Growers say potato industry at risk from energy proposal

Ballarat potato growers say AusNet project threatens the industry

Horticulture
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Farmers, processors and local governments have raised concerns.

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CONCERNED: Ballarat potato growers Matt Stephens, Frank Stephens, Chris Stephens, Kevin Maher, Kevin Stephens and Rob Lockhart say Ausnet's project could have massive implications on their operations.

CONCERNED: Ballarat potato growers Matt Stephens, Frank Stephens, Chris Stephens, Kevin Maher, Kevin Stephens and Rob Lockhart say Ausnet's project could have massive implications on their operations.

A group of potato farmers near Ballarat say a major energy project could put their businesses in jeopardy.

In late 2019 AusNet Services Group was awarded the contract to deliver the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project by the Australian Energy Market Operator.

The corridors for the project have not been finalised, but the project will require 190km of new overhead high voltage transmission lines to run from Sydenham to Bulgana.

A new terminal station will also be build to the north of Ballarat.

Ballarat Potato Growers Association chairman Chris Stephens said a major criticism of the project was over the lack of consultation.

Mr Stephens said AusNet Services offered $500 gift cards if residents would sign to allow them to access land about a year ago.

Since then, very little information had been released and pop-up sessions had involved talking to independent consultants who were not able to address any concerns.

One farmer was told his header, which was too tall to operate under or around power lines, would need to be driven 190kms around the length of the project to access the other side of his farm, Mr Stephens said.

Farmers were concerned their irrigation equipment, which many people had invested in significantly to improve efficiency, could not be used under or around the power lines.

The group also cited health concerns from ongoing exposure to the power lines and noted the potential fire risk.

Seed producer Rob Lockhart said there were also biosecurity risks if workers were travelling between farms in vehicles that were not washed down.

Growers estimated that 19 per cent of the total growing area would be impacted by the project.

Mr Stephens said the industry relied on generations of knowledge and was already competing against imported products.

If the project went ahead in its proposed form, there was a serious risk to the Ballarat industry, he said.

Signs against the proposal are displayed throughout the area and 'piss off AusNet' has been ploughed onto a nearby hill.

Community members had formed the Moorabool and Central Highlands Power Alliance to fight against the proposal.

Member Nathan Lidgett described the project as a "desktop analysis" that was using the cheapest possible method to get power to Melbourne.

The proposed plan was simply a straight line drawn directly through farmland, he said.

"We're questioning how they came to this option," he said.

"It looks like it was 'this is what we want to do, we'll build our case around that'."

He noted that overhead power lines presented more risks than underground and yet the project did not seem to consider alternatives.

The pandemic had highlighted the importance of food security but the project went against local production, he said.

The group was investigating legal options, he said.

In a document obtained by Stock & Land, global food processor McCains also flagged major concerns about the impact the project could have on the potato industry.

It questioned the lack of detail provided and emphasised the significance of Class 1 irrigated farmland.

The Ballarat, Melton, Hepburn and Moorabool local governments wrote to AusNet Services last year conveying their concerns over the project.

The Moorabool Shire council commissioned an independent report to determine if underground high voltage power cables could be used instead of overhead lines.

The report, carried out by Queensland-based Amplitude Consultants, found underground cables were a viable, low impact alternative and should be considered.

Council chief executive Derek Madden said the infrastructure should be put underground.

"We have not only shown that it can happen, but it is a better solution - and not the 10 times more expensive that is quoted by both AEMO and AusNet," he said.

In a statement, Western Victoria Transmission Network Project executive project director Stephanie McGregor said the company was listening and acting on feedback.

"We understand the concerns of some landholders and local communities, and ongoing engagement continues to be our priority," she said.

"We work closely with communities including farmers who already farm under the 6500km of existing transmission lines across Victoria.

"We've also undertaken extensive further work and can confirm that farming will be able to continue under the proposed new transmission line for Western Victoria if an overhead option is chosen - including irrigated horticulture.

"We have released summary guidelines for the project which clarify the agricultural activities and operation of machinery that will be permitted along the transmission line easement.

"Experts are continuing to undertake further detailed research into a range of factors including visual impacts, full or partial undergrounding and land use through the Environmental Effects Statement process.

"This is still in its early stages and there will be many opportunities for landowners and the community to provide further input."

AusNet said the existing transmission network in western Victoria was at capacity and the project would reduce urgent congestion on the existing network.

Planning, design and approvals will continue until about mid-2023.

The company said 670 people had attended the10 community meetings held this year.

AusNet said underground lines had a much higher construction footprint and cost significantly more to build but were being considered.

It had sought advice from Agriculture Victoria on on biosecurity and it would carry out extensive bushfire risk mitigation strategies.

It said it would work closely with every landowner once the final route was determined.

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