The real facts about wind energy

19 December 2011

Burning of coal and gas will provide a large share of Australia’s electricity generation for a long time to come. But we should be taking greater action to bring renewable energy generation into the mix to reduce the impact of that fossil fuel generation. The Commonwealth Government’s Draft Energy White Paper has highlighted again a future of substantial renewable energy deployment, particularly for wind energy.

The notion that the variability of renewable energy generation presents a barrier to substantial deployment in Australia’s large existing diverse portfolio of power stations has been soundly debunked. Wind turbines typically operate more than 80 per cent of the time and their output can be forecast with 97 per cent accuracy one hour ahead of time. Variability in output is also very small relative to the hourly variability in demand that the existing electricity generating system manages successfully.

New thermal generation capacity is not required to support each new megawatt of renewable capacity. This has been clearly demonstrated in South Australia where wind energy now comprises more than 20 per cent of installed generation capacity. No extra peaking capacity was commissioned for the purpose of supporting this deployment over the past decade. The lights have not gone out, and wholesale electricity price spikes have reduced relative to other states.

The real cost of the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target is now also better understood. IPART noted in its recent report that the LRET will cost households on average around $19 per annum, or only 1 per cent of an annual electricity bill.

As a country we produce six times more carbon emissions than the global per capita average. Meeting the LRET is key in delivering the reductions necessary to achieve the current bipartisan target for a 5 per cent improvement in carbon emissions. Stability in the LRET legislation is vital to meeting this objective. Wind energy will deliver most of the renewable energy target precisely because it is the most cost competitive renewable technology.

The state with by far the most installed wind energy capacity in Australia, South Australia, recently made significant changes to make wind farm planning decisions more straightforward. South Australia rejected Victoria’s arbitrary planning approach requiring a 2km buffer zone between wind turbines and neighbouring residences – a 2km buffer zone that does not apply to less regulated polluting industries. Opportunities for renewable energy investment in regional NSW will be improved if it also adopts planning rules that are more aligned with South Australia’s measured approach.

Some in the community will be opposed to wind farms for a range of reasons. We must respect those views even if we disagree. Our industry is, however, particularly concerned about the methods of some opponents with hidden agendas. They seek to instil fear into communities through spreading misinformation and baseless allegations about the alleged health effects of wind farms.

This industry has been in operation for decades. There are more than 100,000 wind turbines installed globally in countries far more densely populated than Australia. With this degree of successful global adoption there is ample evidence to substantiate the industry’s position. Wind energy generation technology is safe and there are no adverse health effects.

At our recently completed Woodlawn Wind Farm near Bungendore in NSW, we created more than 150 direct jobs during the construction phase. We continue to spend more than $4 million annually in that local community. This investment drives further economic activity in rural areas across a range of service industries. Wind energy provides host land owners with an opportunity to diversify their income streams and the potential to “drought proof” their farms.

The wind energy industry also provides employment opportunities for apprentices, engineers, planners, developers, operators, contractors and many other roles. This diversifies the employment opportunities available to rural communities. As the industry grows so too will new opportunities, including the potential to develop local service industries and to manufacture and repair component parts.

Rural Australia has the potential to significantly benefit from wind energy investment. What’s needed is a clear and stable set of rules from government and regulators, and people prepared to work together to contribute to investment certainty.

Renewable energy technologies will be delivering a much bigger share of our energy in 50 years’ time for our children and grandchildren. The people who are involved now are learning things that are going to help them to build this industry over time. I think that in 20 years people will look back and say: why didn’t we move more quickly to reduce the pollution effects of burning fossil fuels?

Miles George is the managing director of Infigen Energy, having previously been the chief executive officer since 2007.

By Miles George
Appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 19 December 2011