Sugar vs solar: Qld govt weighs in on legal challenge to solar farm | RenewEconomy

Sugar vs solar: Qld govt weighs in on legal challenge to solar farm

Legal challenge by sugar miller against the development of one of Australia’s biggest solar farms in Clare, Qld, could be ‘called in’ by state govt.


A planning dispute standing in the way of the development of one of Australia’s biggest solar farms – a 130MW facility in Clare, Queensland – could be the subject of state government intervention, in a bid to fast-track the process.

In what looks like another example of incumbent industry vs renewables in Australia, development of the $400 million FRV solar PV farm – proposed and approved by the Burdekin Shire council, and by the sugar farmer on whose property it will be built – was appealed in July by Wilmar Sugar, a monopoly sugar harvesting and milling company that makes ethanol from the region’s sugar cane byproducts.cane

Wilmar, along with local farmers Lawrence and Patricia Brotto, have argued that the development will take up “good quality agricultural land” in conflict with the state’s planning policy, and have questioned the necessity for the solar plant in the region.

But this week, Queensland’s Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad, said the Palaszczuk government was considering a ministerial ‘call in’ of the proposed project, to head-off a potentially long and costly dispute.

Indeed, this is not the first time Wilmar – which bills itself as Australia’s leading sugar and renewable energy company – has mounted legal challenges to other renewables developments in the region.

In August 2013, the chairman of rival ethanol fuel producer, Austcane, accused the company of trying to stifle competition by development 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.”

On the matter of the solar farm, Burdekin Mayor Bill Lowis said council had requested Trad’s intervention, due to concerns about the delaying of the project it believes would 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.

Indeed, the project would be a big deal for Queensland in general, which, despite being Australia’s great solar hope (aka the Sunshine State), has delivered very little on the utility-scale front.


It would also be a feather in the cap of the state Labor government, which earlier this year confirmed its commitment to generating 50 per cent of its electricity needs from renewable energy by 2030.

For her part, Minister Trad says she has given “all relevant parties” 20 days to have their say on the proposed “call-in” and is expected to then make a decision by September 10, after which she has more time to assess and decide whether to approve the solar project or not.

“We made a commitment to listen to the community and this proposed ‘call in’ notice will provide an opportunity for all interested parties to have their say,” Trad said in a statement.

“I will consider the development application in relation to the economic and environmental interests, and ongoing sustainable development of the state.”

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  1. disqus_3PLIicDhUu 5 years ago

    Case of having to weigh up the triple bottom line costs.
    How does sugar cane and cane scrap, weigh up against solar PV.

    • Pedro 5 years ago

      I don’t think there is any shortage of sugar cane scrap considering it is grown all the way from northern NSW to the daintree

      • disqus_3PLIicDhUu 5 years ago

        Yes so if growing cane is more viable as a renewable resource, then…

        • mick 5 years ago

          I saw a landline show last year I think about cane waste for renewable looked efficient because its part of the existing process against that ongoing costs but they would smart about that possibly a dumb question why not both

          • john 5 years ago

            Traditionally the process with dealing with cane trash was to burn it off and use a very inefficient process to get rid of it now the attitude is to utilise the trash and in fact encourage trash and pay for it so with more efficient processes the previous waste can be turned into a payment to the mill and the producer.

          • mick 5 years ago

            yeah I worked up north in the 80s watched cane burning the process they showed was obviously better but id be happy to have my taxes go towards either and use both cheers

  2. Ken Dyer 5 years ago

    Wilmars have chucked a wobbly because they did not think of it first.

  3. john 5 years ago

    I think the solar development would work better towards Charters Towers not in a cane growing district,. Because the further west from the coast the lower amount of cloud days that inhibit solar utilisation..

  4. David Rossiter 5 years ago

    John, you have it in one. Sugar is good in a limited number of areas in Australia due to it needing good soils and relatively high rainfall. Solar does not need to be built on good soils and high rainfall can mean lower solar radiation due to clouds. Go west young solar! Leave the good agricultural land and water for food production.

    • Mike Dill 5 years ago

      Since Solar PV does not use up any water, you are right that it may make more sense further west. The issue then is the cost of the poles and wires.

      Is all the land used for sugar farming, or is it possible that taking some land out of sugar production will allow some other land to be cultivated? In Hawaii they were growing some sugar in places that did not get the best water, but it was what they had been doing for the last seventy years. It took a soils hydrologist to determine that they were not doing the most they could with the water that they had.

      • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

        Roofs might be a better place to put solar panels if the goal is to save land from being removed from its previous use. If we wanted to invest in enough storage PV on Australia’s roofs could meet the country’s entire electricity use. It would even be technically possible to meet the country’s entire energy use from rooftop solar.

        Just to be clear, because some people on the internet soar great distances as they jump to conclusions, I am not saying that this is what will happen and I’m not saying that we should attempt this. (But maybe I will if circumstances change enough.)

        Also rooftop solar is much more cost effective than utility scale solar, although electricity retailers are working hard to damage the country by changing that.

        • Mike Dill 5 years ago

          I do agree that rooftop solar requires less distribution, and could power all of the country. I expect that the installed base for rooftop solar will double in the next five years, even with utility push-back.

          I have never been to the cane growing region of Queensland, but if is like any other place, there are less productive land areas (rooftops and brownfields in industrial areas as an instance) that could be re-purposed as distributed solar generation stations.

    • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

      I haven’t noticed sugar cane requiring good soils in Australia. It will of course grow better in some soils than others, but Australian sugar cane is typically grown in soils that would not be described as good. And perhaps should not be described as soil but more a substrate used to hold fertilizer. This contributes to the average yield per hectare being far below the world’s best. Of course you could be using the term “good soils” in a relative sense within Australia and in that case I would agree with you since, unlike most of Australia, sugar cane growing areas are actually capable of producing a crop.

      • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

        most of australia’s arable land is capable of producing a crop, just not the same crop over and over without synthetic inputs which have the side effect of destroying the soil biota and OM. there’s much room for soil improvement using organic/biodynamic/biological-farming methodologies. long term cropping and grazing has without doubt reduced soil quality in many areas.

        • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

          I would go as far as saying all of Australia’s arable land is capable of producing a crop.

          • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

            should have written “once arable” I guess. it’s been suggested by various people much of the grasslands had a much higher carrying capacity when initially converted to grazing than after a couple of decades of compaction and overgrazing. what once would have supported crops may now not without major rehabilitation.

          • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

            Sorry, I couldn’t resist making that joke. I did try though. And I held out for almost three seconds.

          • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

            yeah I would have held out for less if I’d have had the opportunity 🙂

    • MaxG 5 years ago

      Well, how about using the same argument against coal mining?

  5. Alan S 5 years ago

    Good to read an intelligent discussion with differing views being conducted in a civil manner to achieve the best triple bottom line outcome. Others should take note.
    If their shade was used to advantage, could any crop be grown or animals raised under solar panels if they were mounted sufficiently high? I understand that wind turbines and sheep can happily co-exist.

    • suthnsun 5 years ago

      Good question, I imagine a lattice of PV over various forms of agriculture could be optimised to provide shade, wind protection, energy for production, possibly a water buffer and an energy storage buffer. An integrated food and energy storage production unit completely displacing fossil fuels and upgrading land protection is an enticing prospect.

  6. Miles Harding 5 years ago

    Displace sugar (and ethanol) — now there’s a good idea.
    Like corn, cane ethanol is a worthless venture that has no benefit solves no problem. At least the Fischer-Tropsch process makes honest use of coal to produce motor vehicle fuel.

    As it is, the population eats far too much sugar and less cane would be good for humanity. It would go a small way to addressing some of the sugar-related diseases that burden society.

  7. Ian 5 years ago

    This is a land use problem not a solar problem per se. It does highlight a couple of interesting issues though. The profitability of solar such that it can compete with agricultural use on the land. The eastern coast line of Australia is prime land and all sorts of activities compete for it. The original ecosystem comes a miserable last in the list of priorities . One only has to travel 50 km inland to find sparsely populated and dry land to put all the solar one could desire. I wouldn’t touch this solar fight with a power pole. I for one don’t think it passes the ‘ bar test’

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