Windfarms… big project proposed for Wide Bay forest region.

THE idea of building one of the the world’s biggest and highest wind farms on state forest land between Maryborough and Gympie in the Wide Bay region of Queensland has introduced new concerns about lightning strikes and their contribution to bushfires.

The $2 billion project put forward by Forest Wind Holdings, a joint venture between Queensland-based renewables firm CleanSight and Siemens Financial Services, would see 226 wind turbines across pine plantations managed by HQ Plantations on land under licence from the state.

The location has been chosen to minimise the impacts on the community, with pine plantations acting as a buffer between the turbines and residents.

State Development Minister Cameron Dick says this would be one of the largest and tallest grid-connected wind farms in the southern hemisphere. If approved, work on the project farm could begin in the final quarter of 2020.

The Governor-General David Hurley AC has signed off on a royal commission into this summer’s devastating bushfires, with specific focus on preparedness for future bushfires and the causes, including how large fires occur when dry lightning strikes in very dry environments that are full of fuel ready to burn.

Hazard reduction against lightning strikes and other forms of ignition will form a key part of the inquiry after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an investigation into whether controlled burns and land clearing operations had been hampered across the country.

The windfarm project is being advanced as an exclusive transaction and part of the Queensland government’s investment facilitation services.

Forestry experts interviewed this week said they assumed and hoped the wind turbines would be built with adequate strike protection and that the exact locations of the windfarm would be provided.

Any lightning damage to turbines is often attributed to inadequate strike protection, incorrect or insufficient bonding and earthing (grounding), and insufficient transient protection.

The renewable sector’s respected magazine Windpower Engineering & Development says one of the most significant hazards wind turbines face is damage from lightning strikes.

Damage claims caused by strikes are one of the top payouts from insurance companies. A recent German study found that up to 80% of insurance claims relating to turbine downtime were from lightning-related damage. In fact, lightning accounted for nearly 85% of one commercial wind farm’s downtime in the US, costing the owner an extra $250,000 in the project’s first year of operation. .

Lightning faults are unlike typical electrical faults and cause a greater loss in wind-turbine availability and production. The number of failures due to lightning strikes is known to increase with tower height, and a number of studies indicate that rotating wind turbines may be more susceptible to lightning strikes than stationary structures.

Given that turbine heights are expected to increase – as is the case in the Queensland project – and the industry is growing, the number of turbine failures is likely to rise as well, says the magazine.

The royal commission’s terms of reference cover a range of matters across commonwealth, state, territory and local governments.

They include preparedness and recovery, natural disasters, hazard reduction, wildlife conservation, development approvals, and the debate over when the federal government can step in to offer assistance.

That latter point was highlighted as a concern for the Prime Minister in an interview with the ABC in January. Mr Morrison argued the commonwealth’s hands were tied when responding to the unfolding emergency because it had to wait for formal requests for help from the states.

Two more commissioners, former Federal Court judge Dr Annabelle Bennett AC and leading environmental lawyer Professor Andrew Macintosh, have joined former Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin AC. They are due to deliver their findings to the federal government by the end of August.

The commissioners will also investigate whether the findings of previous royal commissions and inquiries have ever been acted on.

Traditional land management techniques used by indigenous Australians will form part of the inquiry.