Victoria’s Labor government has waved through plans for three solar farms near Shepparton in the state’s Goulburn Valley, despite ongoing community opposition.
State minister for planning, Richard Wynne, said on Friday that his department had approved permits for the Tatura East (45MW), Tallygaroopna (68MW) and Lemnos (100MW) solar farms, subject to conditions.
He said the approvals had followed a “thorough and independent planning panel process” that included consultation with the local community.
But the community has been divided over the development of the solar farms – particularly around the associated loss of prime agricultural land.
As we have reported, the projects were “called in” in early 2018 by the planning minister – at the request of the City of Greater Shepparton – alongside the 30MW Congupna solar farm.
At the time, Greater Shepparton councillor Chris Hazelman had expressed frustration with the approvals process, noting that “in the absence of (state government) guidelines … regardless of what decision council makes,” projects inevitably ended up in VCAT.
Congupna was approved by Wynne in October 2018, at which time the decision around the other three projects was deferred, pending the completion of further strategic work on the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District.
In the meantime, the state government has drafted updated guidelines on solar farm development in Victoria, to prevent councils from being overwhelmed by complex development approval processes, and to guide developers on appropriate locations and best practice community engagement.
Now, with the three remaining projects also conditionally approved, the City of Greater Shepparton looks set to get almost 250MW of big solar added to its local grid.
“These permits were approved after a thorough review by independent experts and consultation with the community,” minister Wynne said in a statement on Friday.
“We’ve done the work to address local concerns and made sure all potential impacts on irrigation farmland and the district more broadly were considered in the decision.”
But reports in local media, including ABC Shepparton, suggest there is still significant local opposition to the solar projects, which are being developed by CleanGen (Tatura), Neoen (Lemnos) and X-Elio.
One of the key sticking points, according to the ABC, are that the PV farms will be built on former irrigation properties that have accessed “hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grants” for irrigation upgrades, but were now not likely to be used for farming purposes again.
Locals have also complained that the soar farms don’t meet the state government’s own newly updated development guidelines – including a push to give greater consideration to the current use of the land where a solar project is to be installed.
“We are the only region in the world to have large scale solar adjoined by apple orchards,” said local farmer Natalie Akers in the Shepparton Weekly Times.
“The local farmers are gutted by this decision, it seems we have a government happy to roll over to international corporates with deep pockets with not a care for farmers on the ground?”
In comments in the planning minister’s Friday release, Wynne noted that the draft solar guidelines were “yet to be incorporated into the planning scheme,” and so the permits for the three solar farms were assessed against “current” planning framework.
And it added: “The new changes will promote investment in the right places while preventing inappropriate development not aligned with water corporation assets and future plans.
“There are now measures in place to ensure irrigation infrastructure priorities are a key factor in application assessments in future. It is expected the guidelines will be implemented into the planning scheme in the coming weeks.”