On a bare paddock among the rolling hills of Kojonup, 260km south-east of Perth, a stiff breeze blows across the granite ridges and crop stubble.
The area has long been home to one of Western Australia’s most productive – and blue chip – farming regions.
But there are now plans to harvest a resource of an entirely different kind, with mining giant BHP poised to bankroll a $200 million wind farm that will feature the biggest turbines yet installed in WA.
As well as transforming the landscape, the project forms part of a revolution underway across Australia to decarbonise the country’s electricity system.
Industry experts say it is a transformation that has now spread well beyond the corridors of power in Canberra to the boardrooms of Australia’s biggest companies.
And they say its momentum is unlikely to slow, as business increasingly drives Australia’s push towards carbon neutrality and the federal government is left on the sidelines.
‘The future is happening now’
“What’s happening is across Australia, across the whole economy, corporations are moving to decarbonise,” said Matthew Bowen, a partner at law firm Jackson McDonald specialising in energy.
“And what’s driving that is … just (yesterday) we’ve got the latest United Nations climate report and that shows we need this decade to do wide-scale decarbonisation.
“And this is a massive task.
“The good news is there is still just time to avoid the worst outcomes.
“We’ve had the federal government’s failure to act for the last decade.
“But the good news there is that businesses like BHP, like many others, are responding anyway.”
Under BHP’s plans, announced this morning, the miner would buy all the power from the project to be built at a site known as Flat Rocks, south of Kojonup.
The arrangement is part of BHP’s goal to become neutral by 2050 and would be directly used to offset the emissions from the company’s Nickel West assets including in the Goldfields, 670 kilometres away.
Renewable energy start-up Moonies Hill, which will develop the wind farm with Italian green power heavyweight Enel, said the BHP deal would allow the first stage of the Flat Rocks project to go ahead.
It would include 18 turbines, each measuring 200 metres at their highest point.
BHP eyes global green switch
Moonies Hill managing director Sarah Rankin said the ultimate goal was to more than double the project’s size, taking its capacity to 180MW in a move that would cost about $400 million.
Dr Rankin said the lack of any other forms of generation around Kojonup and the absence of other wind farms in the area meant the Flat Rocks development would help buttress the grid.
But she said it was the strength and consistency of the area’s winds that were most appealing.
“It is windy,” Dr Rankin said.
“Interestingly, we’re sitting here today at ground level and it’s quite windy.
“But if you actually go 125 metres up into the sky it just gets windier.
“I’d be surprised if we don’t come up in the top five wind farms in Australia once we’re operational on a regular basis.”
Nickel West asset president Jessica Farrell said the Flat Rocks agreement was part of fundamental change in the way BHP powered its operations.
As part of that plan, the company had committed to reducing its operational emissions 30 per cent by 2030 compared with 2020.
Ms Farrell also noted that much of the nickel division’s products were used in technologies such as electric cars that were aimed at reducing carbon output.
She said customers were among those calling for the shift.
“BHP supplies high-quality nickel to world markets for use in electric vehicle batteries and other growing technologies that will support global decarbonisation,” Ms Farrell said.
“We are taking great strides in making our operations more sustainable and strengthening BHP’s position as a nickel supplier of choice to global customers.”
Renewable energy changes gears
Jeremy Schultz, the president of the Australian Institute of Energy and a founding member of the Clean Energy Council, said BHP’s decision was a sign of the times.
Mr Schultz said much of Australia’s initial wave of renewable energy was prompted by a Commonwealth mandate requiring major electricity retailers to buy almost a quarter of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
He said the latest wave – and future investments – were being funded by companies seeking to meet their own carbon reduction plans independently of government.
“My own view is their boards are coming to conclusions in terms of two things,” Mr Schultz said.
“Firstly, their own need to move their business towards reducing emissions because it is good business to do so.
“And secondly, being able to do it in a way that is going to be commercially appropriate for them.
“They’re not taking on uncommercial projects.
“They’re taking on commercially viable projects in that good corporate objective of reducing emissions.
“It is huge.”
Business leading ‘a good thing’
For fourth-generation Kojonup farmer Lachie Thorn, whose family property will host the Flat Rocks wind farm, rising emissions were a source of worry.
Mr Thorn said he was glad business was taking the lead on the energy transition.
“Being farmers, we want to leave an asset here for our kids to run as well, which is where the renewable energy comes in,” Mr Thorn said.
“We want to leave the world better than when we got to it, really.
“Renewable energy, I think, we’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to do our own little bit … to keep it sustainable. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels.
Energy lawyer Matthew Bowen said it would take decades and billions of dollars for Australia and its companies to meet their emissions reduction targets.
In the case of BHP, he noted the miner would not only have to overhaul its electricity supply but the way it powered its huge fleet of trains and trucks, which currently run on millions of litres of diesel a year.
‘Like cleaning up a reservoir’
However, he said the pressure on large firms to reduce their emissions was overwhelming and came from financial markets, shareholders, customers and the broader community.
He likened the nature of the task to cleaning up a reservoir.
“The reservoir is fed by many streams, so if you want to start cleaning up the reservoir what you can do is say ‘for the energy I draw … I’m going to contract with someone to make sure they are putting in clean energy to match what I take out’,” he said.
“Now it’s true that the electrons that actually arrive at your property will be a mixture of dirty and clean electrons.
“But by making sure the energy you have bought into the pool is clean, you’ve made that pool a little cleaner for everyone.
“And over time, as more and more consumers get their suppliers to replace dirty streams with clean ones, the reservoir will become clean.”
Source : abc.net.au