Objections to 350 MW Culcairn Solar Farm overcome

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The New South Wales Independent Planning Commission’s (IPC) conditional approval last week of Neoen’s proposed 350 MW Culcairn Solar Farm and 200 MWh battery energy storage system in the Riverina region brings the total value of capital investments approved in the state over the past 12 months to $2.329 billion.

It follows, over the past 12 months alone, IPC approval of RES Australia’s 100 MW Springdale Solar Farm Project; Hanwha Energy Corporation and Green Switch Australia’s 150 MW Jindera Solar Farm; GAIA Australia’s 200 MW Bonshaw Solar Farm and associated 300 MW battery storage project; FRV’s 300 MW Walla Walla Solar Farm; and UPC/AC Renewables Australia’s 720 MW New England Solar Farm and up to 400 MWh of associated battery energy storage.

Each of these projects was referred to the IPC because of strong community objection. 

Sun for agriculture means opportunities for solar

The Riverina region — host to Springdale, Jindera, Glenellen, Walla Walla and Culcairn, as well as numerous other solar farms — in particular has consistently voiced concerns over the use of agricultural land for large-scale solar generation, and in this case added many other objections, including the heat-island effect of large swaths of solar panels and the difficulty of fighting and controlling the spread of bushfires in fire-prone areas blanketed by such installations and enclosed by security fencing.

In all, 146 objections to the $636.6 million project were received, but the IPC ruled in favour of development on the basis of various arguments, including that the project is consistent with the international, national and regional contexts of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and “encouraging the transition to renewable energy”.

It notes that the project, which has been deemed of State Significant Development (SSD) status, has electrical grid connection at a point of available network capacity (even if the other proposed solar farms in the Local Government Area (LGA) go ahead), and that “the project would generate enough electricity to power over 131,000 homes, and is therefore consistent with the NSW Climate Change Policy Framework and Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020-2030.”

Solar farms bring growth and diversification of jobs to regional areas

The IPC commissioners Andrew Hutton and Professor Zada Lipman added that Culcairn Solar Farm was found to be “consistent with the Department’s Riverina Murray Regional Plan 2036, which identifies the development of renewable energy as a growth opportunity for the region”.

The Culcairn project is expected to generate 350 full-time jobs and 1,546 indirect jobs during construction; and seven full-time positions along with 113 indirect jobs in its projected minimum 25-year operational phase.

In addition, 60% of its development cost is expected to be spent within the Riverina region.

Is there a heat-island effect created by vast solar expanses?

The IPC specifically refuted the heat-island argument, referring to a study carried out by Greater Shepparton Council on Shepparton Solar Farm, saying, “While evidence shows that solar panels can increase air temperatures above solar panels”, the study found “that lateral temperatures drop very quickly from the perimeter of a solar farm, in part due to natural convections which take warm air upwards”.

In fact, it said that within 30 metres of the development footprint, changes in air temperatures would be “negligible”; Neon has planned the solar infrastructure to be more than 30 metres away from adjoining private property boundaries.

On the subject of bushfire risk, the Commission determined that such risks can be controlled by implementing standard fire management procedures and recommendations made by the NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW.

What is prime agricultural land?

Although many objectors to the project had cited inappropriate land use, in the sense that the Culcairn Solar Farm site would occupy 1,351 hectares of “prime” or “priceless” agricultural land; some of the solar farm’s supporters who made submissions described the land as “low lying and prone to water logging (sic)” and far from highly productive.

The commission identified that “the Applicant proposes to manage the land for sheep grazing during the operation of the development and that only 25% of the site would be removed from agricultural production”.

In addition, the IPC makes the point that if all four proposed SSD solar projects in the Greater Hume LGA proceed, they would take up 0.59% of the 335,000 hectares of land being used for agriculture within that area.

It also notes that NSW Land and Soil Capability Mapping had identified the site as having “moderate to severe limitations for some land uses”. That is, it “can support some grazing but requires active management to sustain cultivation on a rotational basis”.

The process of consultation, submissions and investigation is rigorous. And although the granting of conditional development approval may sound familiar in each case the conditions are carefully considered; for Culcairn the conditions have been specifically designed to:

  • prevent, minimise and/or offset adverse environmental impacts, including threats to biodiversity
  • set standards and performance measures for acceptable environmental performance;
  • outline how the land will be returned to its current use following decommissioning and rehabilitation of the site … And other tailored specifications.

Does solar generation only belong on the REZ?

A number of objections to Neoen’s Culcairn project centred around the belief that with the NSW Government having committed to development of Renewable Energy Zones, all renewable development should fall within those zones — Culcairn Solar Farm does not.

The Climate Council emphasises that REZs are a “planning tool” that enhance the ability to coordinate renewable generation with transmission and demand — with the aim of developing an electricity system based on renewables that’s also “reliable, secure, and developed at the lowest possible cost”. 

The REZ concept doesn’t preclude the development of projects outside its declared boundaries that can access available transmission capacity, as Culcairn does, or otherwise manage their impact on the grid — the Culcairn project’s battery component will also support the grid by storing energy generated during the day for grid use in evening peak hours and as otherwise needed.

Neoen says that development of Culcairn Solar Farm will take place in two stages, with the first stage expected to take three years and the second a further 18 months.

It will have the capacity to dispatch 800,000 MWh of clean electricity into the grid each year, displacing 648,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, and have an equivalent effect on carbon abatement as planting 6.5 million trees.

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