The selection of a potential site for a proposed wind farm may take into account a range of factors including the available wind resource, proximity to existing transmission infrastructure, potential for securing landowner arrangements and other approved development in the area.
Current transmission infrastructure was originally designed and built many years ago based on existing energy resources (such as coal) and did not envisage the significant shift to renewable resources such as wind and solar, which are often optimally (in all other respects) located in other areas, typically well away from existing grid infrastructure.
Prospecting developers are not generally restricted in initiating a new project on a particular site and will often commence by holding discussions with adjoining landowners to seek their agreement to host turbines. As such, prospective and developed wind farms can be located in a wide variety of site scenarios, from sparsely populated areas to locations inhabited by lifestyle property owners on small acreages.
The Commissioner’s experience to date indicates that there is a much higher likelihood of community issues and concerns to contend with when a proposed or operating wind farm is located near or amongst more populated areas. Often, the more populated areas correlate with the proximity and availability of transmission infrastructure, however, they can also result in a very large number of neighbours who will reside in close proximity to multiple turbines.
Further, there may be multiple proposed (and/or existing) wind farms in a given area, with the potential for residents to be ‘surrounded’ by wind turbines if such projects proceed. These scenarios could lead to a range of compounding issues for residents including noise, visual amenity and potential economic loss. A further complication may occur if project construction timeframes overlap, placing enormous pressure on local resources and infrastructure, in addition to the usual annoyances such as construction noise and dust.
The Commissioner has found that locating turbines on the top of hills or ridges, while optimum for capturing the wind resource, can have greater impacts on visual amenity, may lead to specific noise and shadow flicker scenarios for residents in the valley beneath and may have other impacts on the community. Access roads for hill ridge wind farms can also be obtrusive and significantly damage and constrain the available farming land in the area.
Conversely, there appear to be minimal issues raised to date about wind farms that are located on large land holdings, or on flat or slight to moderate undulating land and sites that are well away from neighbours (noting comments made earlier regarding landowner and neighbour agreements in subsections 1 and 2).
Optimising site locations
There may be opportunities to select and prioritise wind farm projects, from the current pipeline of wind energy generation projects, which better balance the likelihood of acceptance of the project by the surrounding community. Meeting the 2020 goals of the Australian Renewable Energy Target scheme would require approximately only one in three of prospective wind farm projects (on a capacity basis), based on data provided from the CEC and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, to go ahead. There is therefore an ability to select wind farm projects that meet other key parameters, including economic and regional development goals, while also optimal from a community impact site-selection criteria.
There can be great variances in the final design and turbine layout from the wind farm’s original design and approved permit conditions. As these changes occur, there are not necessarily sufficient processes in place to re-assess other nearby wind farm projects for potential compounding impacts on residents and whether or not projects with such compounding impacts should proceed. There can also be cumulative effects during construction of more than one wind farm in a locality, placing enormous pressures on roads, resources (such as gravel), accommodation and skilled tradespersons.
Given that existing wind farms have most likely already selected optimal sites for their location, management and selection of appropriate new sites from remaining site options may become more difficult. A more ‘top-down’ approach to selecting optimally located wind farm projects, together with appropriate augmentation of the grid, that should proceed may assist greatly in this challenge going forward.
8.2.1. State and local governments should consider assessing proposed wind energy projects on a wider range of criteria (including the suitability of a location from a community impact perspective and the degree of community support) and then prioritising projects for approval or progression accordingly. ‘Reverse auction’ feed-in tariff schemes such as the schemes recently deployed by the ACT and Victorian governments, could be an example of how to prioritise and incentivise projects to be developed in preferred locations – as well as promote best practice community engagement. New visual amenity guidelines introduced in New South Wales could also restrict development in more populated areas, including reduction of the possibility of multiple wind farms in a given location.
8.2.2. State and local governments may also consider other criteria in assessing and prioritising wind energy projects, including economic development and the ability to both support regional and industry development through improved local electricity supply and infrastructure in regional communities. Appropriate zoning overlays for clarifying where it would be appropriate or not appropriate to build and operate wind farm developments should also be considered.
8.2.3. Prospecting for new wind farm development sites could be subject to an ‘approval to prospect’ requirement issued by the responsible authority before prospecting commences. The approval to prospect a specified potential site would be granted on a range of criteria, including the suitability of the proposed site as well as the credentials of the developer and key personnel. See also Recommendation 1.2.9.
8.2.4. As part of the assessment suggested in Recommendation 8.2.1, the responsible authority should have processes in place to obtain and verify clear evidence of the developer’s consultations with affected landowners and residents and be able to assess the likelihood of strong community support for the project.
8.2.5. Once an approved wind farm has commenced construction, the responsible authority should re-review other proposed wind farm projects in the area for any compounding effects on residents, including noise, shadow flicker and visual amenity. The responsible authority should also have the ability to require a modification to the planning permit and turbine layout of those projects that have not already materially commenced construction. Background noise levels should exclude any noise contribution from a neighbouring operating wind farm for the purposes of applying the noise standard.
8.2.6. State governments should publish and maintain a map of all operating and proposed wind farms, including the location of the wind farm, location of turbines, the status of the project (proposed, permitted, in construction or operating) as well as information about the wind farm’s design, including number and size/rating of turbines and information about the proponent.
8.2.7. State governments, in conjunction with the appropriate Australian Government departments/agencies and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), should review current and planned transmission infrastructure to ensure it allows new large scale renewable generation facilities to be connected in the most optimal locations for renewable resources. AEMO’s Integrated System Plan has identified a number of high potential renewable energy zones to facilitate transmission planning.