In the absence of an endorsed federal policy mechanism to encourage investment in the National Energy Market to guarantee reliability and meeting defined emissions levels, the Queensland government has now finalised guidelines to provide project proponents, communities, landowners[1] and local governments[2] a framework for future large-scale solar projects in the State.

While the Queensland government is committed to achieving a 50% renewable energy target by Queensland by 2030[3] and seeking to grow its renewable energy sector, it has been left to local governments and other decision makers to identify areas suitable for these projects in the future.

The state interest - let the sun shine in

The Queensland State Planning Policy[4] (SPP) is the primary State planning instrument in the Queensland planning system and outlines the State’s interests in development – including those interests that the Planning Minister considers affects an economic or environmental interest of the State or part of the State.

One of the State interests articulated in the SPP is “the timely, safe, affordable and reliable provision and operation of electricity … is supported and renewable development is enabled”. The SPP also states that the development and supply of renewable energy at the regional, local and individual scale is to be enabled in appropriate locations.

There are of course a number of State interests detailed within the SPP – such as the protection of agricultural resources, mining and extractive resources and biodiversity, against which the provision of electricity and renewable projects need to be balanced. The SPP does not prioritise the delivery or achievement of one State interest as being more important than another.

The role for local government - here comes the sun

As stated in the guideline for local governments, it is envisaged that:

  • the prioritisation of State interests occur at the local level through local government plan-making, enabling it to be more fine-grained and specific to differing communities; and
  • local government should balance the merits of supporting solar farms and any potential impacts with other economic, environmental and community aspirations across its local government area.

While a regional plan may provide a regional context as to the prioritisation of State interests, at a local planning instrument level (such as in a planning scheme), this balancing exercise will be left to local governments.

Project uncertainty - island in the sun

This will make the assessment of solar farm developments challenging, particularly where:

  • The State interest of supporting renewable development is not reflected in a planning scheme, so that there is no local level policy, code or assessment benchmark guidance against which developments of this type can be assessed.
  • The suitability and availability for a particular site for development of a solar farm is affected by a number of potential constraints – being
    • physical factors (such as: levels of solar irradiance; the land having a gentle slope, free of shading obstructions and flooding; being free of protected flora and fauna; and being geotechnically suitable); and
    • situated within close proximity to the existing electricity network which has sufficient capacity to support the utility scale solar farm and in a location so that connection to the network is financially viable as part of the project.
    • The number of sites truly suitable for solar farm projects is therefore constrained and the second limb of site requirements, as stated above, is typically treated as an economic matter not considered by or provided for under a local planning instrument.
  • The balancing of planning and development interests at a local level ignores the fact that the National Electricity Market interconnects across the eastern seaboard states, South Australia and Tasmania and acts as “pool” or spot market where power supply and demand is matched instantaneously in real time through a centrally coordinated dispatch process. In circumstances where a local planning instrument reflects the needs and expectations of a particular community, it may well be the case that the real benefits and reliability of a distributed and diversified electricity generation network for the benefit of everyone who is connected will not be reflected for the purposes of project assessment.

  • In adopting a policy position which enables planning schemes or a local planning instrument to anticipate and regulate solar farm projects:

    • ignores Australia’s binding international renewable energy obligations; and

    • does not provide any certainty in assisting Australia or Queensland to meet respective renewable energy and emmission reduction policy commitments and legislative obligations.

  • In circumstances where the amenity impacts of a solar farm are foreseeably lower than those associated with a wind farm, it is curious that while the assessment of wind energy projects in Queensland and considering the purview of the State[5], renewable solar energy projects do not receive similar treatment.

King and Wood Mallesons recently acted for a proponent whose proposed solar farm in Queensland, with the potential to generate up to 60 megawatts of electricity, was the first renewable energy project of its type of be assessed by a planning court or tribunal in Australia[6]. It is clear from that judgement, which found in favour of the proposed development, that:

  •  the balancing exercise undertaken by the Planning and Environment Court in considering competing State interests and achieving the requirements of the local planning scheme (which did not in this instance contemplate renewable energy projects) required consideration of the particular development and site the subject of the appeal; and
  • the significant economic and wider community benefits associated with the proposed development were discretionary matters for an assessment manager in undertaking assessment of the proposal.[7]

Conclusion - house of the rising sun

What is clear from the finalised State guidelines is that early, frequent and meaningful stakeholder engagement with the community in which a solar farm is proposed is expected. Best practice community engagement and measuring and tracking a proponent’s social licence to operate is described as being the level of community expectation.

The difficult exercise undertaken by a decision maker in balancing competing interests for future solar farm projects in Queensland will continue in the short term, particularly in circumstances where a planning scheme has not considered and distilled the State’s renewable energy interest for application in the particular local government area.