Wind and Snow

Having fought against a piercing wind all morning, it was a relief to finally pull up on my bike at the farm gate. A series of white sentinels decorated the nearby hilltop, backed by a bluebird sky. The dirt driveway led me across a paddock and up a rise to the farmhouse, where I was greeted by Carl and his enthusiastic dog Turbo.

‘Turbo likes to chew things’, he warned me as I parked my bike on his back verandah, though I figured my heavy duty panniers were fairly dog-proof.

Carl and his wife Glenda were kind and friendly, with the reserve and humility of many farmers. We sat on their sofas to chat, the living room window giving us a view of a huge wind turbine in a nearby field, and also of Turbo sitting on the lawn gnawing on my hat and riding gloves, his tail wagging.

Shortly before dusk, Carl and I climbed into his ute and set off along a farm road towards the nearby ridge. I hopped out to open the many access gates along the way, and the biting cold had me scurrying back into the ute’s heated cab each time. I felt sorry for Turbo sitting in the back tray, though Carl assured me he was used to it. He did look happy just to be along for the ride.

We wound our way amongst towering giants: a line of colossal turbines standing sentry along the range, their long slender blades whispering as they swooped past us. Each tower had a gravel clearing at its base, connected by the maintenance road we were following through the paddocks. Carl talked as he drove, explaining how it all came to be.

Carl was a local landholder, farming sheep and cattle on his large property here in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, approximately 20km west of Goulburn. He was first contacted in 2000 by Australian Power and Water, who were interested in siting a wind farm on his land, and in early 2001 they set up a wind monitoring tower to collect data for about three years. After initial planning and siting they started negotiating with construction companies, but then in 2005 the steel price increased and the project was mothballed. Carl went on with his farming.

Five years later a company called Epuron took over the rights and received development approval. They paid for Carl and the other landholders to travel to see an operating wind farm in Victoria so they’d know what to expect. In the beginning there were only three landholders involved, but over the course of the project it would grow to encompass 14 properties.

Epuron on-sold the project to the company Goldwind, who began construction in 2012. The electrical substation was energised and the first turbines began operating in 2013 and by the end of 2014 they were all online; a total of 73 turbines now dotted across the landscape, forming the Gullen Range Wind Farm.

Carl explained that the electrical substation was built with a higher capacity, as they originally intended to have 84 turbines. They added a 10MW solar farm in the neighbouring valley to make up the difference and this alone provided enough power for 3,100 New South Wales homes.

As the setting sun lit up the skyline with reds and golds, we pulled in beside one of the towers and climbed out to appreciate the view. It was a surreal feeling standing under such a massive structure looking up, watching each blade hurtle towards us at breathtaking speed, only to swish past and away again.

The slender towers were made of steel, and were capped by a pod, called the ‘nacelle’, which housed the gearbox and generator. Mounted on the front of the nacelle was the propellor or rotor, its three long blades protruding from a central hub. These blades captured the wind’s currents and the spinning rotor drove the electrical generator.

There were two types of turbines in the Gullen Range Wind Farm: fifty six of the giant 2.5MW turbines, with 80m tall hubs and 100m diameter rotors, and seventeen of the smaller (though still enormous) 1.5MW turbines, with 85m tall hubs and 82m diameter rotors. Altogether they could produce 165MW of wind-driven electricity.

The sun having dropped below the horizon, we drove back through the many access gates and crossed over onto another farm road. ‘There’s one more thing I want to show you.’, Carl said.

We approached the turbines nearer his house, passing through a few more gates. ‘Can you guess what that is?’, Carl pointed ahead. A long sculpted object lay in the paddock near the base of one of the towers, glowing pale in the last light of day. It was only as we drew close that its titanic proportions became apparent. It was a rotor blade — a spare perhaps — and it was enormous, about the length of an olympic swimming pool. Even lying on its side on the ground, its upper edge was higher than us.

It was hard to comprehend the engineering that went into one of these precisely shaped behemoths. Made from fibre-reinforced composite, such as glass fibre reinforced epoxy, they needed to be both incredibly lightweight and incredibly strong to cope with the enormous stresses, environmental extremes and even lightning strikes. And then there was the challenge of transporting them here.

Back at the house that evening, Carl joined me poring over a map and pointed out all the wind farms in the region, an area rich in strong breezes and plenty of hilltops to capture it from. Since the first wind farm was put in near the nearby town of Crookwell in 1998, the locals had seen eight of them strung across the countryside, totalling almost 300 turbines.

On my way cycling here, there seemed to always be a wind farm in sight. I thought they looked magnificent, though I knew not everyone shared my view on this.

I asked Carl about the reaction of the local community to the wind farm here. Is anyone against it? ‘Not really’, he replied.

For himself, it provided him with a second income, which had essentially drought-proofed the farm and made it financially more secure. The wind company built maintenance roads through the farm, which also made for useful farm roads, and Carl was compensated for the loss of pastureland.

He reckoned it was good for the local economy too. The construction workers used local accommodation, and the half dozen blokes working permanently on the wind farm had now moved to the area. Plus, the company had set up a community fund to help local community groups and charities.

What the locals really noticed and appreciated was that the company upgraded many of the local roads (something the local council didn’t have the funds to do themselves) to allow them to transport the enormous wind farm parts.

There was some local opposition, he admitted. A few vocal individuals. Some didn’t like the visual impact, seeing wind turbines everywhere. Some believed it would cause the land value to drop. But the quiet majority just let the wind farms happen, and the land value had since risen.

The next morning a freezing cold wet sleet was coming down outside. A cold snap had hit the region and I dreaded having to get on my bike. But as much as Carl and Glenda were sorry to kick me out, they were going away today and needed to lock up the house.

Then, something magical happened. The driving sleet suddenly transformed into gently falling snow. Carl and I went outside and stood gazing in wonder at the delicate white flakes that drifted down, settling on our faces, hair and clothes and blanketing the ground. My dread turned to excitement about setting off.

My bike loaded, I said my farewells and rode off into the whitening landscape. I was unaware that the Bureau of Meteorology had issued a severe weather warning with wind speeds predicted to reach up to 90km/h.

I cycled along the farm road and amongst the turbines again. It was as though I had entered a winter wonderland, the towering titans like majestic spires in an ethereal world of wind and snow. The huge blades still turned gracefully, slicing through the flurrying sky. It was all so exhilaratingly peaceful and surreal.

A car appeared. It was the maintenance workers for the windfarm, doing their routine checks, and they found me with my bicycle in a snow-covered paddock alongside one of their turbines. They were clearly surprised to see me out here alone, frolicking in the snow when most normal people were taking refuge indoors. They pulled up to chat through their rolled-down window, asking if I needed any help, perhaps of a psychiatric kind.

Eventually leaving the Gullen Range Wind Farm, I made my way northwest to the small town of Crookwell, cycling through biting wind, snow and occasional sleet. After sheltering in the local library to defrost and wait out the worst of the weather, I headed out into the elements again and set off east.

I passed through rolling farmland with wind turbines lining the hilltops everywhere. The winds became ferocious as I passed Crookwell 1 Wind Farm — the first in New South Wales — and rode on towards Crookwell 2 — the younger and larger sibling. The gales tore at my clothes and I was forced to ride at a slant, buffeted by tremendous gusts that had me battling to stay on the road shoulder.

The towering titans of Crookwell 2 came into view and kept me company for several kilometres along the winding country road until I turned onto a dirt farm road and passed through a series of access gates. I made my way to a paddock hilltop and the base of one of the giants, taking refuge in the tower’s wind-shadow. The wild sky provided a dramatic backdrop for the rest of the property’s turbines spread around me.

The difference between the two wind farms, Crookwell 1 and Crookwell 2, told a story. Commissioned in 1998, Crookwell 1 had been an important demonstration project for the industry. I’d stopped at a lookout on the way, where a sign described the 625kW turbines as having 45m tall hubs and 44m diameter rotors. The eight of them produced enough to power around 2000 homes.

The wind turbines of Crookwell 2 that I was now standing under, however, were some of the largest in Australia. Recently commissioned in November 2018, each turbine could produce 3.4MW, with a hub height of 95m and a rotor diameter of 130m. There were 28 in total, producing enough to power 41,600 homes. In twenty years, wind turbines had tripled in blade length and power outputs were an order of magnitude larger.

At the end of 2018 there were 94 wind farms operating in Australia, totaling 5,679MW in generation capacity, and producing 7.1% of the country’s overall electricity. Nine new wind farms had been commissioned that year, adding 867MW, the highest amount added in the history of the Australian wind industry. Twenty more projects were lined up for construction in 2019, including the gargantuan Cooper’s Gap Wind Farm, soon to be Australia’s largest, with 123 turbines planned for the 453MW facility. Site testing was now underway for our first offshore wind farm (the first in the southern hemisphere), off the coast of Victoria, with a planned capacity of up to 2,200MW.

Globally, wind turbines were becoming taller and larger as designers reached for ever-higher heights, where wind speeds were generally faster, and developed longer and more powerful blades, to capture more energy from the wind. When the first 8.4MW turbine was erected off the coast of Scotland in 2018, it was reported that a single propellor rotation could power an average home for a whole day. Wind turbine manufacturer, General Electric, recently unveiled their latest giant: the 12MW Haliade-X, with a 150m tall hub and boasting a 220m diameter rotor; each individual turbine capable of generating enough clean energy for 16,000 homes.

The land I was currently on was owned by farmer Charlie Prell. It took 18 years between when he was first approached by a wind developer and the first spin of a turbine on his property, and he described it as a ‘gamechanger’ for him and other landowners. Having the passive income stream gave him the flexibility to change his stocking rate, to spell pastures and to manage watercourses much more sustainably. He was no longer reliant on the income from the stock, which changes with the weather and pasture conditions.

I had talked on the phone with Charlie earlier, and told him that I’d love to one day stand on the nacelle of a massive wind turbine. He was yet to experience this himself, and had tried to arrange for us to go up in one on his farm. Inevitably the wind company had said no, citing health and safety risks. But even standing at the bottom of one of these soaring titans induced a feeling of awe — especially in icy gale-force winds that whipped your breath away.

Eventually the setting sun and deepening cold ushered me on my way. With one last glance behind to appreciate these majestic giants, I headed on west again, prepared to shiver my way through a cold night camping by Pejar Dam, but thrilled by such an incredible day.

Huge thanks to Carl and Glenda Banfield, for their generous hospitality and for taking the time to show me around, and to Charlie Prell for letting me visit his property.