Queensland’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.”