Mining the wind drought-proofs some Broken Hill farmers

Droughts come regularly to outback Broken Hill, killing sheep, burning profits and carving farmland into craters. But the wind is constant, said local farmer Greg Lawrence, sitting on a rocky and gusty hill that only a feral goat could love.

"It's not blowing a gale, but there is always wind," said Mr Lawrence. He is one of four property owners whose properties will host the 58 turbines that comprise the 200-megawatt Silverton Wind Farm - the largest in NSW - to be finished next year.

Mr Lawrence, a sheep and goat farmer, said he could never have imagined the turbines he admired in England on his honeymoon 11 years ago would provide a steady source of income to drought-proof his family's leasehold, Nine Mile Station.

No one will say how much the four property owners will receive: Unlike most wind farms, the Silverton farmers lease land from the Crown, and will share income from the Silverton project with Western Lands.

Mr Lawrence, and John Blore, of Silverton Goats whose property Belmont Station will have most of the turbines, say that unlike the ups and downs in markets and rainfall, the income from wind will be constant from year to year.

"It is going to be a pretty good insurance policy for us," said Mr Lawrence, who estimated that a drought has hit his family's property once every three years in the four decades they've been farming there. "One day we are going to get a real bad drought again, where every dam on the place is empty, and you've got your sheep dying around you, and you have to de-stock: it would be a good feeling knowing you've got that income coming in. It's going to be enough to keep the place going without over-spending," he said.

A steady supply of sunshine made Broken Hill a good location for another renewable energy plant, AGL's 50 mW solar plant which opened last year. And the mining area also has "an amazing wind resource", said Adam Mackett???, the project manager of the $450 million wind farm located on a 15 kilometre by 15 kilometre strip of remote land near the Barrier Ranges near Silverton. "It's a nice parabola," he said, with the wind picking up and providing energy as people are getting ready for work or leaving at the end of the day.

When finished, Silverton wind will provide approximately 780,000 mW hours of renewable energy annually, enough to supply approximately 137,000 average Australian homes. Some will power the traditional mines of Broken Hill.

Arriving in Australia this week, the 58 new GE 3.43-130s turbines will have the largest blades in NSW, measuring 65 metres.

Improvements in technology combined with the area's high quality wind will mean average capacity will be around 44.5 per cent. That's about double the efficiency of most wind farms in Europe and greater than most Australian wind farms.

Andrew Bray, national coordinator of the Australian Wind Alliance, said there were now thousands of landowners across Australia who were earning between them about $20 million a year from wind turbines.

Until recently, most of the income and benefits, including improved infrastructure like roads, had accrued to a small group of landholders, mostly in the NSW Hunter Valley and in Victoria's Latrobe Valley.

But the opening of plants in places like Silverton, about 25 minutes' drive from Broken Hill, spreads the gain to places with less productive country, and often without other economic opportunities. "The marginal country on top of a hill, rocky and covered with rabbits, is often the place with turbines," Mr Bray said.

The history of the project, though, has been long and as rocky as the terrain, particularly as the Crown initially tried to compulsorily acquire the land where the wind farm will be located.

AGL had also originally planned for nearly 600 turbines, but the project was scaled back, although the development approval allows for 167 turbines.

"It wasn't a very happy affair," said Mr Blore.

Mr Blore, who harvests as many as 6000 feral goats a year, is now happy with the wind farm, and like others, is pleased that the new roadworks will improve access.

Some Silverton locals complained about the sound and look of the turbines, but Mr Blore is philosophical.

"I think it is creating power and not creating a dirty ugly coal mine. Broken Hill is iconic for having a huge massive skip dump on top of it, a huge mountain of overload: They love it and built a museum and a restaurant on top of it. Some find turbines ugly, and others find [them] graceful," he said.

The turbines don't appear to disturb the goats and the sheep.

Mr Lawrence visited the Hallett Wind Farm in South Australia to see how the wind farm worked before deciding to participate.

"And I stood right under one, and there was stock all around, and there were sheep. And I can't understand what people are banging on about the noise. People say it affects their sleep, but a lot of people have an overhead fan in their room kicking away. When I go down and see the work they have done, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up," he said.

In January, AGL announced that construction would proceed following the sale of the project to the Powering Australian Renewable Fund, an investment vehicle it set up that is targeting approximately 1000 mW of large-scale renewable generation, with a total investment of $2 to $3 billion.

This story Mining the wind drought-proofs some Broken Hill farmers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.