Ten years of wind farm operation

Ararat - The Challicum Hills Wind Farm, one of the first wind farms in the state and at that time the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, is this month celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Ten years ago a little known series of hills close to the small community of Buangor become home to 35 wind turbines, known as the Challicum Hills Wind Farm.

The project was able to be built because of the Federal Renewable Energy Target and in 2003 it was the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the first wind farms in the state.

Each of the turbines generates enough electricity for 700-800 Victorian homes each year, feeding the power into the local power grid that connects down to Ballarat and up to Stawell.

Managing and maintaining the project is a full time job. A team of five including wind farm supervisor Adrian Ciccocioppo and technicians Leigh Roberts, Dean Tonkin, Rohan Calvert and Jon Porter scale the massive turbines almost every other day to carry out maintenance, servicing and safety checks.

"It's a 70 metre climb up to get to the generator so you quickly learn to be organized so you don't forget anything you need for the job," Mr Roberts, who has worked at the wind farm since 2005 and climbs the towers up to twice a day, said.

The turbines are serviced every six months and it takes two technicians three days to service each machine. They are checked for safe and efficient operation which includes a range of pressure, electrical and safety checks.

The technicians are onsite during the week maintaining the project rain, hail or shine.

"Although we don't go onsite during thunderstorms," Mr Roberts said.

Safety is top of mind on site and right across the company.

"When we're not servicing or maintaining the turbines, we are running safety drills, inspecting the blades for any damage, taking refresher heights training or upgrading the turbines with the latest technological developments," Mr Ciccocioppo, the wind farm supervisor, said.

The Australian company who owns the wind farm, Pacific Hydro, has four other wind farms operating in Victoria. It also has hydro and solar projects in Australia.

Pacific Hydro has a long-held commitment to ensuring the local community benefits from its projects and it looks for ways to share value with the community hosting them. At Challicum Hills Wind Farm it operates a community grants program.

Known as the Ararat Sustainable Communities Fund, the program returns profits from the project back into local community projects. In recent times the distribution of the $50,000 annual fund has been decided by a panel that includes community members.

"The panel was set up as a trial to improve transparency and accountability of the program," Chloe Carpenter who has managed the program for Pacific Hydro since 2008, said.

"The community responded really positively to this change so the panels have been implemented permanently."

Ms Carpenter said the value in the fund has been amplified by community groups who have created opportunities by increasing their networks and thinking creatively.

"The community groups we have been able to fund are run by passionate volunteers who have been able to generate even more value from the grants. It's inspiring," she said.

"For example, a community garden established by the Ararat Landcare Group, who concentrate on protecting vegetation around Ararat, has provided a number of educational and social opportunities for locals."

Anne Carroll, a volunteer at the garden, says that while it has provided many Ararat residents the opportunity to learn more about gardening and sustainability, the focus is on creating an active and social community.

"We hold regular 'swap days', where residents are encouraged to bring along produce such as vegetables and eggs to swap with other locals," Ms Carroll said.

"Recently we held a very successful Spring Equinox celebration. These events aim to get people thinking about how to be more sustainable, while bringing the community together in a social setting."

The Ararat Sustainable Communities Fund has distributed $438,000 to 175 projects within the Ararat Rural City since 2005.

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