An in-depth look at the MacIntyre Wind Precinct

MacIntyre Wind Precinct
The MacIntyre Wind Precinct

From what was a wind project of 100MW to 150MW that seemed to be shrinking by the day due to transmission line availability, the bright minds at ACCIONA decided the only way to progress their project was to go ahead and build the biggest wind farm in the southern hemisphere at 1026MW, tapping into a different line.

By Nichola Davies

The MacIntyre Wind Precinct, located in Queensland’s south-eastern corner, has been on ACCIONA’s books for the best part of two years. Originally it was set to connect to a 110kV transmission line that runs south of Warwick, which ACCIONA’s country manager for Australia Brett Wickham says was becoming more and more constrained by the day.

“We had 150MW and then we had to make it 100, then 80, and so the project seemed to be getting smaller and smaller every day,” Mr Wickham said.

“We just thought, what are we going to do? We had this idea of – is there another line that we can connect to?  Someone in the team said there’s a 330kV line about 60km away. Someone else said well, we’ve got plenty of land … why don’t we try and make it big enough that it would sustain the cost of connecting to that transmission line?

“And so that’s what we did – made it really big. And really big initially was 400MW to 500MW, it wasn’t 1000. But that’s the journey that we went through – what was a project that was probably on the cusp – well it’s too dramatic to say  of being thrown away – but one we didn’t really have a solution for.”

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The Macintyre Wind Precinct will have two separate wind farms; one will be the Queensland Government-owned renewable generator CleanCo’s wind farm, which will consist of 18 5.7MW turbines, making it 103MW. The second is the 923MW MacIntyre Wind Farm, which ACCIONA will own, with 162 5.7MW turbines. Not only will CleanCo have its own wind farm in the precinct, it has also entered a power purchase agreement with ACCIONA to purchase 400MW of the 923MW output of the MacIntyre Wind Farm.

With the precinct just announced, the ACCIONA team are doing a lot of early work on the project including the engineering, design and tendering processes, as well as geotech works, ecological studies and planning work required.

The MacIntyre Wind Precinct
An impression of the MacIntyre Wind Precinct

“We are expecting to be on site commencing works in about the middle of next year – 2021,” Mr Wickham said.

“Both wind farms will start construction at the same time with civil works on site and we would expect that in early to mid-2022 we will have the transmission connection.

“Then we’ll be able to start installing and commissioning turbines. The CleanCo wind farm being 18 turbines will be finished quite quickly. So at the end of 2022 to the start of 2023, we’ll have the CleanCo wind farm basically finished. And the Macintyre wind farm is going to take probably until early to mid-2024 before it’s completely finished.”

Mr Wickham expects the project will have no impact on the grid as one of the reasons MacIntyre is such an attractive project is that it is connecting to a very strong part of the grid, one of the strongest parts in Queensland in fact. It’s close to the load centre, which is the south-east of the state including Brisbane. Being 1026MW, it will produce enough energy to power about 700,000 homes, which is a big chunk when there are just over 900,000 households in Brisbane, according to 2016 ABS data.

“The other thing I’d say for Macintyre being such a large new project is Queensland has a lot of solar – not only rooftop solar but solar projects,” Mr Wickham said.

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“So our wind farm is very complimentary to solar. We have pretty strong and stable winds overnight, in the mornings and in the evenings. Of course it blows during the day as well, but when we’ve got solar working we have wind online, but when the solar starts to drop overnight you have a very strong output from Macintyre as well.

“I think one of the benefits that CleanCo saw is that it’s very complimentary to the solar that we have in Queensland.”

A further point of difference for ACCIONA is its philosophy that in the communities it builds its renewable assets in, it works from the centre out.

“What we try to do is get our employees and our contractors from the region at the centre of the wind farm outwards,” Mr Wickham said.

“That means we start employing in the immediate area, and any positions we can’t fill we head out to the Downs area, and then out to Queensland.”

The community has been very supportive of the MacIntyre project as it’s a remote site where farmers in the area have suffered from drought. Mr Wickham says it’s bringing 400 jobs as well as families and economics activity to the community.

“The Queensland Government has been good enough to set very ambitious targets for renewables in Queensland – they’ve established CleanCo and we were good enough to win a tender with our point of difference being job creation, local community benefits, working with the local community – apprentices, local traineeships and working with local Indigenous groups. That’s what we want to do,” Mr Wickham said.

When asked about challenges in the Australian energy industry today, Mr Wickham laughs and says “how long have you got?” He then launches into the positives.

“States like Queensland are leading the way with their renewable energy targets and they’re seeing that wind and solar is the cheapest new generation that you can build,” Mr Wickham said.

“It’s cheaper than coal and tenfold cheaper than nuclear and that. I think the groundswell of momentum in the public about moving towards renewables and not only in the general public but people don’t want to see companies investing in fossil fuels anymore, shareholders don’t want to see it. So that support continues to be there.

“At a federal level I wish we could have a stronger position and I wish we could have more leadership in that space. One of the biggest issues we have at the moment is that we have an enormous number of coal plants that are going to retire over the next 25 to 30 years.

“One thing I would wish for, it’s not necessarily a plan for renewables because renewables will come because they’re cheap, they’re easy to build and they’re mainstream technology. What we actually need is more of a plan as to how we’re going to retire the coal plant.

“That needs to be done in a very staged, managed way, that allows the owners of the coal plant to have certainty. It allows the market to have certainty and it gives us time to build renewables to replace the retiring coal, otherwise we’re going to have big shocks to the market over the next 20 to 30 years as private companies make the decision of well, if no ones going to help us develop a plan to retire the plant – a 2000MW coal plant, we’ll just turn it off.

“And if you just turn it off, it creates such a shock to the market, prices are disrupted, so that’s what I’d say is the biggest challenge we have: is how do we retire the plant that gives the best outcome for the market, the owners of the plant, the workers of the plant who need jobs … and all of that kind of stuff takes time.”

With the rate that renewable technology is advancing, Mr Wickham says ACCIONA won’t hold the mantle very long for the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere, but that can only be a good thing.