With near-constant sunshine and some of the world’s most reliable wind currents, Western Australia presents interesting opportunities for developing renewable energy. Yet renewable energy counts for only six per cent of total power generation in ‘WA.’ The story of the proposed Fremantle Community Wind Farm reveals and challenges the political failures underlying Western Australian energy policy.
Fremantle Community Wind Farm: a well-planned and relevant project
The project aims to build eight wind turbines at the Port of Fremantle site. The energy produced could power the entire port.
The project has been on the agenda for eight years, its feasibility and positive impact for the port, city, and community are supported by numerous studies. On the project’s website, all arguments commonly used against wind farming – health-related issues, use of dangerous metals in construction, impacts on bird life – are dismantled one by one. The proposed turbines would be built in between the Port’s loading cranes to avoid damaging the natural environment. In addition, the noise produced by the turbine is lower than the one of the cranes in action, and in that matter, disagreeable impacts are limited. More than $500,000 has been invested in feasibility and risk assessment studies.
The project is constituted as a social entreprise. This means that profits are complemented with social and environmental viability. More importantly, it means that the community itself invests in the project and becomes the major shareholder. Not only are community members rewarded financially once the Wind Farm makes a profit, but there is community management of its implementation and future.
As far as financial viability is concerned, the electricity produced by the Wind Farm is cheaper than that on the market. This would allow the wind farm to sell all electricity produced and therefore be profitable within a few years.
In that regard, the project is ready to be implemented. Yet, despite strong support from several important stakeholders, the State Government of Western Australia, which owns the land, refuses the deliver the building permit.
Understanding Western Australia’s Energy policy
The reason for such a refusal lies at core of Western Australian energy policy. The energy market was been liberalized in 2006 and the State of Western Australia owns 3 out 6 electricity providers on the market. The State is in charge of building and maintaining infrastructure as well as providing electricity for citizens and as a result, has both hands on the electricity market and is very unlikely to lose market share.
At the very heart of the State Government’s recalcitrance is its unfortunate glut of gas and coal-fired energy infrasctructure, built in anticipation of an increase in electricity demand that did not eventuate. As a result, the State of Western Australia would prefer to use their own plant instead of allowing other stakeholders to add electricity to the grid, especially if the electricity produced by the wind farm is cheaper than the one produced by the generators.
This energy policy leaves little room for small external providers even though the market is, in theory, an open one. This is very much the case with the Fremantle Community Wind Farm, which cannot quite compete against the State in terms of land rights, even though it is allowed to enter the market by law. Yet, rallying the community around the project could push State Parliament to change his mind and grant the necessary approvals to the project.
Lobbying at core of the implementation strategy
To realise its implementation, the backers of the Fremantle Community Wind Farm (mainly private citizens) have no choice but to keep lobbying fellow citizens and key stakeholders. So far the group has managed to sway many individual WA citizens, the Maritime Union Workers (one of the most powerful unions in WA), the Mayor of Fremantle, and several local companies and financial institutions. Yet the Government and the Port Authority are still reluctant, and gaining more support is necessary to achieve the project.
The wind of hope: State Government’s greatest fear
The reluctance of the relevant public institutions goes beyond the project itself. Although the Wind Farm is not enough by itself to challenge the energy policy of the region, its success as a social enterprise, providing cheaper and cleaner electricity than big providers would likely inspire other social entrepreneurs to invest in renewable energy projects. Even though the Fremantle community Wind Farm is just a pilot in Western Australia, the Government fears a snowball effect on its energy revenue and refuses delivering land permit for that very reason.
Considering the potential of and need for renewable energies in a region characterized by the extraction and use of polluting energy sources, Fremantle Community Wind Farm represents a wind of hope for a better energy policy. Let’s hope that it will be a success.