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Rural Victoria’s power networks set to buckle under weight of wind energy

By Charlotte King / ABC News / 17 February 2019

MAIN PHOTO: Wind turbines are set to dot the landscape in Victoria’s west but the extra power will be wasted without transmission upgrades. (Supplied: WestWind Energy)

Authorities say two coal-fired power stations’ worth of renewable energy won’t be able to reach the grid without major upgrades to networks in Victoria’s west.

Developers are lining up to build wind and solar projects in towns to the west and north of Ballarat, in what is being hailed as another gold rush.

“We’ve got $3 billion worth of projects currently underway,” said Stuart Benjamin, the chairman of a Victorian Government-commissioned taskforce that is overseeing the boom in the Grampians.

“And if some of the limitations that we’re seeing in terms of infrastructure are addressed, we could possibly double or even triple that number.”

PHOTO: Stuart Benjamin from the Grampians New Energy Taskforce says western Victoria is experiencing a “gold rush” in renewable energy. (Landline: Charlotte King)

Regional Victoria ‘can’t accept high volumes of electrical flow’

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has predicted as much as 5,000 megawatts of new renewable energy will be generated in the state’s west by 2025.

PHOTO: The Energy Market Operator says transmission upgrades are needed in Victoria’s west to transmit the 5,000 megawatts of new energy due to come online by 2025.(ABC file photo)

Victoria currently produces a little more than 11,000 megawatts in total.

There is just one problem.

“The current electricity lines in some parts of regional Victoria can’t accept high volumes of electrical flow without becoming overheated,” said James Prest, from the Australian National University’s Energy Change Institute.

As it stands, the rural transmission lines will be simply unable to transmit the five gigawatts without significant upgrades.

“It’s really a bit like building a high-tech, modern greenhouse for agricultural production, and then attempting to get the produce to market down a one-lane bush track, which frequently becomes flooded,” he said.

The AEMO is calling for immediate investment to the tune of $370 million to upgrade the network, including double circuit transmission lines between Ballarat, Bulgana and Sydenham, augmentations to existing lines between Moorabool and Terang and Red Cliffs and Bendigo, as well as a possible new terminal station at Ballarat.

An expression of interest for developers wanting to build, own or operate the new infrastructure closes on Monday.

The cost of the work is expected to be recovered through transmission charges on electricity bills once the infrastructure is constructed and will be spread over a period of 30 to 40 years.

The great renewable hope

The extra supply couldn’t come soon enough for the Victorian Government.

Last month power was cut to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses as the state failed to supply enough power on a day of record heat.

A sign on a shop in Elwood apologising to customers for closing early.

PHOTO: Shops closed due to power outages in Victoria’s heatwave in January. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)

A series of factors, including infrastructure failures in coal and gas plants, forced the AEMO to ‘load shed’ to prevent the entire system from failing.

“While units were falling over in our coal-fired power stations, renewable energy was going strong,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said at the time.

The Government has pinned its hopes for future supply on large-scale renewables, with 19 new wind farms approved for construction — mostly in western Victoria.

Combined with solar, the projects are expected to amount to more than two coal-fired power stations’ worth of electricity over the next five years.

The Government said it was working closely with the AEMO to reduce network congestion.

power lines on tall structures in front of a dark sky of clouds

PHOTO: Authorities say they are “playing catch-up” due to the fast take-up of renewable energy. (AAP: Joe Castro)

In a statement, Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said renewable energy was “cheaper, cleaner and quicker to bring online than other forms of generation and Victoria is getting more of it built”.

“We’re modernising our electricity grid to help us transition to a more affordable, reliable and clean energy system,” she said in the statement.

“There is an increase of supply, which can present some challenges when connected to the existing transition network.”

Mr Benjamin said authorities were playing catch-up.

“It sometimes feels like we’re making this up as we go, and that’s the nature of any growth industry,” he said.

“One of the interesting things that we’re seeing with the national regulator is even reports that they released six months ago they’re having to revise because of the fast take-up of renewable energy.”

Businesses reaping the benefits

In the meantime, those on the ground are making the most of the new foot traffic from the boom.

Kym Haley’s cafe in Skipton is one of several sleepy shopfronts coming to life, as renewable energy developers and their construction teams flock to the region.

Skipton cafe owner Kym Haley is making the most of the renewable boom.

PHOTO: Skipton cafe owner Kym Haley is making the most of the renewable boom. (Landline: Charlotte King)

“Whether it’s the overhead powerline people, whether it’s the wind farm people, we’re that one-stop place where they come in and grab their lunch.

“And I’ve been able to employ seven people and build a great business,” Ms Haley said.

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