Opinion || Brietta Hague - Nundle wind farm

Growing up in Nundle you learn to accept you live 60 kms from ‘Town’ (Tamworth). Teenagers take a three-hour round trip to high school. I did it for six years. It was a long slog but when we’d arrive home with the sun setting and see the outline of the ridge from the school bus, it felt like home. In Year Ten, Mum worried about the long commute and suggested we move to Tamworth. My sister and I were horrified. As kids, we didn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s a special place that taught me the meaning of community.

Now I’m an international freelance journalist, working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets. I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects of climate change from West Africa to Antarctica. As a producer for the ABC TV program Foreign Correspondent I travelled the world looking at how important renewable energy is to countering global warming. I am based in Spain, which boasts some of the biggest wind developments in the world. So why am I against a wind farm in Nundle?

It’s not a case of NIMBYism (‘not in my backyard) as developers might claim. As a society, we desperately need more wind and solar power. But that doesn’t mean developers have a right to build them wherever they wish or that communities have no rights over how they’re affected. To put it another way, I’m a passionate believer in the need for good roads. That doesn’t mean you can build them through people’s homes just because it’s cheaper than going around them.

Little is known about what’s being considered for Nundle but what has been made public is disturbing. Dotting our iconic ridge with as many as 98 turbines, each 220 metres high, would be more than an eyesore. They would be on top of our village. Wind Energy Partners, the company behind the proposal, talks glibly about creating an aesthetic in conjunction with the community, but how discreet can 98 mega fans be? It could destroy the visual environment which Nundle depends on for its livelihood.

Nundle is nestled in a valley and surrounded by the Hills of Gold. The town’s very existence is built on the unique history and beauty of the countryside. 

Over the Easter long weekend, Nundle’s ‘Go For Gold’ festival brought 18,000 visitors to a village of 300 people. An estimated $350,000 dollars flowed into the local economy. This festival is just one of eight iconic events on the Nundle calendar.  Next month the village will hold the famous Nundle Dog Race. The area has rare flora and fauna, including endangered species thought to be extinct.

People come to these festivals because of a feeling Nundle is special. It connects you to our rural heritage. It’s blessed with historic buildings like the former courthouse and police station that have been placed on the Register of the National Estate and beautiful examples of 19th century architecture like the Woollen Mill, the Peel Inn and the Primitive Methodist Church. But other towns have historic buildings. It’s the untouched, natural setting that completes the picture. If you say you’re from Nundle most Sydney-siders know where you’re talking about. How many other villages can say the same?

Having grown up in Nundle, it’s galling to hear Wind Energy Partners – the company behind the proposal -  suggest turbines could boost Nundle’s tourism. Perhaps there was a time, many years ago, when wind farms were such a novelty that people would come out to look that them. Today – in 2018 –  they would be the opposite in Nundle; a scar on the natural beauty that genuinely attracts visitors.

Sure, Nundle could gain from more development, extra business and new community projects. But if it takes place without regard to the village’s special qualities and without the community’s blessing the losses will far outweigh the gains. The wind farm would generate an initial burst of money and jobs but that would soon disappear. Wind Energy Partners claims 35 five jobs would remain in Nundle. But the wind operations I observed in Costa Rica and Germany were surprisingly low maintenance. Most were monitored remotely with few full-time employees and only occasional visiting technicians.

That doesn’t mean wind farms are bad. I’ve seen how beneficial they can be if the community is onside. Germany actively encourages community wind farms where local residents, often farmers, work together to see where turbines should be placed to minimise environmental and social impact. Most importantly, those communities share the income generated. In many parts of northern Germany, farmers make more money from electricity sales than from their farms.

But that’s not what’s being proposed for Nundle. A handful of landowners could make a killing. For the rest, there’d be a community ‘impact’ fund provided. That wouldn’t come close to compensating the community for its potential losses. It’s not even clear who would decide how it would be spent … the general community or a handful of fortunate landholders?

I have no doubt the ridge is the most cost-effective location, with easy access to sealed roads and proximity to the transmission grid. But in a region as large as New England, are there no other locations with dependable wind flow where a developer could turn a profit without compromising the livelihoods of unique villages? Are there no places where landholders would happily sell without the passionate objections of surrounding residents? This proposal seems an easy route for maximum gain for a big corporation at the expense of an established and historic community.

I hope my children and their children will live in a society that values history and cares for the local environment. And I hope as a society we can learn how to combat climate change without alienating and hurting the communities we’re trying to save.

Brietta Hague is a writer who grew up in Nundle, but is now based in Europe.