Victoria locks in new solar farm planning guidelines

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Victoria government planning amendment introduced to ensure large-scale solar projects choose appropriate locations on grid, have minimal environmental or social impacts.

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Gannawarra solar farm in Victoria.
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New solar farm planning guidelines have been put in place in Victoria, in a bid to pave the way for a smooth transition to the state’s legislated target of 50 per cent renewables by 2030.

The planning amendment, introduced by the Labor Andrews government on Tuesday, aims to ensure solar projects of 1MW and over are built in appropriate locations, and that developers engage properly with communities and ensure the least possible environmental or social impacts.

The changes are also expected to help the state’s solar industry to avoid the same fate as its wind power counterpart, which hit a development wall in around 2009 after falling foul of both local communities and governments.

Already, the state has seen an increasing number of big solar projects being called in by the state government, or winding up before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) due to high levels of  local opposition, or councils becoming overwhelmed by the complex approvals process.

To that end, the new guidelines bring solar farms in line with wind in terms of permit assessment, by making the state minister for planning the responsible authority.

In terms of location, the amendments aim to ensure proposed projects are easily accessible to the electricity transmission network, minimise impacts on local environments, and consider impacts on agricultural areas, irrigated areas and areas of environmental signficance.

Where solar farms are sited on the grid will become increasingly critical for project developers as the state’s VRET is met, with the Australian Energy Market Operator halving the allowable output from five solar farms – four in Victoria – because of unforeseen issues over “system strength.”

As Giles Parkinson reported last week, it has been the latest in a series of blows to the solar industry, which has been afflicted by connection and commissioning delays, resulting in a blow out of costs and claims of damages to construction firms, as well as big changes to marginal loss factors, and the requirement for some to spend lots of money on synchronous condensers or other machinery.

On social licence, the changes to Victoria planning guildeines include a range of best-practice approaches to help developers engage with communities and ensure the least possible social impacts of their proposals.

“We’ve listened to the community and included a best practice approach to consultation, ensuring people can have their say from an early stage, well before a planning permit is lodged,” said state planning minister Richard Wynne in comments on Tuesday.

“The Guidelines brings a consistent approach to assessing the appropriateness of solar developments, giving the renewable energy industry more confidence to invest.”

State energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio said she hoped the guidelines would offer a boost to developers, too, and underwrite more investment in the state’s low-carbon transition.

“Victoria is the renewable energy capital of Australia and these guidelines will strengthen market certainty – boost jobs, reduce emissions and drive down energy prices,” she said.

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