,” Mann says. “Now it’s a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’. We’re back to where we were four years ago.”

Within weeks, the monitoring mast will finally be installed at their preferred site, in a pine plantation about 5 kilometres from Woodend. The proposed turbines would produce enough electricity to offset the annual consumption of Woodend, Macedon and Mount Macedon combined.

“Just because our project was banned didn’t mean we would disappear, because we know it’s got too many benefits for locals,” Mann says. “I think most Australians get the fact that climate change and cheaper renewable energy aren’t going away.”

The Andrews government has promised to scale back tough planning restrictions on wind farms. Under the changes, only residents living within 1 kilometre will retain the right to veto projects – down from 2 kilometres. The planning minister, rather than local councils, will be responsible for deciding applications.

The controversial wind turbine “no-go zones” – which include the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road – will stay, but community-owned turbines in the Macedon region will be exempt.

Planning minister Richard Wynne says he expects to receive final advice on the planning amendments within a fortnight.

“We want to encourage more of these community wind farms, because this is about communities taking ownership of climate change in a very practical way,” he says.

The outlook is not so promising for large-scale wind farms. Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council, says that while the industry is pleased the planning rules will be relaxed, investment in big projects has stalled, pending a decision on the federal Renewable Energy Target.

The Abbott government has yet to announce its stance on the RET, after its review panel recommended the target be reduced. Subsequently, a further review by the Climate Change Authority recommended the target be maintained.

“The RET is the main driver to investment and, at the moment, the biggest barrier,” Thornton says. “Until the federal situation is resolved we’re not going to see a big rush in large-scale projects in Victoria.”

Leigh Ewbank, from Friends of the Earth’s “Yes to Renewables” campaign, says that if the federal government continues to hold back investment, state policies should fill the gap. The ACT government has legislated a 90 per cent renewable energy target for 2020.

“The ACT policy is driving construction of renewable energy projects,” Ewbank says. “Victorian policy makers can take similar action.”

The Victorian Liberal party appears to have had a change of heart under the leadership of Matthew Guy. For the first time, the state has a “shadow minister for renewables”, David Southwick. He says Victoria has the opportunity to be a leader in renewable energy. “We want an industry that can deliver more clean energy and clean energy jobs.”

Southwick says his party is seeking a “positive outcome on the Renewable Energy Target that supports local jobs in Victoria”.

Read an edited version of this article at The Age online

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