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Sugar vs solar, round 2: 60MW Qld project stalls after opposition from cane farmers

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sugar-cane copyQueensland’s sugar industry has again clashed with the state’s burgeoning solar industry, this time in opposition to the development of the 60MW Mirani solar farm, a $110 million project being proposed by local renewables outfit ESCO Pacific.

According to a report in the Mackay Daily Mercury on the weekend, the Mackay Regional Council on Friday decided against approving the project – a decision the paper described as “so unexpected,” but which followed a vigorous campaign against the development, led by Mackay Sugar.

The main complaint of Mackay Sugar was that the site proposed for the solar – chosen largely due to its easy access to the Ergon Energy network – would cover 165 hectares of land that is currently used for sugar cane production, including a cane tram line.

The paper said Mackay Sugar raised concerns that the site in question had delivered 27.3 tonnes of cane over the past two years, claimed the loss of cane from the project would “severely jeopardise” their operations and viability.

Other local cane farmers also objected to the project, arguing it would damage prime agricultural land and impact the local environment.

This is not the first time the incumbent sugar industry has waged was with solar development in the state: In 2015, the development of FRV’s $400 million 130MW Clare solar farm – which had been proposed and approved by the Burdekin Shire council, and by the sugar farmer on whose property it will be built – was appealed by Wilmar Sugar, a monopoly sugar harvesting and milling company that makes ethanol from the region’s sugar cane byproducts.

In that case, as we reported, the state government wound up intervening, by “calling in” the project, which is now under construction.

ESCO Pacific, which claims to be pursuing a 1GW solar pipeline for Australia, including the 135MW Ross River Solar Farm near Townsville – and recently proposed a 120MW project for Glenrowan, in Victoria – is reportedly “taken aback” by the council’s decision, but seems prepared to fight for the project.

“It was a hot topic and a hard decision,” said ESCO Pacific head of development Allison Hawke.

“We’re aware of this issue and it’s not the first time a solar farm has been refused on this ground. The Clare Solar Farm (Burdekin) was refused on this ground.

“The minister called that solar farm in and ultimately overturned that and didn’t deem that solar had any less priority than high quality agricultural land.

“…It is disappointing because I do really believe that a lot of Mackay are excited for renewable energy,” she added.

“We will need to seek advice on where we go from here, I believe that we would be looking at escalating the issue, discussing it with the minister or considering out options in terms of contesting the issue at a higher level. We will really need to thoroughly consider our options before we make a decision on that.”

Hawke also said ESCO Pacific hoped to work with Mackay Sugar and the Council to give them more information about the solar farm.

“We acknowledge that we’re very much the new players in this space and there is work to do to demonstrate that solar is not going to take up big tracks of high quality agricultural land,” she said.

“It is a very light use of the land whereas sub-divisions or mining has a much more permanent and severe impact on agricultural land.”  

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  • Rurover

    I’m a bit perplexed by this decision. Why is it not possible to grow sugar under and around the wind towers once they’re established?
    Sure there will be some loss of land due to access tracks and tower pads, but pretty minimal I would have thought.

    • Probably because it’s a solar farm, not a wind farm.

      • Trent Deverell

        +1….

      • Rod

        Rurover is probably like me and can’t work out why anyone in their right mind would oppose a solar farm.
        We have come to expect wind farm opposition.

        • Trent Deverell

          Mirani is 30km from George Christensen’s office….

          …and Mackay quit calling itself a Sugar Town 20 years back and fancies itself as a Coal Mining town these days…

          In fact what is indecent is that many of the cane farmers and sons have quit growing sugar grass, installed some beef cattle, and bought a truck and taken on coal mine work.

  • Trent Deverell

    No surprises the Mackay Canegrower’s honcho is standing for the LNP COALition in the State Seat of Mirani….

    If the glorified grass growers had any brains, each farmer would have set themselves up with 20-50kw solar farm at each irrigation point, and with some smarts employed (and/or battery storage), could lower their maximum demand and score a better outcome out of Ergon seasonal/demand tarrifs.

    Not least that for 3/4’s of the year that they don’t irrigate, a 30-50kw solar farm would be tidy income even at the bare minimum retail feed-in rate….

    • Ken Dyer

      There’s a cane farmer already doing this in Rockhampton, and it seems to be working out, given the price hikes by Ergon.

      • Trent Deverell

        One cane farmer… congratulations to that guy… now what about the other 4400 sugar growers, and anyone who irrigates or pumps plenty of water?

        4400 micro-sites x 20kw = 88MWp in total…

        or each 20kw site would be good for around 35,000kwh/annum and occupy just 60m2 of a cane paddock, next to the existing pump shed and dedicated Ergon transformer.

        Most cane farms have a 3-phase dedicated Ergon transformer at each bore or irrigation channel take-off.

        • Ken Dyer

          Trent, obviously you know what you are talking about. It seems that the mill and Ergon have vested interests in the cane crop and the network respectively, and the cane farmers are perhaps their own worst enemy.

          Surely, this has been pointed out to them? Is it worth having a go through Canegrowers MacKay?

          http://www.mackaycanegrowers.com.au/

          It seems pretty obvious that the association is still stuck on moaning about power prices and has yet to embrace solar power for irrigation. Maybe time to educate the cane farmers?

          • Ken Dyer

            Sent an email to Canegrowers MacKay. We shall see what happens…….

          • Trent Deverell

            Rest assured I have many exchanges with various characters from that crowd!..

            Is a pity more of them didn’t turn up when the Renewable Energy Panel was in town…..but there was some issues with supply authority and PPA complications raised, but I am lead most of the hang-ups have since been addressed.

            If you dig a little bit further in, and investigated who the Mackay Canegrowers chief is?…… Kerry Latter… LNP candidate for Mirani….. a COALition man..!!

            “Whilst you can lead the donkey to water, you can’t always convince the the ass to take a drink”… is the sad reality!!….

            That aside Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson has previously announced the Mackay Council wants to do its own solar farm, so there could be a bit of politics going on in that respect..

            Ultimately, if you going to plug 60MW+ solar farm into the grid you going to be working a Ergon 66kv line pretty hard, so there has to be some sensible engineering applied.

            But as I see it there is a perfectly flat 40m+ wide ex-QR corridor between Walkerston and Marian (aka Newberry) , that MSL and/or Mackay City Council now own….

            ….that location happens to be almost next door to PowerLink’s 132kv Pioneer Valley sub with 3-links from Nebo and 4th via Alligator Ck and couple 132kv links into Mackay West and bunch more Ergon 33/66kv feeders.

            If someone wanted to build a decent sized solar farm in the Pioneer Valley that would be about as good as it gets, as the ex-rail corridor and some additional land formerly used by Pleystowe mill would be a big hunk of real estate not doing to much in that locale, and would incur zero loss of cane field acres.

          • Ken Dyer

            The main argument seems to be that the solar farm would be on productive agricultural land and would impact production. It would seem that this was the main argument. Clearly, the business case was not well thought out. One can only wonder about the reduction in operating costs when your electricity bill is substantially reduced from solar, a direct impact on the bottom line. Obviously, no one quantified this when considering the benefits.
            I take your point about the availability of waste land.

          • Trent Deverell

            Where credit is due EscoPacific’s 170-page EIS is rather well detailed and they they have done their sums regards making their money back from the solar project.

            As for “business case” as applies to the existing landowner, I would agree with figures quoted by another above…. trading $4k for sugar production for $56k/annum for electricity production, it should be a no brainer for land-owner to agree to a price, sign-over the block and watch the approvals to go thru.

            Ultimately it is a 3rd party objecting about the loss of productive land, yet why didn’t anyone think to go for drive up the Eungella road and start questioning why so many blocks especially around Pinnacle and Gargett have cows on them and not cane anymore?.

            Additionally one could question Mackay City Council over its in-house plans for its own Solar Farm and who they have apparently signed up to construct on their behalf. Potentially room for conflict of interest right there!!!

            Further if it was a property developer wanting to convert similar size cane-block bordering Glenella or Bucasia or Paget ….. the council would be falling over itself to approve…

            Just look at how much room has been resumed over the years, not least the Bypass Road project is latest to eat up prime sugar fields….

          • Ken Dyer

            Trent, I believe you have a labor Government member in MacKay. Surely she is aware of these goings on and how it impacts the Queensland Government solar strategy? Can I suggest you raise all this with her.

          • Trent Deverell

            i laugh… Energy Minister and local members have been well an truly communicated with…

            Unfortunately the donkey needs a drink comment applies to the ALP as well whilst they are tied to coal.

          • Ken Dyer

            Yes I see that now. QCoal Byerwen project still waiting and Baralaba Coal now in receivership/Liquidation. And you have Abbott Point a 2 Billion Adani millstone; and a coal fired power station being pushed by “coals” Canavan – never mind that it will push up coal prices, and the taxpayer will foot the seven year build.

            Here’s an Adani update

            http://ieefa.org/adani-faces-financing-gap-unpopular-australian-coal-project/

            One can only hope that sanity may eventually prevail in the McKay Region.

  • George Darroch

    While I don’t like seeing a solar farm defeated, and this calling in is right in the middle of an election campaign (draw your own conclusions), perhaps they have a point.

    There is a lot of land in Queensland, and not all of it is suitable for agriculture. Why did they choose this site over others?

    • Trent Deverell

      Keep in mind the Pioneer Velley sugar growers impose a huge.. but seasonal.. irrigation load on the Ergon network.

      When the Pioneer Valley and Mackay West 132kv subs tripped the other
      week at 6pm that took out 68MW.

      In addition there is also significant Coal Port and Rail Traction hanging off the Alligator Ck (Sarina) Powerlink subs

      Hence it makes sense to locate the generation as close as possible to where it can be used… although arguably spreading the PV capacity across each farm and fill up plenty of plots that they have converted to cattle …would probably be a better outcome for network utilisation..

      It amuses me no end to see irrigation going flat-out during the 10am to 4pm period which is perfect for solar, whilst they could switch to off-peak from 10pm till 8am, and if needed only slow-down during the 5pm-9pm peak period,,,,, and still irrigate 16-20 hours a day if they could afford all the water.

  • Peter Fagan

    I am strongly pro-renewables and as keen as anyone to see a decline in fossil fuel generation … AND I don’t know the full background to this case.

    However on the limited information presented here, I suspect Mackay Regional Council has made a good decision. There are many many sites in sunny Queensland where solar farms can be located. Why would a company choose to build a large solar farm at a site that takes 165 hectares of productive agricultural land out of production permanently? And compromises the operation of a cane tram line?

    Australia is losing productive agricultural land to suburban sprawl at an alarming rate. Companies seeking sites for solar farms ought not exacerbate this problem.

    • Trent Deverell

      Your second point is vastly more significant to what has wrecked the production volumes of the sugar industry, particular in Mackay area..

      From a second angle take a general drive up the Pioneer valley and you’ll quickly realise the cane farmers are often their own worst enemy having converted to cattle farming, mining ‘support’ and building huge houses with home paddocks filled with all sorts of toys that aren’t tractors, harvestors and irrigation equipment anymore.

      Ultimately, so many howl about power prices, but given without fail dozens of Ergon powerlines get wiped out by harvestors every crush, then the network gets absolutely hammered for 3-4 months irrigating the new crop at high-noon thru spring and summer, and then sits idle doing nothing for the rest of the year.

      The economics is dead-set awful, but Kerry Latter and his mate George blindly champion a NQ coal-plant being the solution.

      The place has gone nuts, especial given over the years three mills have closed and guess what they also provided by way of burning excess bagasse and spinning a turbine to power the mill and export the rest…… whilst farmer Joe next door was firing water all over his next crop with the formerly cheap power made from his last crop.

  • PacoBella

    A report from the Australian Department of Agriculture stated “Australia’s average cane production in 2001 was 59 t/ha” (www.agriculture.gov.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/ag-food/crops/sugar/report/b.doc). The newspaper report above stated the site produced 27.3 tonnes over 2 years and the site comprised 165 hectare. My maths is a bit suspect, but by my calculations you could grow 13.7 t of cane on 0.23 ha, particularly if the land was “prime agricultural land” (what do they do with the rest of the land?).

    I was involved in a study of the impact of the loss of caneland on the sugar mills between Mosman and Innisfail in 1976. The industry was moaning about the problem then and in some areas it was of concern, but the ADA study referred to above said in Appendix B “Sugarcane area in Queensland has increased by over 40 percent since 1988 and now exceeds 500,000 ha.”. The Mackay Sugar website states that they harvest cane from 7,500 ha and yet they claim the loss of cane that could be grown on 0.2 ha “would “severely jeopardise” their operations and viability.”.

    Somebody is having a lend of somebody here…..

    • Trent Deverell

      Keep in mind cane tonnes is technically different to sugar tonnes produced.

      Hence consider the ccs percentage as an indicator of how much sugar is produced from the tonnage of cane dispatched to the mil for crushing..

      In recent years they have been growing cane with such a low sugar content that the condemned cane goes straight to the co-gen at Racecourse…

      so in a twist one could question how much they were getting to make electricity instead of sugar…

      Who would have thought, MSL would have been making a mint last summer selling wholesale electricity, whilst the growers were blowing up about retail price rises and rubbish sugar returns…?

  • neroden

    I find it odd that they were proposing putting the solar farm on productive crop-growing agricultural land in the first place. Where I live, the solar farms are located on rocky hillsides and other unproductive “edges” of the agricultural land… or on sheep farms (since the grass will grow right under the solar panels and the sheep will graze right under them).

    • Tom

      How productive is sugar cane land?

      Generously 10 tonnes per year per hectare sugar yield at $400/ tonne = $4000/ha/year farm gate value (although the mills take a big chunk of this).

      How productive is a solar farm?

      Conservatively 0.4MW/ha at 25%CF and $60/MWh = $52,560/ha/year farm gate value.

      So much for Liberal philosophy of “open markets promoting most efficient use of resources”. However, if there is a coal industry cheer squad anywhere in Australia it is in Mackay. Solar must be evil.

      • Trent Deverell

        In effect the cane farmers aren’t the smartest cookies in the jar!!!

    • Rod

      I find it extremely odd that a farmer would give up guaranteed solar income greater than the the possible income from cane.

  • Jacob

    I don’t understand. Who owns the land? Whomever owns the land should surely get a say as to what is done with the site? What if they wanted to grow sorghum instead? Does the regional council get a veto on that?

    As for damaging the environment, surely it’s better than growing a monoculture with pesticides and herbicides. Wouldn’t its ability to sell water rights to its neighbors help them drought-proof?

  • Alan S

    I don’t suppose growing sugar beet under the panels would meet with a positive response? It thrives in low light locations such as Lincolnshire. Thought not.

  • Sally Noel Triggell

    Cane farmers you just can’t please them. Not so long ago they we on TV moaning about the high cost of electricity and some had even reverted back to diesel for pumping. Now they are given an opportunity to help not only themselves but the planet, and they moan even loader.