Construction at the Mount Emerald Wind Farm is progressing at a pace, given the challenges thrown up by the rugged terrain and consideration due to the cute northern quoll.
On the elevated plateaus of the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns, Queensland’s largest wind farm is taking shape. Since breaking ground a year ago, Ratch Australia Corporation has raised six of 53 turbines at its 180MW Mount Emerald Wind Farm near Walkamin. Another 11 are partially erected while 43 concrete foundations have been poured as the company remains on track to switch on the project in September 2018.
The site’s substation will be ready to receive transformers in early January while Powerlink Queensland is currently installing the gantries at its dedicated 275kV substation to connect the wind farm to its transmission network.
As engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors, wind turbine supplier Vestas is 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.
The Mount Emerald Wind Farm will feature two types of wind turbines from Vestas’ 3MW platform, models V112 and V117, to take advantage of the site’s specific characteristics. The blades are made of carbon and fibre-glass and consist of two airfoil shells bonded to a supporting beam. All turbines of the 3MW platform have an increased nominal power and advanced sound reduction modes to ensure noise is kept to a minimum and well below the government mandated limits.
Construction in the tropics
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.
Ratch executive general manager business development Anthony 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. This is particularly important on the Atherton Tablelands where an understanding of how to deal with local climate conditions is a huge asset,” Yeates says.
The 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 has delivered more than $500 million of wind farm projects, including Lake Bonney Stage 3, Woodlawn and Capital, and he describes Mount Emerald as the 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,” Kuypers says.
“Less than 3% of the total site will be 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, or UXOs,” he says.
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. There have been six confirmed UXOs found and safely detonated as well as more than 150 exploded or remnant items, predominantly mortar tail fins.
Over the life of the project’s construction, six cargo vessels containing blades, towers and more than 450 components will transit through the Port of Cairns, totalling an estimated 185,000 revenue tonnes of cargo. The shipments represent the largest ever handled by the Port.
Each day, escorted trucks transport the components from Cairns using the Palmerston and Kennedy Highways to get to site. Each truck takes up to five hours to complete the 207km route at an average speed of 50km/h.
In early October, hundreds of locals in Malanda joined Ratch at a community street festival to wave through the project’s first delivery of components.
“The festival was unprecedented,” says Ratch community coordinator Kim Forde, who has worked on major energy projects in the Cairns region for more than 20 years, “From day one we’ve involved local communities in the development of this project, responded to their feedback and implemented approaches to increase their involvement.
“This is an iconic project for the region where I live. I have been passionate about renewable energy for many years, and it is a pleasure to be involved in helping deliver this second wind farm to our region. Ratch is keen to ‘walk the talk’ about being good corporate citizens, and are showing it here,” Forde says.
Setting new benchmarks
Like Forde, Yeates also describes the project as “best practice”. “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,” Yeates says.
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, Yeates says.
“We take our responsibility to protect the natural heritage values of the site seriously,” he says. “Our team is working hard to ensure our environmental footprint remains very small and we have implemented initiatives which we think will become standard in future wind farm builds.”
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 setting new benchmarks 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 ensure every last quoll is sniffed out and kept out of harm’s way, especially females with juveniles in dens,” Hancock says.
“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.
The consultancy 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 progressing plans to develop the 65MW High Road Wind Farm project in the same region.
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 says.