South-West Victoria is missing out on millions of dollars of potential investment, due to inadequate power infrastructure, according to one regional lobby group.
The Great South Coast Food and Fibre Council and Victorian Farmers Federation are pressing a future state government to upgrade power lines, in the region.
The council’s executive officer Tony Ford said it would like to see a $4 million pilot program to upgrade the line between Yambuk and Narrawong to a three-phase capacity supply.
He said the current single wire earth return (SWER) lines were hampering investment, as they could not carry enough power.
“New Zealanders looking to invest in the south-west region’s dairy farms comment that the supply network is of ‘third World Standard’,” Mr Ford said.
He said once investors found about the restrictions on power supply, “they pack up and go to Tasmania".
“There are plenty of people around who would invest in developing intensive dairy farms or irrigated dairy farms," he said.
“We have great water resources, but - guess what - we have no power infrastructure.”
Mr Ford said the government had turned down requests for the upgrade.
“Regional Development Victoria has given us clear directions the government is not going to invest in poles and wires – and that really dismays us,” Mr Ford said.
“We are frustrated when the government is saying it will not invest in what we consider is basic infrastructure.”
He said since the privatisation of the electricity industry, little investment had occurred to upgrade SWER lines in the south-west.
“What once met the needs of small grazing, sheep and beef farms in a bygone era does not meet the needs of today’s large-scale farms and intensive operations such as feed mills, dairies and concentrated infrastructure,” Mr Ford said.
“A 500-cow dairy cannot cool milk, mill grain and run irrigation pumps on SWER power delivery without generator backup, which provides an impediment to existing operations.”
Economic powerhouse He said the food and fibre industry in the Great South Coast region, across five shires, generated 60 per cent of the region’s gross domestic product, providing 30pc of jobs, in the farm, factory and service industries.
“The region is the major exporter, in value and volume terms for Victoria and Australia, supplying some 30pc of all food and fibre exports, for the state,” he said.
Mr Ford said the area was the agricultural powerhouse of the state, but could not get public investment in infrastructure.
“It’s a small amount of public money, it’s really a small investment, but it opens up 16,000 hectares of land, two kilometres either side of that line,” he said.
Mr Ford said farms on the current SWER lines could not readily expand their operations, beyond the milk-storage capabilities of their current vats.
“This capacity can’t be increased, beyond the energy constraints imposed by SWER lines, without intervention,” a recent report into the issue found.
The pilot scheme is part of what the VFF has described as a long-term energy plan, for the state, which recognises the importance of agriculture and better manage demand and supply.
It has asked for $155 million to ensure a secure diesel supply, a 90-day reserve, and upskilling of electrical contractors to meet changing the changing energy requirements, of farms.
Growth restrictions Farmers in the south-west agreed expansion plans were being held up by poor energy infrastructure.
Tyrendarra, Vic, dairy farmer Bruce Knowles said the biggest problem was the ‘user pays’ system.
“The consumer has to put his hand in his pocket, to pay for infrastructure,” Mr Knowles said.
“While they maintain that policy, we are not going to get long-term planning for infrastructure.”
He said he had to buy two generators for his property, at a cost of $100,000, to ensure a reliable electricity supply.
“One is to back up the other, which is crazy, but if the power goes out, I have security,” he said.
An investment now would pay dividends over time.
“The regions contribute a lot of income to the state, and the feeling is they aren’t getting any payback from the government,” Mr Knowles said.
“It’s an investment for the future, while some of that potential is not taken up initially, over time, it will be.
“I have security of power but when the three-phase power comes in, and the price of electricity comes down, I’ll only be too happy to flick the switch to go back to the grid.”
Bullaharre dairy farmer Craig Dwyer said while he was 12 kilometres from the Cobden, Vic, dairy processing plant, his farm was at the end of a SWER line.
“That has limited my ability for efficiencies and cost saving on farm because of restrictions on the power I can receive,” Mr Dwyer said.
“Our energy bills are higher because our cooling systems are running for longer because we don’t have an efficient power supply.”
He said it would cost $360,0000 to upgrade the current SWER line.
“It is cost prohibitive, given the fact we have the potential to expand, should the neighbours decide to sell, it’s going to be too restrictive to expand,” he said.
Mr Dwyer said there was the potential to expand his 240-strong herd to 400.
“Solar is going to be an alternative, but given we are at the end of the line, we are unable to feed electricity back into the grid,” he said.
“We are going down that track of having a look at what’s available, but the biggest conundrum I find is that we are so close to a processing plant, but have these restrictions imposed on the infrastructure, that is currently available.
“If the government wants a sustainable dairy industry, into the future, that becomes more efficient; it’s a worthwhile exercise.”
United Dairyfarmers of Victoria Wannon branch vice president Casey Taylor said most of the poles and wire were installed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“There are pockets of three-phase power, but even that is limited,” he said.
He said one of the most significant issues was the ongoing reliability of power.
“We need to be able to draw more out of the grid, that’s the biggest issue for us,” Mr Taylor said.
Farmers also had concerns about safety, with ageing infrastructure causing fires.
“There’s never a summer goes by where I’m not involved in a large wildfire,” he said.
Political response Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said the government’s $30 million energy investment plan would go a fair way towards solving the region’s energy problems.
“The grants have been designed with this issue in mind – the guidelines are there to ensure the best value for farmers, to reduce their energy costs,” Ms Pulford said.
National Party leader Peter Walsh said the coalition would decentralise the state, attracting people and businesses to regional and rural communities, with better infrastructure and services.
“We’ll engage with communities to achieve this vision and consider proposals that will create job opportunities and grow investment,” Mr Walsh said.
The coalition’s energy spokesperson David Southwick said only a Liberal-National government would ease energy prices by opening up Victoria’s onshore gas supplies.