The Jupiter Wind Farm proposal east of Tarago was withdrawn by the proponents in March. The resident opposition, which fired off several hundred submissions to the NSW government – leading to a negative planning recommendation – expressed satisfaction. For the rest of us the question arose: how did it come to this for a wind farm project in an area that has accepted windfarms and renewables as a good thing.
The bottom line for the surrounding residents, who were not simply anti-wind farm, may be summarised as: good idea, wrong place. We’ve been told the clustered turbines of this proposal promised to be more visually intrusive; in relatively closer proximity to residences; in an increasingly rural residential, small farming area — compared with the existing Palerang windfarms that seem far away on tops of hillsides on broadacre farms.
But there were also problems along the way with the consultative process or lack thereof, the company’s inability to bond with the regional community and market its vision, and the background involvement of undisguised anti-windfarm groups peddling fake facts. Graham Franklin-Browne drills down for a closer look at how Jupiter came unstuck.
LAST MONTH EPYC Pty Ltd finally withdrew its development application for the proposed Jupiter Windfarm, six kilometres from Tarago. The decision hinged on their assumption that the final version of the project would not be approved by the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
“In reviewing the assessment report from the DPE we believe that it did not take into full consideration the extent of all the improvements made to the proposed project,” said EPYC business development manager Shahroo Mohajerani, “As such EPYC Pty Ltd believes that the IPC’s finding would not be contrary to the recommendation made by DPE [NSW department of planning recommendation to deny the project].”
So what went wrong?
Was it simply a case of an environmentally well-intentioned project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and what were the main objections?
Well, there were many reasons, but high on the list was the conduct of the community engagement and consultation process.
The community battle against the project was long and complex in terms of the number and scope of submissions (over 400), and there are a number of learnings for the renewables industry around consultation processes for these large and important infrastructure projects.
Looking through the well-documented meeting minutes of the Community Consultation Committee (CCC) it seems from the start that there was a suspicion on the part of the community that the NSW paint-by-numbers consultation process generally favoured the developer in regard to large infrastructure projects.
This is a familiar scenario, and has been played out before in our region — most recently in Queanbeyan during the campaign to stop the Ellerton Drive Extension project. In this example, the consultation process involving the council, local developers, the NSW RMS and a conga-line of traffic experts could at best be described as a tick-box affair.
For the Jupiter project there was also a question of timing.
EPYC began its preliminary investigations and consultation process back in 2012 when it could be argued that the approval pathway for large windfarms was still in its infancy, and decision makers possibly more inclined to facilitate the process rather than obstruct it. As the process ground on, the political climate has hardened, requiring more transparency in regard to large windfarm projects.
However EPYC executives have suggested privately that no amount of consultation would have been sufficient for the local anti-windfarm campaign, maintaining that there was a hostile group within the community who would always be ideologically opposed to all windfarms. [The Bulletin was told that die-hard anti-wind farm websites and groups were actively providing ammunition for some resident arguments.]
I am sure this is true, but even without carping and opposition from the anti-renewables tinfoil army, the company’s approach to consultation, although arguably within NSW government guidelines, was still flawed.
For example, the company hired by EPYC to carry out a vital part of the process, the “Landscape Character and Visual Impact Assessment”, stated in its report that it did not undertake any form of public engagement.
Instead, the report stated: “Judgement regarding the significance of the effects is arrived at by a process of reasoning; based upon the analysis of the baseline conditions, identification of visual receptors (viewers of the scene) and assessment of their sensitivity, as well as the magnitude and nature of the changes that may result from any development … the current and potential future viewers (visual receptors) have not been consulted by the authors of this report”.
In other words, the consulting company did not ask the residents what they valued most about where they lived, or what they thought was at stake. Referring to local residents as “visual receptors” would not have won them many friends either. There was a very strong sense in the community that EPYC didn’t care about people.
Although EPYC may have dutifully followed NSW requirements regarding how far out from the wind towers they should conduct their process and who they should consult, it was obviously not enough for local residents, and many rural residential landholders claimed they had never received material associated with the consultation process.
NSW Department of Planning not trusted
As early as August 2015, the Jupiter community consultative committee meeting recorded that residents also had concerns about the NSW Department of Planning and Environment’s track record for challenging reports created by, or on behalf of windfarm proponents.
EPYC were also asked at this meeting to identify the geographic location of noise monitoring sites, so that concerned residents could arrange for their own independent testing and validate claims that there were no sound issues associated with the Jupiter project.
To its credit EPYC refused, citing privacy reasons, implying that some of the more hostile residents against the windfarm could visit their neighbours and “convince” them not to participate in the initial noise and siting studies.
There were also accusations that EPYC had an incomplete understanding of the characteristics of “rural residential” or “lifestyle blocks”.
It is a reasonable assumption that a high proportion of those attracted to rural residential living outside Canberra are well-educated, articulate, many with professional backgrounds, unafraid to fight for their lifestyles.
Significantly, although EPYC began its preliminary engagement with the community back in 2012, in September 2015 they were unable to provide a communications strategy to the community consultation committee — that is a long time to go without a plan, particularly if you know you are going to be dealing with an articulate and motivated opposition.
Australian Wind Alliance had criticisms
The Australian Wind Alliance itself was not happy with the level of public consultation for the Jupiter Windfarm project, and had lodged a number of submissions of its own.
“There are plenty of examples Australia-wide of wind power projects having long-lasting and beneficial impacts for local communities — both financially and socially,” said AWA National Coordinator, Andrew Bray, “however, it is critical that these projects have effective and transparent community engagement from the start to ensure the project delivers good outcomes for everyone.
“In this instance, that crucial engagement did not happen and threatened to negatively affect community views not just on this project, but on wind power generally,” he said, “We were concerned about this so we felt it was important to speak out in support of proper community engagement and object to the project”.
So it seems large renewables infrastructure projects have an additional responsibility to be more than just compliant in terms of process. Clean energy needs to be seen as “squeaky clean” – squeakier than the shady and manipulative processes exploited by the fossil fuel industry. Ticking boxes is not good enough if you want to engage a politically cynical community in clean energy.
A number of those opposed to the Jupiter windfarm are actually supporters of renewable energy, including windfarms, and still are.
They just felt strongly that this particular development would corrode the landscape values which had attracted them to this area. In other words they had a very strong conviction that this project was in the wrong place.
Ed note: A proposed solar farm just outside the village of Sutton is running into similar community opposition based on ‘wrong place’ arguments. In this case that the solar farm is being proposed for prime agricultural land.
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