Several potential corridors for a controversial transmission line project have been removed from consideration, with a single path now identified for further study amid community anger.
The Western Victoria Transmission Network Project, which intends to build new overhead transmission lines from near Ararat to Melbourne's western edge, has faced massive resistance from farmers and community members since the initial wide area of interest was announced last year.
The new single corridor map, released Wednesday morning, shows which areas proponent AusNet will focus on to develop its final route - the map is not an indication of where new infrastructure will go, only where investigations will continue.
These include a large area to the west of Waubra, connecting to existing 220 kilovolt lines, and proceeding east past Tourello and around the Hepburn Lagoon to the north.
The area then turns south, between Newlyn and Mount Prospect, following the existing transmission line.
North of Wattle Flat the corridor turns south-east, curving north of the Western Freeway but south of the Wombat State Forest and Moorabool Reservoir, before widening again north of Bacchus Marsh and Melton through Colmadai.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW
Several previous corridors have been removed, including around Wattle Flat and Learmonth, and a proposed southern route from Gordon to Fiskville and Bacchus Marsh.
Information sheets distributed by AusNet reveal several reasons why this corridor was chosen, including the impact on farmland, wildlife and the environment, and areas of heritage and cultural significance, based on community feedback consultation with landowners, technical studies, and cost constraints.
The project still has to undergo a full Environmental Effects Statement, which would need to be approved by the state government before construction could begin - this may take at least six months to get to the approval stage, pending further investigations.
AusNet's project director Stephanie McGregor said undergrounding the lines will be investigated by the EES process, as well as partial undergrounding in some areas.
The proposal, to be built, maintained, and owned by AusNet, includes about 190 kilometres of new transmission lines - 220kv lines from Bulgana to a new terminal near Ballarat, then 500kv lines from the terminal to Sydenham.
Some of the towers could be up to 80 metres tall for the 500kv line.
This would increase grid capacity as Victoria's electricity generators move to a more distributed model, incorporating more renewables.
There are serious concerns the project will affect valuable farmland, particularly for potato growers in the area who supply McCain Foods - many farms have been held by families for generations, and the uncertainty around the project's long time frames and a lack of clear consultation has caused pain and stress.
Organised resistance groups along the entire length of the proposal have met regularly and are understood to be exploring legal action, while AusNet has committed to more consultation with several groups, including councils, reference groups, and businesses.
AusNet's information sheets also note the EES process will also involve examining a new option between Bulgana and Waubra - by increasing the voltage of this section to 500kv, "the terminal station to be located to the north of Ballarat may not be required for this project".
Ms McGregor said the chosen corridor was the "least-constrained".
"We've done a lot of technical studies, desktop based and public land based, to understand what the constraints in all of those corridors would be, and quite a lot of detailed work to understand which corridor would be the least constrained of all," she said.
"We have got to this corridor as a result of that analysis, which includes the feedback from last year as well as early this year, and we expect, going through to the next stage of the investigations, we'll receive more feedback."
IN THE NEWS
A hotline has been set up for more information, 1300 360 795, and drop-in information sessions are being planned across the district.
"What I want to say everybody out there about the project is please keep raising your concerns and queries with us," Ms McGregor said.
"It's still a long journey on the project, we're hearing what they're saying, but it takes time to adopt changes and feed them through."
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FULL INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE MCGREGOR
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity
"Now that we've announced the single corridor, the next stage for us is to do detailed investigations on land in that corridor, it could be private or public land.
"We've done desktop based work, we've done fieldwork from public land and private land where we've had access - there's a whole range of studies we need to do to progress the EES.
"As we do those studies, that will enable us, in this corridor, to identify a range of potential route options.
"Our goal is to identify the least-constrained route option through this corridor.
"We have to explore a lot of the detail around the land and activities in the next six or seven months to get to that.
"Our current timing, we're estimating we're submitting our EES early next year, and so we've got to go the process between now and then.
"That will include more consultation as we progress some of those studies, those sessions will feature more technical detailed presentations as we progress some of that work.
WHY THIS CORRIDOR?
"Back in February we floated what we're doing in the corridors, we've done a lot of technical studies, desktop based and public land based, to understand what the constraints in all of those corridors would be, and quite a lot of detailed work to understand which corridor would be the least constrained of all.
"We have got to this corridor as a result of that analysis, which includes the feedback from last year as well as early this year, and we expect, going through to the next stage of the investigations, we'll receive more feedback.
"In terms of the Western Freeway, we've obviously had questions about it going back a while, and we've looked at that again based on questions from community drop-in sessions.
"One of the things to reflect on is we have to identify a route for the whole length of the project, 190km, and there are without doubt areas where you could put in a transmission easement, equally, there are a large number of areas where that's not possible.
"For it to be possible, we'd have to do significant deviations into residential areas, which would just not be possible.
"We understand why people have asked that question.
"We have to achieve an end-to-end solution, and the Western Freeway wouldn't get us there without substantial impact in areas that are quite constrained.
"We're very aware of the interest in undergrounding, hence the Victorian government's requiring us under the EES to look at it.
"What we've announced is a single corridor which is predominantly for an overhead solution, we will be looking at undergrounding as part of the EES requirements, and partial undergrounding is one of the things we'll be considering as part of that EES requirement.
"It may be possible in some areas, but we have to look at that in the round of the full EES requirement, which is both full and partial.
"We have to do the work on the undergrounding for the EES, but we've had more time to look at an overhead solution.
"Since the announcement of the government's determination of the EES requirements, we've still got quite a lot of work to do undergrounding.
"We will be considering undergrounding within this corridor, but we're also mindful that as we do that work, we need to reflect on what comes out of it and how it might shape things going forward.
"What I want to say everybody out there about the project is please keep raising your concerns and queries with us.
"It's still a long journey on the project, we're hearing what they're saying, but it takes time to adopt changes and feed them through.
"We've moved to a 1300 number (1300 360 795), we've been able to do the work to get the farming guidelines out to provide more certainty to farmers about what is and isn't possible.
"I just encourage them to continue to come forward.
"I'd also encourage those who are feeling the strain or stress of the process to firstly reach out to the community groups in the area who are focused on the project for engagement and guidance, reach out to their local councillors and local government.
"If they want support from a mental health perspective, we've got an independent and free counselling service they can access. (phone Benestar on 1300 360 364).
"It's important to realise there's a whole community going on this journey and we want to provide as many opportunities for them to engage as possible, but we're also aware there's a lot of organisations going through this process as well.
"Recognise we've still got the approvals ahead next year, there are still a lot of opportunities for people to have their say and try to influence where the project goes.
"Local councils are an integral part of the dialogue and engagement and process for a project like this developing.
"They have a role on the technical reference group that the DELWP convene to oversee the approvals process.
"We recognise that local councillors, in all the councils along the route, have a strong interest on behalf of their constituents on the project.
"We are open to doing briefings to councillors as needed, we recognise they have a role to play in the interests of their organisation and constitutions, and they have the opportunity to participate in the EES process.
"They are key stakeholders we continue to engage with, and we recognise they have a very wide community base they need to represent.
"We will be doing more consultation in the second half the year, we're working through the details of what that's going to look like.
"We're mindful we've had some feedback about the volume of interest last time - some drop-in sessions had a lot of people in attendance so we're looking at booking systems to avoid queues next time.
"We're also going to look at dedicated technical sessions we'll run in conjunction with that.
"I think the town hall type environment - what we'll be looking at doing is longer windows of time at key central locations, and perhaps over a number of days.
"It's important we provide information that's accessible to everybody, and in big group environments, it's not always conducive to people getting the particular information they want.
"We're looking at running a blended scenario for those community engagement sessions, and continuing to run the CCGs, one-to-one engagement with landowners.
"My key message is to reach out - ask questions, we can get our landowner engagement people to get in touch, and if people want someone to come out and have a chat with them, we can do that.
"We have a good six or seven months ahead of us and there's still time for a lot of discussions.
"The EES process is not a done deal - if anything, the AGL decision at Crib Point last year proves these things aren't a done deal for us, and we need to engage with that process honestly and with integrity - hopefully the community takes some comfort in that.
"Last week we put up the EES approvals guideline.
"We're conscious we've done a few presentations to the CCG and councils, it's going to be an ongoing area of interest and we've tried to provide as much clarity as we can, bearing in mind it's not our process per se.
"We also provided a guideline to land access to explain to landowners where we might need to access their land how we would approach them and try to come to an agreement with them.
"That's another area where we're demonstrating we've heard feedback from the community.
"We want to talk to landowners in a constructive way about how we can access their land where we need to access it."