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Alternative energy blowin' in the wind

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A Canberra company is chasing wind all over the world, writes Phillip Thomson.

The federal government's large-scale renewable energy target for 2020 remains unchanged at 41,000 gigawatt hours.

The federal government's large-scale renewable energy target for 2020 remains unchanged at 41,000 gigawatt hours.

FROM a small office in Canberra, billions of dollars worth of wind turbines are being proposed for large slabs of land across the world.

The office is quiet. Several people tap away at their keyboards. A number of the staff are graduates from ACT universities. In a room off to the side are a set of computers 250 times faster than a standard laptop.

Two air-conditioners stop the computers overheating.

Luke Osborne and Nathan Steggel say wind farms can help the ACT government meet its 2020 renewable energy target.

Luke Osborne and Nathan Steggel say wind farms can help the ACT government meet its 2020 renewable energy target.

The computers are churning through huge amounts of commercially sensitive data.

Their job is to track the wind. To find out where it blows and where it blows reliably.

Sometimes the computers are focused on entire countries at a time.

Once the ''hot spots'', as they are called in the wind game, are found, the people move in.

Nathan Steggel and Luke Osborne sit just a few metres away from the room. These two men are modern-day prospectors.

They could be the new faces of the energy industry. They have already proven to be novel thinkers in the wind sector.

Steggel has a PhD in computational fluid dynamics and is from the United Kingdom.

Osborne is an engineer and fifth-generation Bungendore resident. His family owns land not far from Infigen Energy's Capital Wind Farm.

Once the computers give them the results, they turn up to the place they have mapped from several thousand kilometres away - perhaps to a village in the US or a town in South Africa - to determine whether a wind farm worth hundreds of millions of dollars can be built there.

''Some of these landowners are often blown away by the technology,'' Osborne says.

Then the discussions, and commercial agreements, begin. At the moment their Canberra-based company of 27 staff is too small to finance the building of any wind farm. But the enterprise does everything up until that stage - overseas and in Australia - with other companies taking ownership towards the end.

The company these men are helping to build, Windlab, was started in the territory 10 years ago by former CSIRO scientists who developed its wind-mapping technology.

It was launched with about $1 million of seed money from the ACT government and the group now known as the Capital Angels.

''When we started there were four people and we were a consulting services company,'' says Steggel, one of the founders. ''But you can't make a hugely exciting company from consulting.''

Today the enterprise not only chases the wind.

It now has 273 megawatts (MW) under construction, more than 1500MW permitted and more than 6500MW being proposed globally. Once these projects are complete, they will supply enough power for two million homes.

It puts together development applications and deals with communities surrounding proposed wind farms.

This is probably the job few others are eager to do.

Australia's history of wind farm development shows it is a polarising topic.

It seems communities are mostly angry when they first spot the development applications in the foyers of local council buildings.

Opposition to turbines often turns into outrage. The turbines are labelled eyesores. Nothing but vote-catching contraptions for greenies. Dangerous for birds. They create shadows. They are noisy. There are even claims the turbines adversely affect health (at least one official body, the South Australia's Environmental Protection Agency, which perhaps deals with more of these complaints than counterparts in other states, has rejected the health claim).

In November, it was reported that Energy Australia told the Climate Change Authority it was concerned community opposition to wind power could make Australia's renewable energy target difficult to achieve.

The federal government's large-scale renewable energy target for 2020 remains unchanged at 41,000 gigawatt hours.

The ACT government is aiming for 90 per cent use of renewable energy by 2020. About 80 per cent of this would have to be achieved by wind power, according to an Environment and Sustainable Development report.

The same report also outlines the territory government's aims to source this power from the Canberra region.

Osborne, Windlab's chief operating officer, says he would like to see green power traded into the ACT market from other states. In other words, this would mean the territory would buy power from other Windlab-related projects, thereby creating more business for Windlab.

Osborne says this would meet the government's agenda of supporting the ACT green energy sector - because Windlab is the only wind energy company in Canberra - and would also help the government meet the ''ambitious'' 90 per cent renewable target within seven years.

Steggel, Osborne and their colleagues are pioneering other ways to expand the use of wind turbines to create more clean power.

In particular, they are coming up with new ways to quell community discontent: a vital aim if the wind sector is to have a mainstream future.

One way to make communities more welcoming is to offer landowners surrounding the turbines shares in the project: so-called ''direct ownership''.

Already it has been done at one Windlab-led project in Victoria. The company has done something similar in Nebraska, where all members of a landowners' association were given the opportunity to buy shares.

''It recognises communities,'' Osborne says. ''The landowners take part in some of the decision making, they get information much quicker.''

Traditionally, financial rewards have stayed on the same side of the fence as the turbines. The property owner received rent, usually a generous amount due to the scale of the developments, for the land.

Another way of getting locals onside is to put money into community trusts.

In South Africa, where huge expanses of wind farms are being built as part of its government's own push for renewable energy, Windlab is heavily involved in up to $4 billion of projects.

At one project, Windlab created community trusts which would result in local groups receiving an estimated $1 million a year for education and social development.

This is a large figure for many of the poor communities surrounding these wind farms in South Africa.

The sum of $1 million or so a year makes up 5 per cent of dividends for the wind farm.

A squall for anyone who doubts the money to be made in the emerging wind energy sector.

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