The proposed New England Solar Farm east of Uralla could have unwelcome hidden costs, some concerned locals feel.
The Uralla/Walcha Community Responsible Solar/Wind Action Group is worried that developments like this, and the Walcha Energy Project, could take over valuable agricultural land and threaten towns.
But the solar farm, built by UPC Renewables Australia, would benefit the region, UPC’s solar development head Killian Wentrup argued.
Developed in consultation with locals, the installation is expected to power 250,000 homes across NSW, as part of a state government plan to make New England a renewable energy hot spot.
The solar farm should create more than 500 jobs over its 25-year life cycle; employ locals and use local businesses; and bring up to $200,000 into the community each year through its Community Benefit Sharing Initiative.
“UPC is a long-term investor, and intends to be a valued part of the community,” Mr Wentrup said.
Action group spokesman Peter Dawson was unconvinced. “There are all sorts of hidden costs in these developments that when they’re being planned or implemented are not in front of mind for a lot of people.”
The Action Group say they are not against renewables, but believe that the Salisbury Plains site of the three solar fields, close to a 330 kv Transgrid power line, is inappropriate.
It is, they claim, prime agricultural land, with high rainfall and fertile black basalt soil.
Solar panels, Mr Wentrup answered, were five to eight metres apart – far apart and high enough to graze sheep on the fields.
Farmer Richard Munsie, for one, said he was happy to have the panels on his land. He acknowledged that the solar farm would change things – he didn’t know how much grass would grow back under the panels – but the leasing agreement was ample compensation. His arrangement with UPC was “a win-win situation”.
The site, Mr Dawson said, is also a flood plain; “I couldn’t think of a more inappropriate place to put solar panels.” Could the solar panels cause flooding?
No, UPC replied, they couldn’t, while precautions had been taken against once-in-a-century floods.
Environmental consultants had conducted site studies and analysis, including soil tests and flood models.
UPC said they would avoid the boundary of the southern array area next to Salisbury Waters, based on flood monitoring.
Wide spacing between the rows meant there was plenty of room for water to run off naturally, UPC said. The solar panels sit on piles driven or screwed into the ground, 1.5 to 3 metres deep, so they would not affect groundwater sources.
Mr Dawson was dubious. “You can address things through your flood modelling and your Environmental Impact Statement, but the reality is I’ve seen quite high floods going through there.”
The Action Group was also concerned that the countryside will be spoilt, when once-scenic landscapes become paddocks full of panels.
This, they say, will make property values deteriorate – including Mr Dawson’s own small farm; deter tourists and treechangers attracted by scenery and pioneering history; and harm local economies.
“Do we want an industrial landscape,” Mr Dawson asked, “as opposed to a thriving town based on its heritage?”
UPC answered that the solar farm are considered low impact developments. They had reduced array sizes by up to half, based on community feedback; and they would provide vegetation screens to neighbours.
Their Environmental Impact Statement, available soon, will also address environmental and heritage concerns, Mr Wentrup said.
“The community needs to be fully informed as to what is being planned under their noses, and whether the community is willing to accept the consequences of such a development,” Mr Dawson said.
As development progresses, UPC will continue to hold information sessions for local businesses and residents.
“We have closely involved the local community in the development of our proposal from the start because it helps make the proposal the best it can be,” Mr Wentrup said.
“Landowners across the proposed site support our plans and the benefits it can bring to Uralla.”