Skip to main content

The most famous and enduring character to leap from the pen of the 17th century Spanish author Miguel Cervantes was his romantic, but delusional knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. During one of his quests, the hapless Don imagines a group of 30 or 40 windmills to be ferocious giants and challenges them to a joust. The idiom “tilting at windmills” has come to denote the fighting of idealistic, but sometimes unwinnable battles.

In recent times Spain has become a centre for the production of electricity from wind farms. Many thousand of turbines are arrayed across the windy central Iberian plateau. In Australia these developments are relatively new. The immense, sleek, almost surgical windmills of today bear little resemblance to the ragged sails that befuddled Quixote.

For many people, wind farms tick a lot of boxes. The landholder’s most desolate and wind-blasted piece of land will now provide an income stream, whilst stock may still safely graze beneath the sweeping arms. Our society is engaged in a quest for “clean” renewable energy. Indeed, there are legal requirements for power suppliers to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

For many others, wind turbines are a blot on the landscape and a blight to their lives. They are viewed, at best as a nuisance, and at worst as a source of illness.

Such was the debate that raged in the Environment Court recently over a proposal by AGL Energy to construct a wind farm of some 33 turbines (each 80 metres tall) on the ranges west of Hallett, in an area crossed by the Heysen Trail. This is Stage 3 of a 5 stage project stretching north of Burra.

There appeared little doubt that, from a technical point of view, this is an appropriate location for a wind farm. There is plenty of wind and it is close to the established power grid.

The matter boiled down to two major issues – visual impact, and generation of noise from the turbines.

In this State, planning decisions are largely guided by the Development Plan. This document includes provisions addressing the development of renewable energy facilities in “appropriate” localities. Another of the objectives in the Plan relating to this specific region is that it should remain an “open scenic rural landscape”. The Court concluded that both provisions could be accommodated. The turbines constituted a new element in the landscape but would not deprive the area of its scenic qualities.

The noise generated by the turbines is at a low, but persistent level. The Court considered and applied existing guidelines as to acceptable noise levels. For those living on the land, with some commercial interest in the project, the test was whether the noise was below a level which would cause sleep disturbance. A higher standard was applied in relation to other residences within the locality. The Court decided that these guidelines would be satisfied.

The Court approved the project.

Meanwhile another battle is looming. Accione Energy has council approval to erect 46 turbines near Allendale East in the South East. A nearby land holder feels strongly enough about the issue to consider the daunting prospect of many days in the Environment Court, to argue against the development. An appeal has been lodged. No doubt there will be lessons to be learned from the Hallett judgment.

The Hallett case did not deal with the controversial and contentious allegations of the long term health effects arising from the noise generation. This has been raised in other forums. It is not clear whether it will be raised before the Court in the Allendale East case.

The fact that Accione Energy is a Spanish corporate giant injects a note of irony in this situation. The tilting at windmills is likely to continue for some time.