THE Central Highlands Regional Council have given renewable energy the flick on prime agricultural land.
After a solar farm was approved on high-value irrigation land under code-assessable legislation in September last year the local community and council have been up in arms, and Mayor Kerry Hayes took it upon himself to make sure it “never happens again”.
This led to protecting land within the irrigation scheme from the development of renewable energy facilities under a temporary land use planning instrument (TLPI).
The adoption of the TLPI means that future applications within the irrigation scheme will require public notification as part of the application process so the community has the right to respond.
Construction has begun on the Emerald Solar Park, owned by the Res Group, with 40 full-time employees currently on site.
The project sits on 160 hectares of prime agricultural land, and local mayor Kerry Hayes said its placement was “baffling”.
He said the approval of the project highlighted that council previously did not differentiate the Emerald Irrigation Scheme from the rural zone.
Cr Hayes said there was no doubt they wanted renewable energy projects in the region, such as current solar farm applications before council in Blackwater and Tieri, but he said their placement had to be strategic.
“Fundamentally we see the Emerald Irrigation Scheme as an absolutely vital part of the agricultural community here, it's very defined, it has a water supply capability that is very defined,” he said.
“This is not a hard area to exclude from renewable energy projects.”
He said there was no need to have renewable energy projects and the irrigation scheme “in the same place”.
“We're one of the largest local government regions in the state, there's plenty of land suitable,” Cr Hayes said.
“It's just crazy to have (solar and irrigated agriculture) in the same spot.”
RES Australia asset management services manager Tanya Jackson said the placement of the Emerald Solar Park was well thought-out by the company.
“The land was chosen primarily as it is adjacent to a grid line within 5kms of the Emerald sub-station which has available spare grid capacity,” Ms Jackson said.
“Using farming land that has been well worked over decades also means there is minimal impact to natural habitat and cultural heritage.”
She said the suitability of the site was “scrutinised”, and it was unlikely competing projects could appear in the same area.
“The site is 160ha and a part of the lot has been returned to the landowner for continued use as irrigated agricultural land,” she said.
“The land the site occupies previously produced less than 1 per cent of the local cotton output which was estimated to have minimal impact on the cotton gin and contractor harvesting rates or availability.
“There is now limited spare grid capacity in the region which means there cannot be a cluster of similar projects.”
Calls for statewide law for high value land
COTTON Australia is calling for a coordinated statewide response to the Emerald issue, which local regional manager, Renee Anderson, said was an example of what could occur around Queensland.
Ms Anderson said in this specific case, neighbouring farms were not aware of the project until it had been approved.
“If this was taken into consideration under a statewide code the neighbour notifications would have occurred sooner” she said.
“We have some growers who are really upset and then others saying ‘people can do whatever they want with their land’.
“We don’t actually know any potential impacts and I guess that’s the biggest risk of all – is the fact that we don’t know.
“Growers need to have certainty about how much water goes through the irrigation system.
“There is the suggestion that as this proposal will take prime agricultural land out of the irrigation system, it will also potentially reduce the amount of water available.
“This also implies a reduction of the jobs and services that support food and fibre production in the district.”
She said a coordinated statewide approach would better address the long-term nature of solar facility infrastructure.
Cotton Australia fully supported the actions of the local government to ensure it does not happen again.
“Growers want to be able to make use of renewable energy but not at the loss of prime agricultural land,” she said. “Queensland could take a leaf out of NSW's book who have recently consulted on such statewide guidelines.”
Guidelines to be considered by industry
Clean Energy Council director, energy generation, Anna Freeman, said decisions as to whether new renewable energy facilities should be code or impact assessable are a matter for councils.
“We have community engagement guidelines in place for wind developments,” she said.
“The industry is currently examining the need for similar guidelines for the large-scale solar industry.”
Protecting our irrigation land
GREGORY MP Lachlan Millar said the solar project was “probably one of the worst things that can ever happen to an irrigation area”.
Mr Millar has come out strongly against the project, and said the local irrigation network, which was formed more than 40 years ago, was put in place to grow food and fibre, not harvest sunlight.
”We don't make this anymore – we're not creating any more high value agricultural land especially with the Palaszczuk government wanting to reintroduce new vegetation management laws, we'll see further restrictions on high value agricultural land,” he said.
“So why the hell are we putting a solar farm on valuable irrigation country? It has to be outlawed.”
Mr Millar said he placed no blame on local councillors, saying instead his beef was with the Res Group.
”I call on the company to have a good, long, hard think about where they actually want to put this solar farm,” he said.