News | 1st Jan, 2004

It’s time to take a deep breath in the wind power debate

January 2004

With the release of the Victorian Wind Atlas, the debate has been brought into focus following months of controversy. In particular, the atlas’ launch has come in a week when energy and global warming issues have hit the headlines, on the back of the Howard Government’s intransigence on greenhouse policy and startling new international research.

By taking a deep breath we can examine the bigger energy picture from a state and national perspective.

The big picture: Australia is the worst greenhouse polluter, per person, in the developed world. Victoria is the country’s worst greenhouse performing state, per person, because of our reliance on brown coal, the grottiest fossil fuel.

This situation is not sustainable. But what are our governments doing about it?

The Victorian Government has set a target for wind power of 1000 megawatts by 2006 – the equivalent of between 450 and 600 turbines. In doing so it is aiming to achieve the country’s most ambitious targets for renewable energy. Likewise by committing to a target of 10 per cent renewable energy by 2010 in the last election, the Government created a benchmark above any other state.

Through these policies the Bracks Government is rightly working to combat the dangers of global warming.

In contrast vocal critics of wind power, including the State Opposition, have been demonstrating blatant self-interest and political point scoring, and in so doing are undermining vital greenhouse policies.

Some criticism against the Government has been correct. It has handled the emerging wind industry in a clunky fashion: consultation has not always been thorough, and the state could have benefited from the earlier release of the atlas.

But we should avoid muddying the issue and tarring wind power with these shortcomings. Just because the process has not been smooth, wind power should not be sullied.

In contrast to the State Government’s action, there is an almighty vacuum of leadership on energy issues from the Howard Government.

This week the Federal Government abandoned a major international measure aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

On Friday, a Federal Government committee released a recommendation on the future of Australia’s renewable energy targets, which will form the basis of the Federal policy on renewable energy. Unless the Howard Government significantly increases the federal target, the renewable energy industry will die a slow death.

The poignancy of this greenhouse and renewable energy debate is that it’s taking place at a time when scientific studies are flooding the news with global warming warnings.

A study published in Nature this month revealed climate change may threaten more than a million species with extinction – or a quarter of the world’s land animals and plants.

This was followed by a CSIRO study warning that the number of summer days over 35 degrees in Australia could double by 2030 because of global warming, with higher temperatures leading to greater fire risks. For Victoria global warming translates to more bushfires, less water, further drought and a diminishing snow line.

In December United Nations scientists agreed there was no doubt global warming was real and was being caused by people. Even Prime Minister John Howard admits that “humans are having a discernible influence on global climate”.

Such research brings the wind debate into focus and points to the crux of the matter: Compared to the greater risk created from our existing energy sources, wind farms may not be perfect but they are essential.

A wind turbine could kill between one and two birds a year, research has shown. But global warming could kill up to one million species. A wind turbine might blight a landscape, but global warming threatens to damage our whole world. In other words not having wind turbines carries inherent risks to animal, plants and humanity.

Opponents who dismiss wind power as “green tokenism” ignore the fact that it is one of the world’s fastest growing industries, creating rural jobs and drought-proofing farms. It is clean, non-polluting, safe, affordable and available right now.

The big picture: we need to be looking at more sustainable energy sources and ways to be less wasteful with energy. We need to be supporting governments in their efforts to curb our greenhouse-loving ways and opposing all efforts to block progress.

Wind power may not be the panacea to our global warming problems, but it is an essential piece of the big picture solution.