Farmers squeezed out of energy boon

Stock & Land reports: LANDHOLDERS should be capitalising on seismic changes in how we generate energy, says Matthew Wright, but instead they are being pushed aside.

Mr Wright, executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions, thinks the thrust of current government policy will be to deny many landholders the ability to profit from wind generation, while compromising the enterprises of other landholders who host coal seam gas (CSG) operations without sharing in CSG profits.

Beyond Zero Emissions, a non-profit organisation, has the goal of moving Australia "from a 19th century fossil fuel based economy to a 21st century renewable powered clean tech economy".

Wind turbines are "about as benign as it gets" for power generation, Mr Wright said, adding CSG is a "fairly destructive option for resource exploitation".

"You can quantify the environmental impacts of wind turbines pretty easily, and add them all up; it's difficult to quantify the impacts of CSG, because they are quite variable."

But government policy, as Mr Wright sees it unfolding in NSW - with other States apparently to follow - appears to be about supporting CSG and sidelining wind.

"It's about health. Our predominant energy supply is causing serious health effects to people and the environment, where wind turbines just aren't causing health issues.

"If you offered to resettle those complaining about wind turbines next to a coal mine in the Hunter Valley, and offered those near coal mines to resettle within a kilometre or two of a wind turbine, I think a survey ... would find those relocated to the coal mine would want to go back."

Turbines have a visual impact, Mr Wright acknowledged, but the effect depends on the beholder.

In Denmark, there are 3000 wind turbines in a country one-fifth the size of Victoria.

There are many more to go up, Mr Wright reported, although some will be off-shore. The Danes have a goal of generating half their energy from wind. So far they have only got to 22 per cent.

Part of the Danish wind program involves replacing old turbines with new, more efficient ones, which he said "shows that wind turbines have withstood the test of usefulness."

All Danish wind projects must by law allow up to 20pc ownership of the project by the community around the wind farm.

"Not all projects get 20pc commitment from the community, but many do."

Mr Wright estimated 2000 modern 7.5MW on-shore wind turbines could deliver more than half NSW's power requirements.

And he pointed to the alternative, on display in the American hotspots of gas extraction, Wyoming and Pennsylvania.

"From the air you can see roads, wells, pipelines and evaporation ponds that completely gut the connectivity between farm fields. These operations are like a web: you can't avoid them."

Once a turbine is up, its impacts stop while its benefits accrue, Mr Wright said.

Landholders receive long-term income from leasing land for wind turbines, and could potentially make more under the Danish co-ownership model.

But a 2011 Australia Institute report, "Mining the Truth", observed that returns from resource extraction, including gas, mostly go offshore.

"In 2009-10 mining profits were $51 billion, of which 83pc, or $42b, accrued to foreign investors," the report stated.

"Over the next 10 years pre-tax profits for mining will likely be around $600b; at present levels of foreign ownership around $500b of these profits will end up in the hands of foreign owners."

Mr Wright noted problems associated with Martin Ferguson's boast that Australia is going to be a bigger gas exporter than Qatar.

"The Qatari petroleum industry is owned by Qataris. They are keeping something like 90pc of the royalties."

Meanwhile, Mr Wright said, the mining boom is driving up the value of the dollar and driving down the profitability of Australia's export-focused agriculture.

Mr Wright believes that sooner rather than later, renewable power will beat fossil fuel alternatives on all fronts - economic, environmental and social.

If Australian governments continue their current addiction to fossil fuel royalties, he argued, the nation will eventually be left with a lot of stranded assets, at considerable long-term cost to affected communities and Australia's competitiveness.