The public has a month to read and make submissions on the proposed New England Solar Farm, near Uralla.
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment this week approved public exhibition of UPC Renewables Australia's development application and environmental impact statement (EIS), prepared by planning and environmental consultants EMM.
The solar farm is expected to help state and federal governments meet renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and increase energy security.
The state Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts, must approve the project for it to go ahead.
The 2700 hectare installation, spread across three arrays, would power 250,000 homes across NSW; create more than 500 jobs locally; and bring up to $200,000 into the community each year over its 25 to 30-year lifecycle.
UPC also plan to build one of the world's biggest battery energy storage systems on the arrays. It could provide up to 200 megawatts of capacity for two hours of stored renewable energy during peak demand times.
The EIS is on exhibition at DPE and the Solar Farm's websites until Wednesday, March 20, while the government seeks submissions from council, agencies, and the community.
UPC will hold a public meeting halfway through this period.
After March 20, UPC will consider and respond to submissions, before the Department of Planning and Environment makes its assessment report.
A planning hearing panel will consider this report before making a final determination.
UPC has operated in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa since the 1990s. It is also developing the Robbins Island Wind Farm and Jim's Plain Wind Farm in Tasmania.
UPC's solar development head Killian Wentrup said the Uralla regional community had helped to improve the proposal.
“We’ve met with local residents, land owners, neighbours, and business and community leaders for the past nine months to hear their views on the solar farm.
"The feedback from the local community has helped us refine our plans, and make the solar farm the best it can be."
Richard Munsie is a keen supporter of the solar farm. He is one of fourteen landholders who would have solar panels on his land for a fee.
"Instead of farming sheep and cattle, we've given up a third of our property to farm the sun," he said.
The guaranteed income from UPC, Mr Munsie believes, would help drought-proof landowners, taking much stress and worry out of modern day farming.
"We're benefiting, but our benefit will also be the town's," Mr Munsie said. He expected the project to have an enormous flow-back into Uralla, as money would go directly back into the community. "We can plan ahead; we know we'll have money coming in."
Some locals, like the Uralla/Walcha Community Responsible Solar/Wind Action Group, worry it could have hidden costs, however.
The solar farm project is expected to create 500 jobs during peak construction; 200 more if a battery energy storage system is installed; and 15 full-time ongoing jobs, including maintaining fencing, drains, and channels for managing weeds and pests.
“Economic modelling conducted as part of the EIS suggests the flow-on effects could be substantial," Mr Wentrup said.
Gillespie Economics estimate the solar farm will contribute $408 million in output; $159 million in value added; $88 million in household income; and 1071 jobs to the region's economy in the peak construction year (Year 2).
Proportionally less impact would be felt in the first and third years of the construction phase, according to the report.
"The money spent by workers during construction will boost household incomes in the region," Mr Wentrup said, "and this will continue over the life of the solar farm as a result of activities related to operations and maintenance.”
The operations phase, Gillespie Economics estimated, would contribute $86 million in regional output or business turnover; $26 million in regional value added; $3 million in household income; and 39 direct or indirect jobs each year for 30 years.
Refinements to project
UPC Renewables, Mr Wentrup said, had refined their original design to reduce noise and visibility of the solar farm, and avoid or mitigate environmental damage, based on independent studies and consultation with local residents.
They reduced the intended size of the solar farm by more than 35 per cent, from 4200 to 2700 hectares.
The southern array had been halved, based on feedback from residents in Gap Road and Gostwyck Road. This includes the north side of Salisbury Waters.
The central and northern arrays also shrank by 20 to 30 per cent, to avoid inconveniencing Kelly Plains residents.
Most of the solar farm will be based in cleared areas, with limited visibility from residences.
It would avoid important native vegetation like Blakely's Red Gum and Yellow Box grassy woodland.
The landscape, Mr Wentrup said, was heavily modified; most of the trees were planted European poplars used as windrows, while native gum trees had died off.
The project boundaries had also been revised to avoid streams and wetlands.
Four Aboriginal grinding grooves sites were found in the project areas.
UPC would work with local Aboriginal groups, the Department of Planning and Environment, and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to develop an Aboriginal heritage management plan.
UPC did not expect the project to affect rural heritage buildings like Gostwyck Memorial Chapel, Deeargee Woodshed, or Salisbury Court.
If UPC gets development consent, it will need a connection agreement (an offer to connect to the grid from TransGrid and the Australian Energy Market Operator); final contracts for construction; and final financing agreements with shareholders and lenders.
Mr Wentrup hopes to start construction by the fourth quarter of this year, and to finish within three years.
Work would start on the northern area first (Stage One), then on the central and southern array (Stage Two).
To avoid disrupting the community, UPC would start Stage Two before Stage Two was finished, and rollover workers.
Mr Wentrup expected employees and supplies to come from Armidale, Uralla, and towns as far south as Tamworth.
UPC are not proposing a mining-style development (flying in workers), but will seek approval for a temporary workers' village if necessary.