A council in north-east Victoria has raised concerns about a lack of guidance around approving and reviewing solar planning projects.
Campaspe Shire Council is reviewing plans for the development of a solar and battery project in Stanhope and is expected to vote on the issue this month.
The 30MW solar and 100MW battery project has been proposed by Australian-owned developer GloBird Energy and is estimated to cost $150 million.
If approved the battery would be the biggest in Victoria, with GloBird arguing it is needed to insure the local grid against power fluctuations from the big solar farms in Girgarre, Lancaster, and those proposed for Shepparton.
But Campaspe Mayor Adrian Weston said a lack of direction around planned solar projects made it difficult for local governments to approve such projects.
“Over the last 18 months there’s certainly been a lot of solar farm applications come onto the radar for councils right across northern Victoria and they almost got the jump on everyone,” he said.
“We’re looking forward to some guidelines that will help ensure that we get consistent decisions right across the state.”
While wind farms must be approved by the state planning minister, solar farm approval falls to local government.
Cr Weston said the approval process should remain in local government hands but argued the current process meant there were inconsistencies from council to council.
“When an application for any development is received, it’s assessed against the respective clauses in our planning scheme and it’s basically a merits-based assessment,” he said.
“There are some variations in council’s planning schemes … each scheme as well as having all the state clauses and state content also has some local clauses and local policies.
“The important thing is the consistency so that the decisions that are made are assessed consistently across the state.
“Inevitably there’ll be some focus on balancing the competing objectives between solar farm developments and the use of land for agriculture.”
Guidelines being developed
In February, the Greater Shepparton City Council declared itself “ill-equipped” to approve four solar developments for the region.
The Minister for Planning called in the applications to determine whether planning permits could be granted for the projects at Tallygaroopna, Congupna, Lemnos, and Tatura East.
In a statement, a government spokesperson said the Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, was considering a report from an independent planning panel for the four Shepparton applications, and that a response would be delivered shortly.
“We’re also developing clear guidelines for the assessment of solar farm applications in Victoria, to give locals certainty and support jobs,” the spokesperson said.
Solar switch is coming
Andrew Blakers, a professor of engineering at the Australian National University, said while there was “always room for improvement” around planning guidelines, he believed current regulations were adequate.
In terms of solar, he said there was little impact outside of the construction phase, and that there were ‘well established’ guidelines for suppressing dust and noise.
“A solar farm is typically constructed in about six months, and during that time there will be inconvenience,” Professor Blakers said.
“On the other hand, there will be benefits in the local community through employment, to build and later maintain the plant.
“Having accepted guidelines that allow developers to pick through and if they do it properly they will also get a social licence, as well as a formal licence from council, these are always useful and as we get more and more experience with solar farms, this will evolve to be very smooth and allow rapid uptake of solar in many districts across Australia.”
Australia is moving rapidly towards a renewable electricity system, with a planned 11 gigawatts of new solar and wind to be introduced over the next two years.
Professor Blakers said the country was in the middle of a transition phase, and that some communities were sceptical of the new forms.
“I think we’re at a juncture where people are seeing large solar farms erected, they’re not familiar with them, but within a few years they’ll understand that they are a benefit, rather than a hazard,” he said.
“This transition is happening very quickly, and with all things like that, there is dislocation and pushback.”
“The alternative is coal mining, which alienates far more land in a far more permanent way than the short-term construction of a solar farm that will last 30 years.”