I thought it high time I wrote about wind power generation, given this region’s burgeoning reputation as Queensland’s Green Energy Hub. The Southern Downs already earned this cachet by building a 64 megawatt solar farm near Warwick. As power-generating capacity goes, this was by far upstaged by the MacIntyre Wind Farm, tipped to become the world’s largest onshore wind project.
More about Acciona’s 1.025MW wind farm later, but first, a history lesson. Just about any company with an interest in wind power generation has latched on to the quote from former US President Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe was a bit of a closet scientist, known for being the first US president to have an invention patented in his own name. Of wind power, President Lincoln said (in 1860): “As yet, the wind is an untamed and unharnessed force; and quite possibly the greatest discovery hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of it.”
Not just Abe, though. As a blog by UK energy firm NES Fircroft explains, the idea of using wind power occurred to humans as early as 5000 BC, when wind was used to push boats along the Nile.
In the Middle East and Persia (now Iran), windmills were used to grind grain. In China around 200 B.C., they were used to pump water.
During the 9th century Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, wind-powered machines were developed to mill cereals and pump water. This technology progressively made its way to Europe. Windmills have been used since the 14th century by China, Italy and the Netherlands. It may also occur to readers that Australian farmers sought to harness the wind to pump water on remote properties.
Professor James Blyth of Anderson’s College, Glasgow, Scotland is credited with creating the first wind turbine in July 1887. He used to power to light his holiday cottage, but his offer to share the excess electricity with the nearby village was knocked back as his creation was deemed to be ‘work o’ the de’el’ as my Da would have said).
Also in 1887-88, American Charles F. Brush created the world’s first automatically operated wind turbine generator mounted on an 18-metre-high tower. The machine was slow and its 144 blades produced only 12 kW. It was used between 1888 and 1900 but subsequently fell into disrepair. That seemed the fate of a lot of early wind projects, most of which were experimental and none were able to attain a commercial rate of power generation.
It wasn’t until 1941 that a wind turbine was developed that could generate more than 1 MW of electricity.
Fast forward to 2023 and Acciona Energía’s 1,026-MW MacIntyre project is the company’s biggest renewable energy facility and one of the largest onshore wind farms in the world.
Developed in partnership with CleanCo, the Queensland Government’s newest renewable energy generator, the $1.96 billion wind farm is expected to be operational in 2024-2025.
Acciona’s wind farm when completed will have 180 5.7-MW turbines, each standing up to 230 metres in height.
The economies of Goondiwindi, Toowoomba and the Southern Downs are direct beneficiaries of an estimated $500 million spend during the construction phase. As work continues on the leased 36,000 hectare property 50kms south-west of Warwick, Acciano is increasing the number of on-site accommodation units to 550, to take pressure off the rental property markets in nearby towns. The end game is to generate enough power for 700,000 homes.
While all this large-scale construction and planning is going on less than 50 kms from town, I was intrigued to hear a local chap tell me he is looking at installing a domestic wind turbine on his property. What? I had no idea.
Yes, it appears that competition, improved technology and economies of scale are opening up a new green industry to help home owners who are aiming for self-sufficiency. A home wind turbine system can cost between $10,000 and $20,000. There are technical issues and obstacles in terms of local government by-laws and whether it is a suitably windy location. They pay-back period is lengthy.
If you were an early adopter of solar energy, you may well remember that in the beginning, the entry price was prohibitive. The upside only became apparent when governments agreed to provide incentives. There does not appear to be a lot of research done in Australia into small-scale wind turbines or much enthusiasm. Not so in the US, where climate writer Michael J Coren, writing in the Washington Post, found there was a 30% tax credit for home wind turbines.
The official advice from the Australian government website YourHome is that wind generators are not suitable for most homes.
“Household wind systems are much more expensive than solar PV systems, and wind turbines must be situated where they can catch smooth, strong, consistent winds. Few homes in Australia have such locations.”
In 2020, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) announced funding to install small wind turbines at 10 remote Australian communication sites as part of a new project to boost the uptake of the technology.
Newcastle University startup Diffuse Energy has invented a blade-less turbine which doubles the capacity of wind power generators. Their Hyland 920 turbine is capable of producing 500W of electricity.
ARENA said at the time it was funding the project on the basis it would provide a renewable alternative to diesel generators, reducing energy costs and improving resilience against bushfires and other natural disasters.
While implementation of this project ran into the usual setbacks caused by Covid-19, Diffuse Energy’s founders have their eye on the global telecommunications market. They predict it will spend more than US$3.4bn on distributed energy generation by 2024.
At the end of 2018, ARENA said there were 94 wind farms in Australia, delivering nearly 16 GW of wind generation capacity. The cost of utility-scale wind energy in Australia is expected to continue falling, with new wind farms delivering electricity at around $50-65/MWh in 2020 and below $50/MWh in 2030.
Scrolling through the highly technical Australian Energy Statistics for 2022, I discovered these references.
Renewable generation increased 18% in 2020–21, contributing 27% of total generation. Solar and wind contributed 10% and 9% per cent of total generation respectively. About 17% of Australia’s electricity was generated outside the electricity sector (by industry and households), including 7% small-scale solar PV.
It’s a long way from the 1970s (when Telstra first used solar panels to power infrastructure). Few private homes had solar then and if so, they were usually in remote locations far from power lines. According to US group Dash Energy, solar technology cost around $20 per watt in the 1970s with around 14% efficiency. Today’s solar panels average between 15-18% efficiency. Costs can be as low as $0.20 per watt. On this basis you’d expect domestic wind turbine systems to become comparably more affordable (and more efficient).
Meanwhile, work carries on at Acciona’s wind farm site where 41 turbines have been fully installed, according to its July update. And 34% of a planned 70km network of paths connecting the turbines has also been completed. Acciona will be taking (free) community bus tours out to the MacIntyre site on several dates in September, November and December. The first one is already booked out.