Landowners from Ararat through to Melton Shire could face at least another 12 months of uncertainty regarding a major high-voltage powerline project, and some councils are furious.
The Western Victoria Transmission Network Project is seeking to connect new renewable energy generators in western Victoria to the national electricity grid, but this will require new terminal stations and new lines, including a 500 kilovolt line between Ballarat and Sydenham on Melbourne's western edge as well as a 220kv line from Ballarat to Bulgana.
The project is expected to be complete by 2025, but timelines remain unknown.
It's still not known exactly where the powerline, or the terminal station, will be built - the company building the project, AusNet Services and its commercial division Mondo, has committed to a broad community consultation program before deciding on the route.
No land has been bought so far and there no route has been determined yet, AusNet spokespeople reiterate.
WHY DO WE NEED THIS PROJECT?
Decades ago, Victoria's power grid relied on electricity being generated from the Latrobe Valley - this is now no longer the case, as more wind and solar resources are exploited in western Victoria.
That means the network needs to be rebalanced, with more capacity in the west, and connecting up to the national grid.
Grampians New Energy Taskforce chair Stuart Benjamin said this will eventually lead to new jobs and investment opportunities across half the state, as well as a cleaner renewable-driven economy. "As part of building the transmission network in Victoria, we have to make new connections, and in order to do that, we need to get high-voltage transmission lines from one point to another point across the state," he said. "The route can be altered and adjusted to suit various constraints such as topography, land use, and community concerns, and that's the process that the proponent is now having to go through."
But the key problem is in explaining to people why these new powerlines, which will be 80 metres high in places, need to cut through prime agricultural land, when those landowners, and communities, may not see the same benefits.
"The sad reality is that there's been a fall-down in the early communications between the proponent and the community, possibly due to Covid-19-related restrictions, that has meant the community, and particularly landowners, have got to a belief that not only is the route absolutely determined - which is is not - and they have no role to play in the process, which is absolutely not true," Mr Benjamin said.
"The reality is, nobody wants these powerlines in their backyard, but sadly they have to be in someone's backyard.
"We're going to get to a point where we have to accept that, but we have an opportunity now and potentially over the next 12-18 months to potentially influence where those lines go, potentially minimise their impact, so we get better outcomes for the entire community."
The coronavirus pandemic has meant in-person meetings with landowners is difficult, which has led to genuine fear in the community that livelihoods and properties will be affected even before construction begins.
WHAT DOES THE COMMUNITY SAY?
Several action groups have formed across the project's area of interest to oppose the project.
Near Dean, farmers and residents got together this week to share their concerns - for generations, families have used the rich volcanic soil to grow premium potatoes.
There's already a 220kv line in the area, from the Ballarat terminal station in Warrenheip to Bendigo.
Somewhere along that line, the project will acquire a 50-hectare stretch of land to build a second terminal station, which will connect the 220kv line from Bulgana, near Ararat, and the 500kv line to Sydenham.
Vicki Johnson has lived at nearby Clarkes Hill for about 20 years, and her property is adjacent to the existing easement for the 220kv line.
She said the project must go back to the drawing board.
A national body, the Australian Energy Market Operator, determined a new powerline should be built along an area of interest between Bulgana and Sydenham following a Regulatory Investment Test for Transmission - this route would provide the most economic benefit.
Ms Johnson said the key word is economic.
"It doesn't take into account the devastation of hundreds of people's properties, thousands of hectares - apparently people's paddocks will have to be decommissioned for up to two years for this to be built," she said. "It feels like this whole thing is a bureaucratic line on a map that has been tendered to that 190km length.
"I would fully query, right up the chain to the AEMO process, as to how and why they chose this route.
"I think it should be going back up the line, and the investigation should be a lot more critical in assessing the broader impact."
Andrew Maher's family has farmed potatoes near Dean for generations, and he is "totally against" the project.
"Number one is the safety of the lines, and working under them - we're worried about the compaction of the soils from the towers and the infrastructure to install them," he said.
The 220kv line also runs across his farm - he set up a 20 metre by 20 metre square of haybales underneath to show the potential footprint of a 500kv tower.
"We're also worried about the fire and the winds, people don't realise how windy it gets here and we're worried about these things tipping over," he added. "We want to protect our soil, it's rich volcanic - we want to protect our food security for Australia, and for overseas markets."
Kevin Maher is another farmer from the area.
He said the land is "perfect" for farming.
"This could mean we'd have to take farms out of production - it might not be safe to work under (the lines), and whole paddocks could be lost," he said.
Mr Benjamin urged farmers to make sure their voices were heard through the consultation measures currently available.
"I've heard that lateral spraying and watering will be an issue for farmers, that's an excellent point to be made," he said.
"I would have thought that if specific farmers have specific land use issues that are impacted by towers, that they have a very good case to make for the route to be altered. But they do need to understand that by the route being altered, it might not be on their land, it'll be on their neighbour's."
Several councils have also contacted the proponents about the project, with a number of concerns.
WHAT ARE COUNCILS SAYING?
Hepburn and Moorabool shires, and the City of Melton, demanded action be taken before the project loses its social licence in a letter dated June 26, seen by The Courier.
The letter notes there is no complaints process for residents, and some correspondence with council has been unanswered for 18 months.
It also calls for a cost-benefit analysis to compare the current plan to undergrounding either the entire route, or at least portions.
The councils are calling for a full Environmental Effects Statement to be completed for the state government before construction begins - AusNet has referred to the project to the Minister for Planning for a decision on whether an EES is required, and a spokesperson noted the project may also require assessment by the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
In a statement on Friday, Moorabool mayor David Edwards urged the state government to act, and to be "world leaders".
"During the review of the Environment Effects Statement, the Victorian Government needs to demand that the underground option is fully investigated and ensure this project is done in a way that does not only benefit those in metropolitan Melbourne but also does not destroy the livelihoods of regional Victorians," he said.
"Normally once a referral is accepted, the Minister for Planning will make a decision within 20 business days - (Friday) marks the 20 business days. It comes at a time that Victoria records the highest daily increase in coronavirus numbers on record and the pressure across Victoria is at an all-time high."
"Council is calling on the Victorian Government to listen to the concerns of the Moorabool community in these unprecedented times. It is vital that the compounding impact that the transmission project, and other state significant projects, will have on communities in our shire is acknowledged."
A council spokesperson added "aspects of the community engagement ... could be improved".
"We would like to see more transparency on the risk of fire and firefighting efforts, what land acquisition will involve, when the different parts of the community within the area of interest will be contacted, and what that will look like," they said in a statement.
"The shire demands that the project is conducted in a manner that has the least impact on our residents, our existing landscape, the natural environment, farming activities, our towns and the growth projected for the shire.
"It is council's view that the most appropriate way to address our concerns would be through the undergrounding of the powerlines, ideally for the extent of the project."
The City of Ballarat echoed this, stating "(council is) seeking changes to the consultation program to better engage with residents and provide more transparency. We are also advocating for Ausnet to undertake a full assessment to determine the route of least impact including consideration of undergrounding of the powerlines".
Hepburn Shire councillor Greg May, who is also a farmer, said he and the community were unhappy with the project.
"Council has been trying to get answers from AusNet, there's been a number of meetings and they're basically being drip-fed information," he said. "The whole project needs a complete rethink - we need to have some sort of independent cost analysis on above-ground to below-ground transmission lines, (because) all we're being told now is that undergrounding these lines is going to be far too expensive, and nobody's provided us with any evidence.
"I've no doubt there'd be increased expenses, but I've heard anything from three times to 10 times as expensive but how do we know?"
While this is not a state government project, and it has received no state government funding, Cr May also called for more action from state politicians to stand up for their communities.
A state government spokesperson said in a statement "the Minister for Planning will make a decision on whether an EES is required in due course".
WHAT DOES THE PROPONENT SAY?
AusNet defended its engagement process so far, saying 450 letters have been sent out to date, a part of a progressive rollout beginning in Bulgana in late April and working east.
"The team has made approximately 300 phone calls and met face to face with approximately 240 landowners, obviously following Health Department guidelines every step of the way," they added.
The environmental impact statements will take "approximately 12 months".
"We are only a few months in and still collecting and analysing information across a very large area of interest and this will take some time before we can make an informed decision," they said. "We expect to narrow down the area of interest to a corridor in the next six to ten weeks depending on the results of the ongoing investigations.
"We expect to be able to confirm these timelines in early August. This will further narrow down the area of interest." Several people commented they have not been able to engage with the project as they do not use the internet or are not comfortable using it - much of the initial information gathering has involved an interactive map online, and AusNet has held so far livestreamed six question and answer sessions featuring project engineers and experts.
The AusNet spokesperson said more than 60,000 project information flyers have been mailed out across the area of interest, which include a contact number.
"We had hoped to meet everyone in the community face to face but the health restrictions from the pandemic have prevented us meeting in large numbers," they said.
"That said, we are more than happy to meet people face to face in small numbers, outdoors observing social distancing in line with all health guidelines.
"(The) best place to start for those who are not online is to contact the project information line on 03 9021 0674."
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