The following provides responses to some frequently asked questions that we have received from the community.
Across Australia, around $15 billion is currently being invested in solar farm development, with much of this investment occurring in regional areas. The benefits for local farming communities include a diversified, substantial and reliable income for the landowners hosting solar farms over its lifetime (usually 25-45 years). These funds can serve to protect farming families from loss of income during poor harvests or droughts. This is particularly beneficial given the pressures farmers are facing due to changing climate conditions.
Solar farm project development generates employment in the local area, which supports the development of local expertise and skills. The solar farm will add diversity to the local economy, by creating new jobs and potential opportunities for businesses to grow via supplying goods and services to the solar farm project. The incomes of those employed contribute to gross regional domestic product.
In addition, there is a flow-on effect to the wider community. Local retailers and service providers benefit from increased economic activity in the locality of a solar farm. Experience around Australia shows that solar farms create a point of interest or tourist attraction for local towns, which benefits hospitality and related sectors in the region. Research by the Clean Energy Council suggests that for every direct construction and maintenance job created, two additional indirect jobs are created.
ITP has a Community Engagement Policy that is applied to all town-scale developments. This Policy has been developed in accordance with a wide range of relevant regulations and best practice principles and guidelines for community consultation. The Policy sets out the methods used by ITP to inform the community about the solar farm and consult at the development application and associated environmental impact assessment stage.
The Policy requires a Community Engagement Plan to be prepared for each development at the early stages of the project. Once development approval is received and the project moves into more advanced stages, the Community Engagement plan is updated to reflect any changes to community engagement or consultation strategies, and to act on increased knowledge about the local community.
Developers are drawn to sites where high-quality solar resources are available and that are in proximity to the electricity distribution grid to enable connection. Town-scale developments tend to be sited on the fringe of towns as they require connection to low-voltage electricity distribution network infrastructure, which are the lines, poles and wires that deliver electricity to consumers within towns and cities.
The energy output depends on local topography and weather conditions. A 5MW solar farm will generate the annual electricity requirements of approximately 2,150 households.
Electricity from the solar farm will enter the distribution network which is connected to the national grid, and will be used to meet demand by electricity consumers in the national electricity market. This is a wholesale market where generators sell electricity and retailers buy electricity and on-sell it to domestic and commercial electricity users.
ITP focuses on town-scale projects that are suitably sized to provide power to the local region. Such developments connect to the distribution network (rather than the long-distance transmission network) and provide power predominately to customers situated close to the solar farm.
Construction timeframes vary depending on local conditions. The construction of a typical 5MW solar farm takes approximately three months.
During construction of a typical 5MW solar farm, approximately 50 personnel will be on site working from 7 am to 4 pm, Monday to Friday (i.e. only during the daytime and, and not at weekends). There is the potential for air quality to be impacted by construction activities such as generating dust from minor earthworks, construction vehicles driving on unsealed access roads and wind blowing over stockpiles and exposed surfaces. However standard construction management practices include mitigation measures to suppress dust for each phase of development.
The mounting system is constructed on steel piles that are driven in to the ground, typically to a depth of 1.5m and to a maximum depth of 3.5m.
Native vegetation hedges will provide a screen with a depth of 3 metres. For safety, a 1.8m high chain-link fence topped with 3 barbed wires will be installed. There may also be a locked area for operation, maintenance and spare parts.
Once operational, the site will be unmanned. Routine maintenance is scheduled quarterly, to be carried out by a crew of two to three people.
ITP will be responsible for weed control, and will tender for a provider to keep the pastures at manageable levels. This could involve sheep grazing as a control measure.
Solar PV farms are almost silent - tracking solar PV rows move at an unobtrusive and slow rate, producing minimal noise. The only noise emitted from an operational solar farm is from the substation and inverters, which can be inaudible if appropriate buffer distances are used. There is no noise from inverters at night. Since noise impacts are more significant during the construction phase, these are generally mitigated through standard construction management practices.
Modern PV panels are designed to absorb as much sunlight as possible, in order to convert it into electricity. All solar panels use anti-reflective materials to allow transmission of light through the glass and ‘roughened’ glass surfaces to minimise reflection.
In a solar array, the rows of panels are aligned on a north/south axis, and track the sun’s path across the sky from east in the morning to west at sunset. The panels have a maximum tilt of 60°. This design feature ensures that, when the sun is low in the sky, any reflections are directed upwards, and not towards the horizon. The materials and colouration of other on-site infrastructure are generally chosen to be non‐reflective, and in keeping with the colour palette of the landscape.
Glare is a planning consideration, especially if proposals are in proximity to aviation infrastructure, roads, railway lines or residential dwellings. There are several airports in Australia with roof- and ground-mounted solar arrays, and consultation with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is a planning requirement.
In Australia, there are no standard setback distances from adjoining property boundaries for solar farms. They are determined according to local planning requirements, and any restrictions (if applicable) are typically established through the development assessment process.
Solar PV farms are low in height and profile on the landscape. The visual impact of solar PV farms is significantly less than that of a wind farm (the other common form of large-scale renewable energy development) with the height of the ground-mounted panels of no more than 2.6 metres, compared to over 100 metres for a wind turbine tower. Other considerations include: existing landscape type and whether it is sensitive to change; sympathetic choice of colour palette for ancillary structures; and whether screening vegetation is proposed. Rather than using setbacks, visual impacts can be managed with screening vegetation planted adjacent to any sensitive property boundaries.
There are no known national or international studies which reliably indicate that proximity to a solar farm impacts negatively on the value of host properties or neighbouring properties. However, relevant research in relation to wind farms (including those undertaken by the NSW Valuer-General in 2009, and by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage in 2016) have found no reductions in sale price were evident for rural properties or residential properties located in nearby townships.
There are no available guidelines to assess impacts on non-sensitive land uses, such as recreational use of rural land. The potential for noise to affect the enjoyment of adjacent rural land would be largely confined to the construction phase; these impacts can be mitigated by construction management strategies, such as limiting construction to daytime hours.
The term “heat island” is usually applied to built-up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas due to less vegetation, and more paved surfaces and build¬ings. The change in ground cover results in less shade and moisture to keep urban areas cool.
There is no definitive evidence to suggest that solar farms increase ambient air temperatures. Some studies suggest PV systems can actually cause a cooling effect on the local environment. PV installations shade a portion of the ground and could therefore reduce heat absorption in surface soils. PV panels are thin and have a low heat capacity per unit area. If minimal vegetation is removed on unused grazing land, there is minimal reduction in the amount of cooling from the transpiration from plants.
The second part of the question relates to biological control of insect populations. Increasingly solar farms include some planting of trees and or shrubs for visual screening purposes. In an agricultural setting this may create the opportunity to both boost local biodiversity and increase the populations of insectivorous birds and other species, which could assist in reducing insect pest numbers on nearby properties.
Solar farm developers are typically responsible for undertaking any decommissioning requirements at the end of the project life, or earlier, in the event that the project is no longer financially viable. This is generally mandated by provisions in the contracts with land owners. Industry experience in Australia has shown that end-of-life solar farms have a scrap value higher than the cost of removal, and are therefore unlikely to be abandoned.
Rehabilitation will be to the pre-construction soil condition and all built material will be removed. This is likely to occur within two years of the end of the project.
There is a national market for electricity where dispatched power is sold competitively. Once built, renewable energy generators have low ongoing (“variable”) costs to generate, since they do not need to purchase fuel. Consequently, renewable energy plants are able to offer low-priced generation into the market. There is a shift towards renewable energy sources for new electricity generation, due to the economics of these projects.
ITP is a private company, with 95% of shares owned by its Australia-based employees. The remaining 5% of the company is owned by the international ITP Energised Group. ITP is a medium-sized company with 35 engineers and policy experts in Australia and the Pacific.
Finance to support solar farm project development is sourced locally in Australia, from a panel of investment partners.