As work begins on Victoria’s biggest solar farm project, in the Mallee district in the north west of the state, there is growing concern over the future of prime agricultural land in the heart of the country’s food bowl.
French energy giant, Total Eren is behind the $300m, 256-megawatt Kiamal solar farm on a more than 500-hectare property at Ouyen, south of Mildura.
Once built, the Kiamal farm’s 720,000 solar panels will generate enough energy to power more than 133,000 homes.
Total Eren’s project manager Aaron Sluczanowski said about 200 workers would be employed during its construction and seven people employed when it is completed in mid-2019.
“There will be locals involved in the operation, obviously the panels need to be cleaned and the site needs to be looked after,” he said.
“Definitely there will be locals involved throughout the project’s lifespan.”
He said the company had signed purchase agreements to sell the energy to Mars Australia, and energy retailers Flow Power, and Alinta Energy.
Solar location divide
Three solar developments proposed near Mildura, totalling $30m, drew more than 100 objections from nearby residents and were recently knocked back during a robust council meeting.
Mildura councillor Simon Clemence voted against the proposals, arguing they would take away prime farming land.
“The significance of irrigated horticultural land in Mildura can’t be overstated,” Mildura councillor Simon Clemence said.
“We’ve been directed by the state to protect … agricultural land.”
He said while the council was fully supportive of renewable energies, it had to be on suitable land.
Proposed developer and PowerVault director Steve Timmis criticised the council’s decision.
“For the last eight years Mildura has tried to position itself as the solar capital of Australia … (but) decisions like this sends a message loud and clear that that’s blatantly not the case,” Mr Timmis said.
He argued that the projects would have returned derelict farms back into the agricultural system.
“The plan was to get organic status and we had some agreements in place to irrigate and work the land in between the panels,” he said.
“So it’s what’s termed an ‘agri-solar’ concept which is a first of it’s kind in Australia.
“I’m an ex-farmer myself and to take derelict land that has had the water sold off and has been taken out of the system and to put that back into the system … was sort of lost in the wash.”
No clear government guidelines stall projects
An lack of guidelines from the State Government saw the Greater Shepparton City Council ill-equipped to approve four projects, at Tallygaroopna, Lemnos, Tatura East and Congupna, passing the task onto the Government to consider.
Following community consultations, an independent planning panel assessed the applications.
The Congupna project was approved as a result of the panel hearing, but a decision on the Tallygaroopna, Lemnos and Tatura East solar farms, which all reside on irrigated land, has been deferred until further strategic work is completed.
The Government has now released draft guidelines for future big solar farm developments in Victoria, that will be open for comment until March, 2019.
It’s aimed at helping inform councils, developers and communities about planning requirements for large solar farm facilities.
The guidelines take location, grid accessibility, agricultural land use and sensitive landscapes into consideration.