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Community and renewables in concert

The lively community session held in late September at Ararat’s Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre was part information day, part jobs fair for the Ararat Wind Farm, where earthworks and road-making, fencing, and anemometric and geotechnical testing are already in full swing.

“It almost felt like a trade expo, with information, banners and posters, and people from the wind farm there to answer questions,” says Bernd Neubauer (below), manager for economic strategy for Ararat Rural City Council.  A steady flow of the curious and keen came through the hall during the afternoon and early evening. Those interested in jobs with the wind farm could make a beeline for the project’s main contractor Downer, and there was an employment register, too. Little wonder that there is, as Neubauer says, “a strong culture of positivity towards renewable energy in this part of the world”.

Working wind farms already dot this region, 200 kilometres west of Melbourne, with several more proposed to join the area’s wool, livestock and cropping farms, and vineyards. Incoming wind-farm projects change the landscape for farmers in more ways than one.

There is a strong culture of positivity towards renewable energy in this part of the world.

“It’s not as simple as farmers getting a bit of money and being able to buy a new ute, it changes their whole farming philosophy … the way they can operate,” explains AWF construction manager Justin Howes. In the hard years of drought, farmers are often forced to sell their stock. “Income from the wind farm will mean they can hold onto their stock, buy some feed for them, and sell when the prices are better, because in drought everyone’s selling their sheep at the same time.”

Ahead of the official groundbreaking ceremony on November 27, the Ararat Wind Farm (AWF) site is buzzing with giant diggers and trucks, which look almost toy-like against the majestic hills that will soon be home to 75 of GE’s latest 3.2 MW wind turbines.

Howes gestures to the distant excavation machinery as he stands on a hill by one of the eight “met masts” being erected by Queensland firm ART (the solar-powered meteorological towers’ anemometers are gathering wind-speed data ahead of the turbines’ arrival in 2016; four will remain permanently on site for ongoing calibration).

“Where the bulldozer and grader are, there will be a turbine on the knoll behind them, and one at the very top of the hill,” he says. “This track will go through to the internal substation that collects the power up from all 75 turbines; then there’s 21 kilometres of transmission line that runs down to Elmherst, where there’s another substation. There’s 54km of track to go in.”

In the coming months, more and more contractors will join those already on site, a boon for local jobs and businesses.

At the top of Big Hill Road, today’s uncharacteristically light wind plays with the paddock’s native grasses as sheep farmer Mark McKew points to a distant concrete stump where rock-anchor testing is in progress on his land. McKew has been an ardent supporter of the AWF project, and his property is being prepared to host five turbines.

“The wind farm income allows a lot more flexibility,” says Mark McKew (above). “We’ll be able to keep stock longer or target the markets better. It’ll just be a great help … it’s going to affect the whole region, not just the local farmers, but the whole City of Ararat is going to enjoy the benefits from it.”

Local sheep farmer Mark McKew talks to GEreports about the Ararat Wind Farm.

Ararat Rural City Council’s Neubauer is openly bullish about prospects for this historic gold-mining region. He moved here several months ago to take up the economic strategist role and says Ararat has had, “some booms and a few little busts, but it’s resilient and its industries are quite diverse. At the moment it’s going through steady growth.” He cites State Government funding to upgrade Ararat’s art gallery as an example of the upswing: “It will be one of the most significant regional art galleries in Victoria.” On the warm November day that GEreports comes to town, the vibe in the shops and cafes along the main street is certainly busy and upbeat.

Mark McKew is happy that income from the wind farm will make it much easier for him to stay here, and hopes that one of his four children may one day continue farming, just as he returned to his parents’ property after working for 20 years as a cabinetmaker in Melbourne. Despite the difficulties of the long drought, he clearly loves farm life. “Driving up here in the four-wheel drive rounding up sheep—people pay to do this on their holidays!” he says.

McKew runs Merinos for wool and Border Leicesters for meat, and while he’s now down to about 400 breeding sheep, “they managed to have about 500 lambs”, so he’s been busy moving them around. “I like my Borders, they’re good sheep,” he says fondly. “But when you’re trying to drive ewes and new lambs down the road, it’s like herding cats! The lambs don’t take any notice of the dogs, they just stop, and their mothers get way ahead. But when they get a bit older, they learn the ropes and they know which way to go. Great sheep.”

It will be interesting to see how McKew’s flocks react to their new paddock mates when the turbines arrive in mid-2016—other turbine-hosting farmers have said that their animals quickly become adept at chasing the shade thrown by the towers. We will report back!

Read more about the impact of the wind farm on other local businesses in our story Wind with benefits.

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