A salute to wind power on its 30th birthday

Wind energy in Australia turns 30 this year. Back in 1987, Australia’s first commercial wind farm – Salmon Beach Wind Farm near Esperance, Western Australia – began generating power. It was a baby by today’s standards, comprising six 60kW Australian-made wind turbines, each standing only 30m off the ground. Fast forward to 2017. Thirty years on and wind power across this continent has grown from those six wind turbines to more than 2000. The sector now contributes five per cent to Australia’s total power production and employs more than 1000 people.

Wind turbine towers are popping up all over the place. Right now, several wind farms are being constructed in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, with many more in the pipeline. One farm nearing completion is near Inverell, NSW. Wind turbines at the Sapphire Wind Farm stretch more than six times as high as those original wind towers at Salmon Beach, 200m into the sky, and boast 60 times the generating capacity.

Of course, these last three decades haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for wind energy in Australia. Despite all the benefits – power from a free fuel source, no emissions, the ability to coexist with and support nearby farming activity, regional investment and jobs – wind has faced some tough obstacles over the years with seemingly constant changes in government policy. In particular, the 18-month review and eventual reduction of the Renewable Energy Target in 2014 and 2015 cost wind development in Australia dearly, almost bringing investment to a standstill. Wind power has been scrutinised from every possible angle, enduring more than 10 separate inquiries.

There have also been rough times at the state-level. In Victoria in 2011, some of the world’s severest planning restrictions on wind farm development were imposed, declaring substantial “no go” zones and a 2km veto rule for neighbouring landowners. These rules have subsequently been wound back, with veto rights reduced to 1km in 2015. In NSW, potential projects existed under a cloud of uncertainty for five years as interim guidelines remained in draft form, eventually being finalised at the end of 2016. More recently, wind has been incorrectly blamed for causing for a statewide power outage in South Australia, ignoring of course the fact that supercell tornadoes crumpled 23 major transmission towers. Meanwhile, the wind industry has quietly powered on in the face of these obstacles. Wind power’s continuing success stems from continually falling costs – dropping about a third in the last five years, making it the cheapest new source of power generation in Australia. Wind is getting smarter too. New wind power technology, being trialled on the Hornsdale Wind Farm in South Australia, enables wind farms to provide “synthetic inertia”, a grid stability characteristic, smoothing the transition to higher levels of reliance on wind. Smart new developments are combining wind with battery storage and with solar to provide reliable, round-the-clock renewable energy.

Of course, wind’s continuing success also flows from its high levels of community support – with 70 per cent preferring wind power as a source of energy. Some communities like Hepburn in Victoria and Denmark and Mount Barker in Western Australia love wind so much they’ve have developed, built and invested in their own wind farms.

So let’s raise a glass to wind power in Australia – a true survivor if ever there was one. Here’s to an even stronger future!

Andrew Bray is national co-ordinator of the Australian Wind Alliance.