Ag Industry, Aussie Farms, Farming, Opinion

Opinion: Cleaning up after clean energy

Clean energy is one thing, but the clean-up is quite another, WAFarmers CEO Trevor Whittington says

It’s a question that wind farm proponents, governments and all who champion efforts to combat climate change seem strangely disinterested in.

But it is a legitimate question every land holder who signs up to having one of these things towering over their property should be asking.

What is the carbon footprint of the physical effort to remove the footing of one of the many 200m tall wind turbine towers soon to be seen scattered across the Wheatbelt?

And what would it cost?

The reinforced bases of modern wind turbines have between 600-1000 cubic metres of concrete – that’s 70-100 truckloads or a shed 10m x 10m x 10m. It’s no simple thing to remove when no longer needed.

Sure, some of the towers might be there for 100 years, but sooner or later, they will fall into disuse, leaving the question of who picks up the tab for their removal.

Decommissioning these towers and jackhammering out the foundations at the end of their economic lifespan, or when the taxpayers get annoyed and demand the politicians stop the subsidies, is one of those expensive exercises that aren’t always factored into the full costings of a wind project.

No doubt there is some fine print at the bottom of the lease contracts that talk about the company being responsible for the removal and site clean-up, but what guarantee is there the company will have the funds or have a big enough bond available to do the work?

I know a thing or two about environmental bonds, having worked for the Western Australian Minister for Mines during the fallout of the 2007 financial crisis.

I have seen mining company environmental bonds, linked to mine site rehabilitation obligations, suddenly become worthless when the banks went wobbly and walked away from underwriting them.

When this happened, the government did not force the mine to close. Not surprisingly – as it was the last thing they needed during the middle of a financial crisis.

It was left to the government as the insurer of last resort to step in – but that didn’t necessarily mean the issue was dealt with right away.

That’s why WA has over 100,000 ex-mines sites, tailing dumps, pits, shafts, quarries, etc, across the state that have been abandoned and left needing revegetation and cleaning up.

Up until 2012, the state government ignored the problem – only then creating a proper environmental bond system to ensure all mine sites were properly rehabilitated at the end of their life.

Western Australia’s new state managed environmental fidelity fund, like what real estate agents have, is a good solution but needs decades to build the reserves to cover all the risks.

Today, the fund has around $250m in it and it grows at around $40m a year. It’s not enough to even to start to cover the potential liabilities – but it’s a start.

Using the interest from that fund, the government is starting the long process of resolving the issue of the abandoned mines. It’s a good thing, but it is predicted that it will take 1,000 years and many mining booms to fund the work than needs to be done.

The government seems not to have learnt from its mining experience and is currently leaving it to the wind farm proponents to guarantee decommissioning, again through a promise of some sort of financial assurance backed by the banks.

The experience with the miners tells me that any landholder who accepts the current going rate of $40,000 per annum land rent for a mega tower but who goes soft on these assurances might find they wear the removal if the company does a runner.

Any bond not backed by a government linked fidelity fund, risks being left with some big useless concrete blocks and worse some very tall towers which might make for good radio antennas but not much else.

Send this to a friend