How to fast-track renewables without weakening environmental approvals

Glenrowan solar farm
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By most accounts, the 2024 Federal Budget delivered significant outcomes for clean energy, while failing to deliver for nature and biodiversity. But what about where the two overlap?

There are some promising elements in the budget that will go some way to addressing the tensions between the rollout of renewable energy and nature concerns. There are no silver bullets, but it is critical that the energy transition is rolled out in a way that works for people and nature. 

Let’s start with where things are at. In recent years we have seen growing public concern on the impacts of renewable energy (largely onshore and offshore wind, solar and transmission infrastructure) on Australia’s biodiversity.

A lot of this concern is exacerbated by deliberate disinformation campaigns, most prominently in the false narratives linking whale deaths to offshore wind. Like all disinformation campaigns, they are based on little more than kernels of truth.

However, there are genuine environmental impacts to consider in the roll out of renewable energy. 

To achieve the speed and scale of emissions reductions we need to reduce the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, we are going to need lots of large-scale clean energy infrastructure.

This needs to go well beyond meeting our own domestic electricity needs, but also provide enough energy to decarbonise other sectors such as transport and the built environment and replace our fossil fuel exports.

This needs to happen quickly if we are to have any chance of stabilising global warming to 1.5 degrees. The best available science suggests that for Australia to do its part, this means getting to net zero well before 2040, and ideally by 2035. 

The renewable energy industry has been expressing frustration at the lengthy lead times in gaining state and federal environmental and planning approvals for renewable energy projects.

Although lead times for projects overall may be lengthy, unpacking where the bottlenecks are and how they relate to environmental approvals is a difficult task. Often these approvals take place alongside parallel processes such as financing and grid connection approvals. 

So how do we ‘fast-track’ without weakening environmental approvals? The latest Budget provides some potential for positive change. $134.2M was announced for improving approval processes.

This includes $65.1M for research on threatened species, most of which is likely to be focussed on critical information gaps in relation to assessing offshore and onshore renewable energy projects.

It also includes $19.9M funding to accelerate decisions under the EPBC Act for renewable energy priority projects. There will be a priority list of renewable projects, yet how these are prioritised is not yet known. 

This funding also includes development of seven priority regional plans across the country, which although broader than renewable energy, go some way to help identifying areas of ‘no go’ zones.

Though these plans don’t capture all renewable energy zones, the hope is that the methodology can be easily replicated across jurisdictions.

Maps are critical for decision making but they are also dangerous when they inevitably make assumptions with imperfect data and miss the granularity of hyper local environmental, cultural and social values.

Yet in the very least, mapping ‘no go’ zones provide a necessary delineation between what is simply unacceptable and what requires further investigation. This would go a long way to saving thousands of activist hours (often as volunteers) in fighting bad projects that were poorly sited in the first place. 

The other side of the coin is how the significant investment in clean energy infrastructure can help Australia achieve its ‘nature positive’ goals and regenerate landscapes.

There are big opportunities here for partnerships with First Nations communities, Landcare groups etc. to restore environmental values such as improving landscape connectivity, and key habitat.

A lot of work is underway to better integrate conservation into renewable energy projects and this is key to improving social license and environmental outcomes.

The Community Power Agency, for example, have recently released a guide for “building better biodiversity on solar farms”, and RE-Alliance and Energy Charter have also a guide on ‘better practice renewables and biodiversity’.

One opportunity for encouraging best practice lies in funding for the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioners’ office of $20.7m over seven years. This will include the development of a voluntary renewable energy developer rating scheme.

The intent of this is a set of best practice standards to self-assess against and be an opportunity for improving environmental outcomes of projects. Although this is voluntary there are opportunities to incentivise developers to engage with the scheme through stricter government and corporate procurement requirements. 

Finally, an often-overlooked aspect of the energy transition, the budget also contains $23 million in funding for the circular economy, a part of which will focus on introducing a regulated scheme for solar panels and circularity.

This will help ensure that as much value as possible can be extracted from panels at the end of their life and reused in the economy. This will be a critically important piece of the puzzle, to avoid the need for digging up critical minerals that already exist in products nearing the end of life. 

Whilst these Budget measures won’t resolve all the tensions between clean energy and nature, they provide an opportunity to progress some key solutions.

Engaging with the challenge is critical to ensure the energy transition is good for people and nature. We know that our biodiversity needs a fast transition to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

But equally, we need to ensure the energy transition can deliver wins for tackling the nature crisis at the same time. For this we need strong, fast and consistent environmental approvals and data and an industry striving for better practice towards nature positive outcomes.  

Rob Law is the senior manager of energy transitions at WWF-Australia

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