Farmers welcome windfall from wind farms

GERARD HUTCHING
Last updated 05:00 02/07/2014

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Wind turbines west of Wellington are not only changing the landscape, they are also transforming landowners' bank balances.

"They're music to my ears, actually," says Ohariu Valley sheep and beef farmer Gavin Bruce, who has a 440-hectare property with eight turbines.

All told there are 88 turbines on two Meridian Energy wind farms: 62 on the West Wind farm, situated on both Meridian's own property as well as on Terawhiti Station, south of Makara; and 26 on the Mill Creek wind farm on four properties in the Ohariu Valley.

Bruce said the turbines had made a big difference to the economics of his business, though he would not divulge how much money changes hands.

"In my case it's a big jump up, equivalent to lifting my stock unit numbers from 4000 to 6000," he estimates.

Further south on 5000ha Terawhiti Station, manager Guy Parkinson says 34 turbines have helped turn the sheep and beef farm from a loss into a profit-maker.

"Without the wind farm it would not have been possible to have turned the farm around," he said.

Besides providing income, Meridian also creates high-quality roading which makes for easier farming, and which it maintains.

In Parkinson's case it used to take two days to muster sheep by horse; now he can drive around the large property in less than an hour on 25 kilometres of roads.

On Bruce's property the 30-year-old fences had to be replaced by Meridian during construction, "cranking up" the returns to the farm.

The biggest downside was during construction, although Bruce said that was not a lengthy disruption in his case. "You could argue that while you're going through it it's pretty hard work, but it's just a year and it's back to normal."

Meridian's manager of markets and production, Neal Barclay, was not prepared to divulge specifics of how much farmers could earn off turbines.

The commercial agreements had become standardised as wind farms had been developed.

"They are paid a percentage of the revenue generated on the site, as well as a land rental during construction. The revenue fluctuates according to how much wind blows, and the market price of electricity," Barclay said.

Because the turbines were consistent performers there was not a lot of fluctuation in what farmers received.

Bruce and Parkinson said their farms had also benefited from the sediment ponds built alongside roads.

Because the ponds are built on ridges, stock do not have to descend for a drink as they did before.

Barclay said it made little sense to Meridian to buy rather than lease a property, unless landowners were keen to sell. Recently the company had bought two farms in Hawke's Bay.

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The typical footprint of the turbines was about 3 per cent of a farm, so they made little impact on its day-to-day running.

COMPLAINTS FADE

Opposition to Wellington wind farms from those disturbed by noise has largely died down, with just one of two complaints a month, according to Meridian Energy.

But some people have simply moved out of the area.

Meridian has offered the sweetener of a community fund. The West Wind fund is worth $200,000, with a life of three years, while the Mill Creek fund is $75,000 over three years.

This money has paid for a heated pool at Makara School, defibrillators at Makara Beach, and bike trails.

Ohariu Valley farmer Gavin Bruce said most people who had been disturbed by the noise had moved away.

"We're the closest to a turbine and we're about 1.2 kms away. One of the biggest worries before we made the decision was the noise, so we went to every wind farm we could and even now I do my own monitoring of when they're noisy, and when they're not," he said.

"I'll be disappointed if it is an issue but I don't think it will be from what we've seen. No-one wants to have a bad effect on people. Initially, it was pretty divisive in Makara and Ohariu," Bruce said.

Meridian's manager of markets and production, Neal Barclay, said initially there were about 10 complaints a month but that had dropped to "one or two". He admitted the issues had not been resolved totally.

On the other hand, people who had moved to Makara, knowing the turbines were there, actually enjoyed them. More efficient blades also helped to reduce the noise.

Terawhiti Station manager Guy Parkinson said Meridian's presence had improved security on the farm. Previously, the public could travel through the farm at will, encouraging poaching and opportunistic hunting. In addition 4WD vehicles no longer caused erosion.

The West Wind turbines, powering 62,000 average-sized homes, feed into the national grid, while the Mill Creek turbines will directly power 30,000 Wellington homes once they are fully operating. The scheme is more economic because it does away with the need for expensive transformers.

Wellington was one of the world's best locations for wind energy, Barclay said. Turbines operated at 45 per cent of generation capacity, compared with between 20 and 30 per cent for European wind farms.

- The Dominion Post

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