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Wind with benefits

Windfall: an unexpected good fortune, a piece of fruit blown down by the wind! The term suits the benefits that accrue around wind farms. As rural-based infrastructure projects, they confirm people’s investment and faith in their communities, and contribute to thriving towns and skills-based employment. As windfalls go, Ararat Wind Farm, the 75-turbine, $450 million venture due to start feeding more of Australia’s endless wind resource to the electricity grid from 2017, has hit the ground running.

Construction of the wind farm by GE and Downer EDI Limited, has begun, and is expected to employ around 165 people. Related extra workforce spend in the local area, over the two-year period of construction, is anticipated to add up to $7-8 million.

Ahead of its official groundbreaking ceremony this week, Ararat Wind Farm has already resulted in employment, confidence-boosting contracts and trickle-down economic benefits throughout the region. GEreports talked to six Victorian businesses about what effect a fresh Ararat breeze is having.

Driving sales

Kings Cars, Western Highway, Ararat

“We kicked two goals straight away!” says John “Robbo” Robertson, sales consultant with Kings Cars, a flag-waving dealership with gleaming car bonnets turned to welcome drivers to Ararat as they enter the rural city on the Western Highway. “I sold two cars to Ararat Wind Farm, around early October—a Triton and a Pajero,” says Robbo. “We put all-terrain tyres on them, ’cause they want that bit of grip.”

Robbo points out that direct sales of vehicles are just the start of a good thing when it comes to serving the needs of a new local development project. Cars need to be fitted with extras, they need servicing and petrol!

This region of western Victoria where the foothills draft upward to the Great Dividing Range boasts some of the country’s best wind resources, and Robbo wakes up each day to a view of the turbines of an existing nearby wind farm. “I reckon it’s an awesome sight,” he says. He’s glad to know that 14 more farming families will soon supplement their incomes by hosting Ararat Wind Farm turbines. “They’ve had a bad run,” he says of the drought that has cut deep into the farming economy. “Green Hill Lake is completely dry, there’s not a drop in it. And I’ve never seen Norval Dam so low in my entire life.”

He leans forward on his desk to confide, “I’ve got a customer coming in today and I reckon he’s buying his car because his farm’s going to be drought proof. I’m not sure how many turbines he’s going to have, whether it’s seven or 11, but it’s good income for something spinning around. It really covers for bad years on the farm.”

Building on local expertise

MKM Constructions, Otway Street, Ballarat

Every wind farm needs a home, and Ballarat-based family firm MKM Constructions won the tender to build Ararat Wind Farm’s permanent operations and maintenance (O&M) headquarters where some 13 staff and contractors will work to keep the megawatts flowing.

“It’s quite a large project for us,” says Karl McMillan, sales manager of MKM, the commercial- and industrial-building company he runs alongside his brother, Marcus (project director) and father Robert (contract manager).

McMillan believes one of the winning aspects of MKM’s bid to build the large workshop and office buildings—steel-framed and Colorbond-clad—was its modular construction. This will allow most of the time-consuming building work to be done off-site, and the pieces to be quickly assembled in situ. “We won’t be disrupting their operations until we have to,” says McMillan. Building from the ground up would have meant significantly more traffic on wind-farm roads, at the same time that earthworks and turbine construction are in full swing.

MKM will hire subcontractors from Ballarat and Ararat to do work such as concreting, plumbing and electricals on the buildings, and the company uses regionally based steel fabricators to make building parts and sections—that’s more local people working, more businesses investing in staff and equipment.

McMillan is grateful that GE and Downer EDI have broken the scope of work into smaller contracts accessible to local companies. Usually, he says, rural contractors and suppliers benefit from projects costed at $5 million or less, because they can’t keep plant or trained workers around just waiting to tender for higher-value developments—such as this $450-million wind farm. That’s why many big rural projects are frequently built by metro-based companies. For most country firms, he says, “It’s like, you’re looking at an elephant and thinking, ‘Well, how can I eat all of that?’ But if it’s broken down into chunks, it’s easier for more people to be involved and to deliver the project locally.”

Engineering a new beginning

Keppel Prince Engineering,  Darts Road, Portland

A contract to manufacture 35 of Ararat Wind Farm’s 75 turbine towers (the remaining towers will be built in Vietnam), is the first real work Keppel Prince’s wind-tower manufacturing facility has had in two years. Having invested $15 million in the capability to fabricate, paint, fit out and store the enormous steel structures, and having supplied towers for several wind farms, including Macarthur Wind Farm in south-western Victoria and Waubra Wind Farm just north of Ballarat, Keppel Prince’s contracts ran dry during the period of uncertainty around the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET). The company was eventually forced to lay off 100 steel workers in November 2014.

Keppel Prince’s contracts ran dry during the period of uncertainty around the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).

As the first wind farm off the mark immediately following the government’s commitment to a revised RET in June 2015, “Ararat Wind Farm has given us the opportunity to offer a glimmer of hope to those people,” says Keppel Prince general manager, Steve Garner. The Ararat contract will enable the company to re-employ between 20 and 30 steelworkers. “That’s a start!” says Garner.

How did Keppel Prince storm the tower the bid? The tenders were a closed process, but says Garner, “We’re known throughout the industry, and GE certainly knew of us.” Ultimately, he says, “We’re in close proximity to the site and I guess it made good financial sense.” Towers destined for Ararat have been engineered by Keppel Prince to specifications that dovetail with the latest GE 3.2-103 brilliant wind turbine.

Keppel Prince also anticipates storing some of the turbines and blades, which will be shipped from manufacturers in Asia and landed in Portland before being sent in batches on the 200-kilometre road trip to Ararat.

Smoothing the way

Millers Civil Contractors, Stawell Road, Horsham

The foothills are alive! Millers’ diggers and dozers have begun carving cuttings for Ararat Wind Farm turbines, and to allow 54km of gravel roads to link turbines to each other and to external roads.

It’s wonderful to see commitment to projects in rural Victoria that enable communities to retain skills and remain viable and vibrant.

Millers is charged with constructing these access tracks to bear the cement trucks that will pour the massive concrete footing (also dug by Millers) to anchor each tower, the long-load lorries that deliver the turbines in pieces, the cranes that will help assemble them and finally the maintenance crews that will facilitate optimal performance of the turbines over their foreseen 25-year lifespan.

Already well into its contract, Millers will ultimately have some 30 plant operators, and seven engineering staff and diesel fitters on the wind farm site for around eight months. Some workers have been employed from Ararat, and all who are directly involved in the project will live in town, some just during the week if their families live elsewhere, others full-time. Says Jay Miller, company director, “Ararat Wind Farm is a major project for Millers and offers us the ability to maintain employment of skilled regional staff while demonstrating our construction abilities.”

Millers owns virtually all the equipment here—graders, excavators, scrapers, rollers—and must keep it in motion year on year, to ensure it continues to pay for itself. Constantly demonstrating capability is what keeps the work coming in, and this requires experienced machine operators—that is, it needs trained people to stay local.

“We continually see the loss or migration of skills to capital cities,” says Miller. “It’s wonderful to see commitment to projects in rural Victoria that enable us to retain skills and enable communities to remain viable and vibrant.”

Rocking the road-base requirement

Mansfield Crushing, Monkey Gully Rd, Mansfield

Millers and Mansfield—earthworks and crushing—have a symbiotic relationship. Mansfield Crushing drills, blasts, sorts and hauls rock that stands in the way of Millers Civil earthworks. By crushing the rock (in this case, Hornfels) onsite, Mansfield can provide road base for companies like Millers to use immediately. “It’s very cost effective if you’ve got the material on site,” says Ant Bateup, Mansfield’s general manager.

Renewable energy has been very good for our business.

Depending on how much rock the roadway cuttings yield, there may be a lot of work for Mansfield, or a little, but the company also has an interest in the recently opened Western Quarries site, which shares a boundary with Ararat Wind Farm. The quarry has some 20 million tonnes of Hornfels ready to rumble, when Ararat runs out of its own repurposable rock. It was opened partly in anticipation of supplying the wind farm. Mansfield, contracted to develop the new quarry which has an expected lifespan of 20-plus years, is settling in for an extended crush.

Bateup has hired four local workers for the Western Quarries site, three of whom will jump the fence to the wind farm as needed. He estimates another four people will come on line for the wind farm as the work ramps up. “We’ve rented a couple of houses long-term in Ararat for our guys to live in,” says Bateup. “We’re intending to be in the area for some time. It makes sense for us to hire local staff, and we use local contractors for some of our equipment-maintenance requirements.

“Renewable energy has been very good for our business,” adds Bateup. “We worked on the Mount Mercer Wind Farm and some of the other quarry supply that we’ve done may have been used on other wind farms.”

Keeping in the sheep!

Dale Bell Fencing, Golf Links Road, Ararat

The Ararat turbines will be hosted by working farms, and livestock must be managed as usual. The wind farm’s access roads are destined to cut through paddock fences in 50 to 60 places, which is where Dale Bell comes in: the local fencer will step into each breach, to install a gate and restore the fencing on either side of it. Ba-aaa! Secure.

One of the first businesses around Ararat to land a role in construction of Ararat Wind Farm, Bell estimates that he and his main offsider Terry Young will get a good three months of work from the contract. “I’ve been on it intermittently since about August, and as the roads come through I’ll just keep moving back and forth adding more gateways as they’re needed. It’s a job where two of us can go out and spend a fortnight and then go back to our farm fencing again.”

The wind farm is a big deal for Dale Bell Fencing: “It gives me stability,” says Bell. Because the site is just 12 minutes’ drive from his home in Ararat, it’s also a much more profitable job than contracts on properties that might be 80 kilometres down the road. Bell estimates he’ll save $500-$600 a month in petrol, compared to travelling to his usual gigs. And each working day is more productive—he won’t lose an hour each way in getting to and from the site.

Read our story Community and renewables: wind instruments in concert, including a video interview with a local farmer.

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