Thursday, 4 July 2013

Windfarm helps to erase a stain from Snowtown's past
19 May 2013

ITS identity has been defined by one of the nation's worst and most high-profile mass murders, but the community of Snowtown is hoping towering turbines will bring a new future for the Mid North town.

Gusts blowing relentlessly across the rounded, largely treeless Barunga and Hummocks ranges have brought prosperity, jobs and even an image make-over in their slipstream as the town becomes the state's epicentre of wind-generated power.

Snowtown-"Gateway to the Barunga Ranges"-became a casualty of evil when eight murder victims were found stored in barrels of acid in a disused bank in May 1999. But the town has long moved on and is keen to put the blot behind it. Winds blowing cash are helping. Snowtown is earning a new title, the Wind Farm Capital of Australia, as the $700 million Snowtown wind farm proceeds at full pace.

Reliable wind and proximity to transmission lines make the site ideal, and Stage 1 opened in November 2008 with 48 turbines powered by 88m-diameter rotors mounted on 80m-tall towers. Stage 2, now being built, is due to start generation in September, as another 90 turbines are added. The full wind farm will be capable of generating almost 10% of SA's electricity, via two new substations in the area.

It will be the biggest in SA and second-biggest in Australia, again putting Snowtown on the map-but this time for the right reasons. Unlike some other areas, there has been little opposition to the development. The turbines are on non-arable land along 30km of rocky, windblown ridgelines distant from housing. Sheep can still graze on the hills, and congregate under existing towers.

Owner TrustPower says there have been no complaints about health effects but the flashing red lights on the top of the towers were turned off after some objections. More than 200 people are working on Stage 2 of the project and the completed wind farm will have 20 permanent jobs for the region.

This is now SA's "windy city". Farmers with turbines on their previously little-loved ridgelines are the most obvious winners of the wind-blown bonanza. TrustPower will pay 24 farmers a total of $2.4 million every year for the next 25 years with an option for another 25 years. It is a guaranteed income stream for farmers whose crops are beholden to the weather.

That reliance on the weather was evident when the Sunday Mail visited this week. Fourth-generation Snowtown farmer Peter Ebsury and son Jarrod could barely pause to chat about the benefits as they took advantage of the rains to spray and sow cereal crops-each has two turbines on their respective properties.

"We laugh at people who say they're ugly or make the chooks lay upside down-this has been great for us and great for the community", Peter says. "With four children and six grandchildren, I hope we're still here for generations to come-and this will help in lean years. "The community fund has benefits across the district and they have also put in all-weather roads which gave emergency access and acted as a fire break in a recent bushfire. "This area was unfairly tarred by an incident that had nothing to do with us and the wind farm has helped give us a new focus".

Neighbouring farmer Paul McCormack, also a fourth-generation Snowtown farmer with two sons on the land as well as a daughter, has one turbine now and seven coming with Stage 2. "The construction has been a bit of an inconvenience but we live just over 1km from a neighbour's turbine and have not had any problems with turbine noise", he says. "If we can't use the wind and sun in this great land there is something wrong. I come out each morning and look at my turbine and get greener with each revolution. "I see myself as a custodian of the land for future generations and would not be involved if I thought it jeopardised that".

The ripple effect does not end with farmers lucky enough to have windy ridgelines. TrustPower is putting $45,000 every year into a community fund managed by the Lions Club, spreading the benefits throughout Snowtown and nearby towns such as Bute and Brinkworth.

The Lend a Hand Foundation sees a good wind blow benefits far and wide, from a new skate park in Snowtown to underpinning Brinkworth's hall and new toys for Bute kindergarten-even to individuals with things from care alert bracelets to a hot water service. "The whole area is benefiting from us becoming the wind farm capital of SA", Lend a Hand Snowtown co-ordinator Alan Large says. "And, as well as the community fund, the extra dollars coming into town is helping with jobs and keeping young people here".

The benefits extend to local businesses and people who moved to Snowtown despite the bodies-in-the-barrels murders, who saw it as a strong, positive community. Nicole and Nigel McCauley moved from Adelaide seven years ago with daughter Mia after looking at a range of country centres to raise a family. "We felt this was the best-it has a facilities like a hospital, GP service, chemist, hairdresser, police station, kindergarten, school and has a lovely community feel", Nicole says.

The family bought the pub but later took over the IGA supermarket when second daughter Ava was born. Nicole's brother, Christopher, moved from Adelaide and works on the wind farm, while her parents also shifted to be close to family. "There has been a bit of an influx of people-a rental property that came up the other day had three families looking at it", Nicole notes in between chatting to customers.

"The contractors at the wind farm have been very supportive of the supermarket which has been wonderful. They are really nice people". Publican Phil Hyde is also enjoying increased bar and dining trade from workers on the wind farm after taking over the hotel three years ago. "The community spirit in this town is very good and it is a great place to live", he says. "You get the odd tourist asking about the bank but the town moved on from it a long time ago".

At the Snowtown Bakery and Delicaf, owner Chris Keynes is flat out when the Sunday Mail drops by at morning tea time. He took over the bakery two years ago with his son and now employs nine people, with two additional outlets at each end of the wind farm to feed hungry contractors on site.

"One of our big challenges is to find people to fill the jobs-there is employment here for people who want to have a go", he says as he prepares to take supplies to a wind farm canteen. "Snowtown became infamous through no fault of its own. Something like this which puts this great town in a positive light is certainly welcome.

"Tourists still ask about the barrels but the town moved on a long time ago. The wind farm has put a fantastic new focus on the area and I have not heard a single complaint about it. "There is even talk of making Snowtown a completely green-powered town from the wind farm-that would require new infrastructure but it would be a great symbolic point". For the optimistic people of Snowtown embracing the breeze, it appears the answer for an image make-over was blowin' in the wind.