November 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Renewable energy’s power-lines problem

By Zacharias Szumer
Illustration byJeff Fisher
Protests against new transmission lines may prove the real challenge for renewables

To power Australia with renewable energy, we’re going to need a lot more transmission lines. Not only do new wind and solar farms have to be connected to the grid, but, as a greater proportion of electricity is generated by intermittent renewables, more connectivity is important for stabilising the system. If it’s not sunny or windy in one area, power can be supplied from where it is. And with coal plant retirement dates continuing to move ever forward, we need to build these lines quickly.

However, protest movements have been springing up along many of the proposed routes of new transmission lines. One of the largest and most vocal of these movements is fighting the Western Renewables Link (WRL), a project managed by transmission company AusNet Services, which will run from western Victoria into Melbourne. At 190 kilometres, it’s a relatively small line – especially set against the 10,000 kilometres of new transmission lines that Australia reportedly needs to build to decarbonise the grid by 2050.

In the region where the WRL’s proposed route begins, just north of Ararat, opposition is fairly muted, but it begins to swell where the lines would reach a potato-growing region north of Ballarat. Around here, many farm fences and shopfronts are adorned with signs reading “Fight powerline blight”, “Access denied” and “Stop Ausnet’s Towers”. One farmer has ploughed “PISS OFF AUSNET” in giant letters into a hillside.

In mid July, around 100 tractors, prime movers and Country Fire Authority trucks convoyed through the streets of Ballarat before blocking a main street for speeches. Apart from the protest organisers, a variety of speakers – including representatives from farming industry associations and local councils, as well as two state Liberal MPs – took to the podium to express their solidarity with the cause.

Whereas the tone of anti-windfarm sentiment over the past few decades has often been tinged with climate-change scepticism, the WRL’s opponents are keen to emphasise their support for decarbonisation and renewable energy. Speaking at the Ballarat rally, actor Stephen Curry – perhaps best known as Dale Kerrigan in The Castle – whose family owns a property near the proposed route, said, “Make no mistake … we believe in renewables. Without renewables our grandkids don’t have a world to live in.”

However, as with local opposition to renewables, transmission-line protest movements are a significant roadblock to grid decarbonisation, at least as it’s currently planned. They may even be the bigger obstacle: while developers of a wind or solar farm may only have to negotiate with a small number of local landholders, a transmission line can snake through hundreds of individual properties.

The Victorian protesters and AusNet are at odds over a range of issues.

Opposition groups say that the overhead lines will devastate farming, mainly through limiting the use of irrigation machines. AusNet says that these fears are largely unfounded. Opponents say that the high-voltage lines could spark bushfires, often citing the role of powerlines belonging to AusNet in starting some of the 2009 Black Saturday fires. AusNet says those fires were started by smaller distribution lines, and that transmission lines have never been the cause of bushfires in Victoria.

Opposition groups also say that the transmission lines will hamper firefighting. In late 2020, several CFA chiefs told Premier Daniel Andrews that, if the WRL were built, they wouldn’t fight fires near it. However, other CFA representatives have publicly said that the organisation had “processes for safely working around high-voltage transmission lines”.

Protesters argue that placing the entire transmission line underground, and along an alternative route, would minimise environmental disruption and fire risk. The suggestion is neatly encapsulated in a large yellow handpainted sign on the side of the highway near Ballarat: “HEY DAN. STICK THE LINES WHERE THE SUN DON’T SHINE.”

Both AusNet and the Australian Energy Market Operator have said that the underground option would likely be unfeasible. Running transmission lines underground can be significantly more expensive than overhead, although by exactly how much is a sticking point. An AusNet report from late 2021 said it could cost as much as 16 times more than the original $300 million estimate for overhead lines. A council-commissioned report found that undergrounding would only be five or six times more expensive. Both sides have criticised the validity of the other’s findings.

It can be a confusingly complex issue at the best of times, but some think the debate has become murkier than it needs to be.

“There’s been lots of confusing information spreading around because of the lack of leadership and proactive communication and engagement,” says Tony Goodfellow, a Ballarat resident and the Victoria coordinator for renewable energy transition advocacy group RE-Alliance. “This also occurred with wind energy in the past. For example, there was a lot of misinformation around wind and health in the early days that confused local communities and was one of the biggest threats to social licence.”

RE-Alliance also says that consultation with local communities about transmission lines has often been lacking. When a refinement to the proposed WRL corridor was announced mid last year, some local landowners said the media was informed about the route before they were.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen recently extended an olive branch, saying, “Communities think … that when they’re consulted, it’s basically a fait accompli: the decision’s already been taken as to where the lines will go. And you know what? They’re often right.”

Many, including Bowen, have criticised the regulatory process for approving new transmission lines. To prevent regulated-monopoly transmission companies from gouging the public – who ultimately pay for this infrastructure through electricity bills – transmission lines can only be built if they meet strict cost-benefit criteria. Critics say that this planning process places insufficient weight on social and environmental aspects of planned lines.

In August, Bowen and state energy ministers announced that they would seek the power to overhaul the current rules and be more “hands-on” in community consultation. The Victorian government has also started planning a new Victorian Transmission Investment Framework, which will seek to “better integrate land use considerations, environmental impacts and community views into the planning process”.

Some have suggested improving the compensation for landholders hosting transmission lines and introducing community grants, which are now common for wind and solar farms. However, opposition groups have been adamant that no amount of money will be sufficient to quell their resistance.

“Money’s irrelevant – no amount of money can compensate for what they’re going to do to people’s properties,” says local farmer Will Elsworth, who is the administrator of a Facebook group with several thousand members called “Piss Off AusNet – Spud & Spa Region” (the area includes the thermal hot springs near Daylesford/Hepburn). According to Elsworth, nearly all landholders from Glendaruel to Myrniong – roughly a third of the WRL’s planned route – are denying AusNet employees access to their properties. There have already been scuffles.

At present, AusNet is only attempting to survey the land for the state government’s environmental approval process. A group of farmers I talked to at the July protest said that if AusNet pushed ahead with construction they would sabotage the project. “We’ll fight this to the very last bolt that goes into a tower. As fast as they go in, we’ll be taking them out,” said one. “A big nine-inch battery DeWalt angle grinder’s lookin’ good to me,” another chimed in, to smatters of laughter.

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a Melbourne-based writer whose work appears in OverlandJacobin and elsewhere.

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