The Victorian Government has approved the plans for three controversial solar farms near Shepparton in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.
- Newly approved Victorian solar farms are said to create 600 jobs and clean energy for 80,000 residences
- Farmers said the land should be used for agriculture after the Government has already spent $2 billion on irrigation
- Victoria’s Planning Minister said the projects were approved by an independent process that factored in community concern
The Government believes the projects will create more than 600 jobs and generate enough clean energy to power more than 80,000 homes.
Combined, the three farms will consist of more than 650,000 solar panels and generate 175 megawatts of renewable energy into the power grid.
The farms, at Lemnos, Tallygaroopna and Tatura East, will be built on former irrigation properties that have previously used hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grants to upgrade irrigation equipment, now likely to never be used again.
Projects approved in line with ‘outdated’ guidelines
In April 2018, the three projects were “called in” by the Victorian Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, at the request of the City of Greater Shepparton, which did not feel it had relevant planning guidelines to give approval to the projects.
Using the projects as an example, the Minister then appointed a planning panel to develop new solar planning guidelines for the state.
In July this year, the Government released new planning guidelines for large-scale solar farms.
The guidelines were introduced to encourage investment and provide certainty for councils and developers around acceptable outcomes for land, communities and the environment.
Now, just weeks before the new guidelines are set to be adopted, the Minister has used the old guidelines to approve the three projects.
Concerns ‘fell on deaf ears’: farmers
Tallygaroopna farmer Natalie Akers lives close to one of the proposed farms and holds concerns the project will make the land unusable for agriculture.
The Victorian Government has so far spent $2 billion on irrigation upgrades in the region.
Ms Akers said it was a waste of taxpayers’ money for the landowners to get grants for irrigation upgrades, and then further Government grants to become solar farms.
“If you apply the new guidelines to these three projects, they should be rejected,” she said.
“It seems we have a government prepared to rollover to big international corporates with deep pockets and not care about those farmers affected on the ground.
“Mr Wynne agreed in Parliament this year that he would apply the new guidelines, and he hasn’t.”
The farms have been proposed by renewable energy companies CleanGen, X-Elio Australia, and Neoen Australia.
During a three-week independent panel hearing into the solar farm proposals, held in Shepparton last year, an independent panel heard concerns about heat-related issues, use of agricultural land, loss of irrigation infrastructure, and a lack of scientific research about impacts.
Ms Akers said there were no other solar farms in the world situated next to fruit orchards.
“That will be the case for two of the three [solar farms] that have been approved today, and we don’t yet understand what impact that’s going to have on those apple trees.”
Toolamba’s Peter Hall owns and runs an orchard that will border the Tatura farm.
After spending weeks presenting to the panel he said he felt the community’s concerns had fallen on deaf ears.
“Communities should not be ignored like this, governments should not make decisions in this manner — it’s gutless, actually. It’s a gutless way to approach a policy issue,” Mr Hall said.
“Sure, there will be a few short-term jobs and after that there will be some lights and some security, but there will be no people there, there’ll be no jobs there.
“Agriculture brings an enormous amount of jobs and viability to our region, so why chew up high-value irrigated agricultural land that has $2 billion of government money already spent on it?”
Solar approval process was ‘transparent’: Minister
Mr Wynne hit back at claims the Government was putting the needs of investors ahead of farmers.
When questioned over why the Government had approved the projects only weeks ahead of the new guidelines being ratified, Mr Wynne said they “had to be assessed on the previous planning scheme”.
“These applications went through an independent panel process. They were approved by an independent panel where there was the opportunity for community and council input,” he said.
“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.”
Australia is moving rapidly towards a renewable electricity system, with a planned 11 gigawatts of new solar and wind energy to be introduced over the next two years.
The Victorian Government plans to reach 40 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and investment in solar and wind projects are expected to increase.
“We know that this area is really an excellent destination for this form of investment,” Mr Wynne said.
“I think we’ll see more of these types of projects throughout Shepparton moving forward.”
Independent member for Shepparton, Suzanna Sheed, said she was “devastated” by the announcement.
“It looks quite opportunistic on the Government’s part, and it’s a very disappointing decision,” she said.
“There’s a range of things that people say weren’t properly explored, and with this now located near orchards, they’ll feel like they’re being the guinea pigs in this issue.
“We need to find the Government’s reasons for pursuing this and if it is insistent on proceeding this way it’s important proper studies are done.”