Food and energy tussle as Australian state approves controversial solar farms

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From pv magazine Australia.

The Shepparton region, in the heart of the ‘food bowl of Australia’ the Goulburn Valley, is fast becoming a hotbed of utility scale PV. So much so that the Greater Shepparton City Council ‘called in’ Victoria state planning minister Richard Wynne when it did not feel it had the requisite planning guidelines to adjudicate on four large scale solar farms amid concerns from farmers and residents.

The first of the projects, the 68 MW Congupna Solar Farm, was pushed through last year with enough force, it seems, that the state government of Daniel Andrews felt it necessary to send down new planning guidelines for large scale solar farms on the back of it.

The three other facilities, approved by Wynne on Friday, are the Tatura East (with a generation capacity of 45 MW and under development by CleanGen Power), Tallygaroopna (30 MW, X-Elio) and Lemnos (100 MW, Neoen) projects. Those three farms will incorporate 650,000 solar panels between them.

Some farmers and residents are upset the state government waved through the three new projects before the guidelines it introduced in response to the first were officially adopted. However, Minister Wynne insisted “these permits were approved after a thorough review by independent experts and consultation with the community”.

Agricultural concerns

The issue at hand is that Tatura East, Tallygaroopna and Lemnos are situated on prime agricultural land which has had $2 billion (US$1.35 billion) in government grants for irrigation upgrades of late. A particular gripe concerns the projects’ proximity to fruit orchards, with farmers worried they will suffer heat effects associated with solar power generation.

A report published on the website of national news provider ABC stated a three-week independent panel hearing was held about the solar project proposals but opponents insist their gripes have fallen on deaf ears. The independent panel heard complaints about heat effects, the use of agricultural land, wasted irrigation infrastructure and a lack of scientific research into the impacts of solar farming.

“We’ve done the work to address local concerns” said planning minister Wynne, “and made sure all potential impacts on irrigation farmland and the district more broadly were considered in the decision. These applications went through an independent panel process, this could not be a more transparent process. The three applications had to be considered under the planning scheme that was in place at the time.”

Once the new guidelines are adopted in the weeks ahead, new applications for large scale solar farms will come under the minister for planning’s jurisdiction. Considering the Victorian government’s determination to reach 40% renewable energy by 2025, the assumption is the pipeline of large scale projects in the state will maintain a steady flow of approvals.

By Blake Matich