The Queensland Labor government has stepped in to end a planning dispute standing in the way of the development of one of Australia’s biggest solar farms – a 130MW project in the sugar farming town of Clare in the state’s north.
The project has been on hold since July, after its development by Spanish renewables company FRV was appealed by local monopoly sugar cane harvesting and milling company Wilmar Sugar, on the grounds it would take up good quality agricultural land.
But in an effort to head up a potentially long and costly legal dispute, Queensland’s Deputy Premier and minister for local government and planning, Jackie Trad, called in the development application for the project on Tuesday, arguing that it was in the best interests of the state and of the local Burdekin Shire community.
The call-in means that the council’s original decision to approve the development, which was subject to appeal to the Planning and Environment Court, will be set aside and a new assessment will be made, Trad said. A final decision must be made by November 10.
Trad, who first flagged the “call-in” in July, said in the official notice on Tuesday that “if the matter was not resolved expeditiously, the Burdekin community could be deprived of an important new project that would contribute to much needed economic development and jobs for the local economy.”
She said the project would complement the region’s existing energy supply, with a renewable energy source that would service industrial development and economic growth. The plant is expected to generate enough electricity to power around 65,000 homes in the region.
As we reported back in July, this is not Wilmar’s first legal challenge to a renewable energy development in the region.
In August 2013, the chairman of rival ethanol fuel producer, Austcane, accused the company of trying to stifle competition by dragging it through the Planning and Environment Court.
“Currently Wilmar owns all the (ethanol) processing facilities in the district and have a monopoly,” Tolbat Cox told ABC Rural at the time. “One other competitor in the district doesn’t suit them.”
Burdekin Mayor Bill Lowis, whose council requested the state government intervention, believes the solar farm will ultimately benefit the farmers in the region by lowering wholesale electricity prices.
“It’s a $400 million project that will employ about 200 people in the establishment phase, plus local providers, and a team of about five people to stay on and run it. It’s a great project and we don’t want to lose it,” Lowis said.
And it would be a boon for Queensland, in general, which has delivered very little on the utility-scale renewable energy front, despite being Australia’s great solar hope (aka the Sunshine State).
However, Queensland’s Labor government says it is committed to achieving 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and Ergon Energy has called a tender for 150MW of renewable energy projects. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is also about to launch a tender for solar projects.
But while the state government has used its powers to support renewable energy development in this case, it has also just used them to approve the expansion of the controversial Acland coal mine, that will boost its output to 7.5 million tonnes.
The state’s environment department issued a draft authority for the $900 million project on Friday, setting out conditions for the enlargement of the mine on the western Darling Downs.
As ABC News Online reports, the decision has sparked calls from the Speaker of Queensland’s Parliament for the state’s corruption watchdog to investigate hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations made by the mine’s owner.
Without approval, the mine it would run out of coal in 2017-18.