QUEENSLAND Farmers' Federation has welcomed the release of the State Government's Queensland Solar Farm Planning Guidelines as a step in the right direction to properly managing solar expansion while maintaining and protecting prime agricultural land.
Watermelon grower Terry O'Leary's property is located right next to a solar farm development in southwest Queensland.
Mr O'Leary's property is at Chinchilla, where he lives with his wife Aja, three children Daisy, 3, Josie, 7, and Evelyn, 9, and his parents Darryl and Janet.
The Chinchilla Solar Farm is an approved 100MW solar development located 16km northeast of Chinchilla.
Energy company First Solar is heading the project that will span 310ha.
Mr O'Leary has concerns about the construction of the solar farm just a few hundred metres from his house.
He has 1400ha of property aligned with the solar farm.
"The problem is because there is no planning code the construction of these plants have to adhere to, there's a lot of uncertainty, not just for us but for a lot of other people around the state as well,” he said.
"So there is nothing in council guidelines about how far things have to be set back from people's houses, nothing about looking at the effects on the environment.
"It's essentially all code assessable. Code assessable are things the council approve on.
"Impact assessable is where you actually have a legal right of objection and members of the community can stand up with their concerns and the council has to take them into effect as part of their planning.
"So these projects have been given approval and the developers don't even have to make the next-door neighbours aware, who could be within mere metres of these power plants.
"Wind and hydro power have a construction code of conduct and come under state development guidelines. Why wasn't solar included when this was introduced?”
Mr O'Leary's biggest concerns include the "heat island” effect and possible property devaluation.
"There are many scholarly articles on the heat island effect from urbanisation and also solar panels. So we actually employed an ecologist who told us we could expect a two to six degree increase in ambient air temperature within the microclimate area of the solar panels,” he said.
"The representative from the solar company is saying that's not correct, they don't think it will be anywhere near that amount.
"If we do see that increase though we could be sitting on 46 degrees to potentially 50 degrees.”
If the temperature does increase it could impact the O'Leary family's crops.
"We're not sure what the effects will be because of the lack of research on these specific panels,” he said.
"So we don't know that if a westerly wind comes through and we have that temperature increase on very hot days ... with the way it is at the moment, we lost quite a bit of produce this year purely because of heat, so if we increase that even further we're going to lose even more.”
Mr O'Leary said "multiple” financial institutions had advised him the solar farm could devalue their capital asset.
"Our land is going to take a massive devaluation because if we turn to sell it, I don't think too many people are going to want a property right next to a solar plant.”
Mr O'Leary said solar farms shouldn't be developed on good agricultural land.
"There is quite a large area of Queensland that is not designated as good-quality agricultural land, let alone land with an irrigation licence, and properties with enough size that large solar plants could be built with no impact to neighbouring properties or residences,” Mr O'Leary said.
"These plants need to be spread equally over suitable areas, preferably on arid land, throughout the state.
"It's not like Queensland is short on very large, open paddocks that may not be as productive as others.
"Why are so many plants also being built even within a kilometre of houses?
"I do believe these could be built in locations much more suitable where there would be less impact on surrounding landholders.”
With the Queensland Government working on developing guidelines for solar farm development, Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Minister Dr Anthony Lynham said with 17 large-scale solar farms under construction across the state and another 40-plus potentials, specific planning guidelines were needed.
"Large-scale solar brings jobs and economic benefits for communities, but they can also bring their own set of planning challenges,” Dr Lynham said.
"The right planning guidelines need to be in place to ensure communities, developers, councils and investors are all on the same page about what is best for Queensland.”
The new guidelines will inform and guide stakeholders, including local government, through the project development process, and ensure projects meet their social licence to operate.
Government officers have been working with local government, Queensland Farmers' Federation and other stakeholders to develop the guidelines.
There are two parts to the draft guidelines.
The first part refers to the legislative framework in Queensland that provides landowners and other stakeholders an overview of how the planning framework works.
It also outlines the stages of the solar farm development, about site selection and community engagement.
The second part of the guidelines is a guide for local governments to consistently access and condition solar farms if they are rolled out within their council areas.
Dr Georgina Davis, from Queensland Farmers' Federation, said the guidelines provided transparency to the process of solar planning but there were still a lot of changes that needed to be made.
"I think the important thing to note that, at the moment, in terms of the planning legislation nothing has changed,” she said.
"So here in Queensland large-scale solar facilities are code assessable. So the primary accessor is actually local government.
"These guidelines are literally just that, they're guidelines. There is nothing in the first or second parts of the guidelines that is actually mandatory.”
In New South Wales, large-scale solar facilities are impact assessable and analysis and assessment of the developments are done by State Government.
"At the moment there doesn't seem to be any kind of change planned for the planning legislation, so these types of facilities would continue to be assessed by local government or local council,” Dr Davis said.
"Queensland Farmers' Federation is still pushing for a code. At the moment in Queensland we have a code for wind development.
"The benefits of having a code over simple guidelines is the criteria specified in a code would be mandatory rather than just referring to best-practice guides.”
Since 2000, Queenland has lost 100,000ha of agricultural land to non-agricultural development.
"We're simply not making any more,” Dr Davis said.
"What we would like to see in an ideal world is almost a hierarchy of land use where project proponents must show they've looked at other blocks of land before they look at agricultural land, particularly either irrigated agricultural land or high-quality agricultural land.
"We want to make sure that what the draft guidelines do, or any subsequent codes, is make sure there's no adverse impacts onto neighbouring and adjacent landowners that would impact their ability to do farming.”
Despite these concerns, Dr Davis said most farmers were very welcoming of large-scale solar.
"They certainly want to see more built across Queensland. Farmers understand probably better than anyone the need to organise our energy mix,” she said.
"Individual farmers have also adopted solar on their own farms.
"Farmers are incredibly supportive of solar development and solar power.
"These solar farms are going on land of willing sellers or willing renters. It's not like the resource industry where farmers have no choice about the resource activity on their land.”