What’s the deal with solar power?

Friday, 21 December, 2018

Rebecca D Sutho 03

“I am all for solar power, but………” is an opening line that lately I have been hearing quite often. This is usually followed by a range of reasons why solar is a good thing, but just not here.

Commercial-scale solar has been gaining momentum in Australia in recent years as the viability of these projects grow in response to improved PV panel efficiency and reduced costs. Coinciding with these favourable business conditions has been an influx of companies searching for potential solar farm sites. Based on current economics, these sites generally exist where surplus electricity network capacity, coincides with suitable packages of available nearby land.

More often than not, these locations are adjacent to population centres, and it is here where the conflicting views manifest. Commercial-scale solar, it seems is, a great idea, but something that is best done elsewhere, preferably where no one is.

I find this a little perplexing. Generally, most agree that a transition from dependence on fossil fuels for power is a positive outcome, and of all the renewable energy options currently available, PV solar farms have the least impact on social amenity and the environment. Let’s consider their merits as potential neighbours:

* They stand lightly on the land, comprising a direct impact to about 5% of the total area that they occupy

* They are best located on previously cleared land to minimise impacts to biodiversity and low in the landscape to capitalise on flat to gently sloping ground

* They are quiet and do not emit audible sound beyond the boundary

* They are visually inoffensive, following the contour of the existing landscape in muted colours and tones

* They emit no odours, effluent or by products, nor do they alter rainfall run-off or flood hazard

* They remain compatible with agricultural pursuits, encouraging ongoing grazing opportunities, maintaining groundcover and providing a dependable income stream to host landholders

* They are completely reversible and at the end of their life with be fully decommissioned and recycled for their inherent resources

Nonetheless the community has reservations, and are increasingly taking an oppositional position. This has implications for us all. We know that the majority of Australian are in favour of a transition to renewable energy (e.g. 2018 Lowy Institute Poll), and most would be encouraged to see that the industry is moving forwards.


So what is going on?

Perhaps it is the rate of change, or a lack of exposure to existing solar farms as a point of reference. Perhaps it is the ever increasing size, or maybe the rush to the market-place necessary to secure land and network access. Whatever it is, the community is starting to express reservations and there is a need to listen to ensure such projects with broader global benefits are successful.

The increasing local concern with solar farms means a much greater need for solar farm developers to engage the community upfront in planning. I have seen this done very effectively with developers responding in an accommodating manner, making pragmatic decisions and commitments in order to meet community expectations. Some early examples include:

* Investing time in meaningful community consultation and stakeholder engagement processes;

* Reaching out to the community early and integrating community expectations into decision-making processes;

* Identifying highly constrained portions of land and focussing development activities to less constrained areas;

* Consulting with neighbours to establish setbacks, visual buffer zones and designing screening options to mitigate impacts

* Partnering with, and supporting, communities and community groups

My advice to developers is to anticipate high-levels of community interest in new proposals and to incorporate early and meaningful consultation processes into early concept development and planning activities. Such an approach allows project proponents to better manage the flow of information and to respond to issues proactively. These benefits will flow throughout the statutory approvals process and galvanise long-term community support. Hopefully, these approaches will enable the industry to continue to grow, and provide a model for future best-practice development. It is in all of our best interests.

(image sources: ELA & Infinergy UK)