Members of a small Queensland farming town just 100km north of Brisbane are pushing the state government to fast-track approval for a massive 400MW solar PV farm.
The proposal – which would be by far the biggest solar array in Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere, and one on the biggest in the world – is being pushed by a small local company called Energy Makers.
General manager Dale Rhall says the approvals for the project have been frustrated by the local Somerset regional council, so the developers have asked state MPs to call on the government to take it up and “call it in” as a “project of major significance.”
The issue was raised in state parliament on Wednesday by independent (and former LNP) member Ray Hopper, who noted that the state government had done the same with the Mareeba wind project, a 225MW proposal pushed by Ratch Australia near Cairns. That would be the state’s first wind farm of that size.
Infrastructure and Planning Minister Jeff Seeney dodged the question about the solar farm, using the opportunity instead to okay politics with Hopper, the disaffected former LNP member.
However, his notice of intention to “call in” in the Mareeba wind farm – issue in April – is illuminating, particularly from a government previously seen as hostile to renewable energy.
“I am proposing to call in this development application, as I consider the Mount Emerald Wind Farm development involves state interests, namely economic and environmental interests to the state, or part of the state …
“The utilisation of renewable energy sources has intangible environmental benefits which also contribute to the identified state interest. Developing renewable energy resources provides for the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional fossil fuel generation, insulates the electricity market from fluctuations in fuel prices by increasing the diversity of the energy system; and wind farm electricity generation requires comparatively little natural inputs such as water consumption. The applicant has stated that the proposed development will generate 500,000 MWh of renewable energy, which is equivalent to providing 75,000 homes of clean energy.”
Rhall says Energy Makers first took the solar project idea to council in 2011. He said the $600 million project would bring significant economic benefits to the region, and had attracted the interest of a Spanish and a Chinese solar developer – pending on planning approval.
Rhall said the town of Kilcoy is declining, and needs an economic boost. He says up to 50 per cent of the town’s shops have closed in the last 12 months, and the major employer, the local meat works, sources employees through 457 visas.
However, he and his supporters have been astonished by the attitude of the local council, which has frustrated project development since it was first presented three years ago.
The local chamber of commerce has expressed its frustration at the delays of the Somerset council, noting that the project could provide 400 jobs during construction, and up to 40 on an ongoing basis.
Kilcoy Chamber of Commerce president Steve Stevenson wrote to the council last year saying that the solar farm would be a significant local project, as well as a tourist attraction.
“As all the required documentation has been provided, correct procedures have been following and funding is available, it is difficult to see why this proposal is not being welcomed and supported by the Somerset Regional Council,” he wrote.
His views were shared by numerous other business people and residents, who urged the council to support the project, to help “put the town on the map”, leave a green future for their children, and boost the local economy.
“The community of the Somerset Region expect that their Council will not only allow but encourage developments that are environmentally conscious and economically equitable,” the project sponsors said in response to one council rejection.
“The overwhelming community expectation for this project shown in the attached letters of support indicates without qualification that the community expects the Council to allow and encourage this application. In fact, many of the letter authors are local business owners and are congratulatory of the proponents inspired paradigm shift towards sustainability and community stewardship.”
David Hamood, who has been working with Rhall, said he could not understand the position of the council. “I am in total disbelief of the arrogant disregard Somerset Regional Council have for a State Government Act and how they believe they can get away with this,” he said.
“The project has got fantastic public support, but we just cannot get it over the line for approval. It’s ambitious, but it needs to be done.”
Rhall said the project would likely need the renewable energy target to attract finance, although the metrics for large scale solar were improving all the time. “The tide is turning for solar technologies,” he said.
Australia to date has just one large scale solar farm, a 10MW facility near Geraldton in Western Australia, although a 20MW facility is being built in the ACT and is nearing completion, and AGL Energy and First Solar have begun work on the 153MW Solar Flagships facility split between the towns of Nyngan and Broken Hill in NSW.