On the elevated plateaus of the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns, Queensland’s largest wind farm is starting to spin into action.
Ahead of the 180MW Mount Emerald Wind Farm achieving full commercial operation in November, the first turbines started to turn in August as part of a staged testing and commissioning process being conducted by project developers Ratch Australia Corporation.
The test is a significant milestone as it announces Mount Emerald’s “electrification” and follows the completion of the site’s substation and switchyard which are now energised and will connect the project’s generation to the national electricity grid.
Ratch’s EGM business development Anthony Yeates said first generation was a landmark step for the project.
“It’s a very important milestone and is the culmination of lot of work by a lot of people over a very long period of time,” Mr Yeates said.
“We’ve now commenced generating electricity and sending it into the grid, and we’ll be ramping up the amount of generation we are doing over the next few months as groups of the turbines get commissioned.
“It is very satisfying this has come together like we planned and it’s a great payoff for all our hard work, particularly for many local suppliers who have been with us from the start.”
Since breaking ground in December 2016, Ratch Australia Corporation is close to raising the last of the 53 turbines at its project near Walkamin while all of the 800-tonne concrete foundations have now been poured. Less than a kilometre of high voltage underground cabling is left to be installed.
The remaining construction and turbine installation activities will be completed in parallel with turbine commissioning over the remaining few months until full operation.
As engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors, wind turbine supplier Vestas was responsible for construction of the project with major subcontractors Consolidated Power Projects (CPP) and Civil & Allied Technical Construction (Catcon).
Ergon Energy will purchase all of the electricity generated by the wind farm through to the end of 2030.
Construction in the tropics
While the project uses turbines by Danish manufacturer Vestas, local suppliers such as Gregg Construction, HEH Civil and Watto’s Earthmoving have left their name on the project.
“We’ve been involved on the project since 2009 where we provided some upgrades to the road into the site,” said Gregg Construction’s Ken Gregg whose company has been responsible for civil and excavation works, labour hire, ground surveys and dust suppression.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done on what was a very challenging site. We share a great sense of accomplishment and we’ve felt valued by Ratch and its contractors since day one,” he said.
More than 400 people have been inducted to work on the project to date, including 130 locals while more than 20 suppliers have been contracted from the wider Cairns region over the course of construction.
Mr Yeates said its contractors shared the company’s “look local” commitment.
“We have found the best project outcomes are delivered when as many local people and businesses are involved as possible,” Mr Yeates said.
“This is particularly important on the Atherton Tablelands where an understanding of how to deal with local climate conditions is a huge asset.”
Construction crew have had their work cut out for them. Although the region’s abundant wind resources are ideal for a wind farm, Walkamin’s hilly and rugged bushland is far less accommodating of the heavy machinery and civil works required to build a project of this scale.
Ratch construction director Rene Kuypers, who has delivered more than $500 million worth of wind farm projects including Lake Bonney Stage 3, Woodlawn, and Capital, describes Mount Emerald as his most challenging and complex build of his career.
“The Mount Emerald Wind Farm is the toughest wind farm project I have worked on as it has involved steep and undulating terrain as well as the tightest environmental regulations I’ve encountered,” Mr Kuypers said.
“Less than three per cent of the total site has been used and a large environmental team systematically inspects every inch of the wind farm’s construction zones for culturally significant artefacts, endangered fauna and flora, and even unexploded ordnance (UXOs).”
During World War II, part of the Mount Emerald site was a military training base for firing mortars and grenades. Specialised consultants have been engaged to conduct UXO clearance surveys of the work areas using a range of detection devices.
There have been six confirmed UXOs found and safely detonated as well as over 150 exploded or remnant items, predominantly mortar tail fins.
Setting new benchmarks
Mr Yeates is very pleased with the effort that has been invested on site to ensure the project had delivered a very high level of protection to the local ecology.
“The Mount Emerald Wind Farm started off as an idea by local developer John Morris to bring cleaner energy to one of the world’s most sustainability conscious regions and we take our responsibility to protect the natural heritage values of the site seriously,” Mr Yeates said.
“We conducted more than four years of on-site research and community consultation before breaking ground and have used what we learned to strive for the best possible outcomes during construction.
“We’ve had various teams of specialists on site who have worked very hard to make sure that procedures for the protection of cultural heritage, flora and fauna have been carefully integrated into our work, as well as processes to ensure that any unexploded ordinance on the site was carefully managed.
“At times this work introduced new challenges, but we are proud of the outcomes and consider we have probably set some sort of benchmark for future projects.”
Ratch’s use of specially trained dogs to detect and protect Northern Quolls, a carnivorous marsupial native to the area, is perhaps the most well known example of how the company is leading the way in sustainable construction.
Together, Sparky, a border collie cross rescued from the RSPCA, Lily, a border collie, and Amanda Hancock, their trainer and handler, make up Saddler Springs Education Centre’s detection dog taskforce; a crack team responsible for finding quolls in dens.
The quolls they find are fitted with lightweight radio-tracking collars to allow Ratch’s ecologists, 4 Elements Consulting, to relocate them out of construction zones to safer habitats.
“The dogs have proved to be a superior survey method to trapping and ensuring every last quoll is sniffed out and kept out of harm’s way, especially females with juveniles in dens,” Ms Hancock said.
“At the Mount Emerald wind farm site, we’ve really proven how effective and accurate detection dogs are for both preliminary surveys and in a fauna spotting role ahead of construction clearing.
“One dog and handler can detect a quoll within 10 minutes in some cases, whereas, it can take a team of ecologists days, weeks or months to detect using standard survey methods.”
The initial estimate of the quoll population on site was around 55, however, work to date has seen 90 individuals captured, collared and safely relocated.
Quolls are not the only species receiving special treatment on site. Ecologists 4 Elements Consulting conduct meticulous surveys of construction zones to protect endangered plant species. All identified individuals are either avoided wherever possible or removed and replanted in an area away from planned works.
4 Elements is also collecting a variety of native seeds and seedlings to propagate new plants for revegetating the site after construction. To assist in the success of these programs a green house has been established on-site.
Cleaner energy for Queensland
Ratch also owns and operates the 12MW Windy Hill Wind Farm near Ravenshoe, about 70km south of the Mount Emerald site, and is also progressing plans to develop the 65MW High Road Wind Farm Project in the same region.
Mr Yeates believes local generation will not only help to reduce electricity prices but deliver a positive economic environment.
“New renewable projects increase the diversity of the energy system and will encourage a positive investment environment for future projects that will help grow a local renewable generation network to include various forms of solar, hydro and biofuels,” he said.
The wind farm will deliver in the order of 530,000MWh of renewable energy, which is predicted to meet the annual needs of approximately 75,000 north Queensland homes during at least a 20-year period.