A David and Goliath battle over land is emerging in the Southern Riverina of New South Wales, with four foreign-owned energy companies racing to get their large-scale solar projects off the ground.
It has left local growers & farmers questioning whether these types of infrastructure projects should be built on productive agricultural land.
TransGrid’s high-voltage powerlines run through Sharon Feuerherdt’s crop land and she knocked back a multi-million dollar offer from French-owned Neoen to put solar panels on her land.
Instead, she intends to fight the construction of what would potentially be Australia’s largest solar farm.
Neoen plans to build a massive 400-megawatt solar farm right next to Ms Feuerherdt’s property in Culcairn.
The solar farm would share seven kilometres of her property’s frontage, blanketing 1,300 hectares of agricultural land with 1 million solar panels — something Ms Feuerherdt said should not happen.
“And we’re really scared that it’s going to impact our business and the neighbours.”
Agronomist Sheree Hamson said the land around Culcairn was highly productive because of the area’s consistently high rainfall.
“The region benefits from consistent rainfall of above 600 millimetres a year and has the ability of achieving dryland grain yields of above 500 tonnes a year and hay yields of up to 10t a hectare,” Ms Hamson said.
“Last year, in one of the worst droughts on record, Culcairn still produced much-needed food and fibre.
The issue is also being felt south of the border in Shepparton, where farmers opposed four large-scale solar proposals, leading to a review by Victoria’s planning minister and the development of a new planning policy.
Securing Australia’s energy future
The head of development at Neoen Australia, Garth Heron, said if Australia wants to have cheap power into the future, large-scale renewable projects need to be built next to the existing poles and wires.
“The majority of the [large-scale solar] projects in Australia are built on good agricultural areas,” he said.
Mr Heron said the cost of building new transmission infrastructure was “extremely expensive and time consuming”.
“The cost of brand-new transmission lines could add up to 30 per cent to the power bill,” he said.
“Farming land is extremely important, but at the same time electricity is also important.
“It’s about achieving a balance, making sure that we’re preserving as much farming land as we can, but also building projects that can contribute to lowering power bills across the state.”
Protecting prime agricultural land
Across NSW regional plans have been adopted to provide a blueprint for growth until 2036, recognising the need for the state’s best agricultural land to be preserved.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries has been undertaking a three-year mapping program to identify important agricultural land.
The Minister for Agriculture, Adam Marshall, said the identification and recognition of this limited resource will support the strategic growth of agriculture and help prevent future land use conflict.
“The NSW Government has guidelines in place to ensure the potential impact of projects on prime agricultural land is properly assessed during the planning approvals process.
“It is possible to support renewable energy projects while also promoting a productive agricultural sector.”
Impacted landholders fear the new map will not be completed in time to classify their land as important for agriculture and prevent the four large-scale solar projects from being approved.
They say the current classification is outdated and inaccurate, leaving the door wide open for developers.
The electricity produced from the Culcairn Solar Farm will produce enough energy to power 100,000 homes, while displacing 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road or planting more than 1 million trees.
Matthew Hicks is a landowner who has agreed to lease 142 hectares of his Culcairn property to Neoen.
He, like all landholders, was offered $2,200 a hectare a year, or just under $10 million over the 30-year life of the solar farm.
Mr Hicks said it was a good opportunity to do something productive with his land while helping the environment.
“Obviously we need to be looking after the environment and I feel like solar generation is a good way to go. It’s low impact, non-polluting and a really good fit for a rural area,” he said.
“Unfortunately, with the way the price of land has gone up and with the capacity of my farm to produce, I’ve had to maintain a five day a week job.
“The opportunity came along and, number one, it’s going to help the environment, and number two, it’ll allow me to go and follow my dream and hopefully purchase another small farm which I’ll be able to live off.
“I’m confident renewable energy and agriculture can coexist.”
Tearing tight-knit country towns apart
Landowner Rupert Cumming is not opposed to solar farms — just not on farmland.
Agriculture represents the greatest contributor to revenue for the Greater Hume Shire at 29.5 per cent and is also the biggest employer at 32.8 per cent.
Mr Cumming, who in 2014 invested his life savings into a property one kilometre from the proposed Culcairn Solar Farm, said the facility would destroy the local agriculture industry.
“We estimate a direct loss of income to the area to be approximately $50 million over 30 years,” he said.
“To take out that amount of what we class as productive agricultural land is criminal.
“To me it just sums up the greed of all this; that there are those of us who aren’t going to benefit financially from it and those that are going to benefit significantly from this.
Original article by ABC Rural