The rise of solar energy

In recent years, the number of large-scale solar farms has significantly increased in Australia and according to Energy New South Wales solar now accounts for 12 per cent of the State’s energy mix.  

Canstar Blue lists 14 new 50MW+ solar farms under construction in NSW in regional and rural communities. Currently more than 7750 people are directly employed in the renewable energy sector. With the obvious push for renewable energy, there is likely to be a massive boom for jobs and investment in the sector.   

 

Solar panels surrounded by trees

But while there are tremendous benefits from harnessing the sun for energy, there are still impacts that must be considered before projects are approved.  

 In 2019, the NSW Government released a new guideline for large-scale solar energy projects to guide industry and the community through the planning process. The planning framework outlines the criteria for evaluating a solar project.  

 As a general guide:  

    • councils assess projects under $5 million 
    • the Joint Regional Planning Panel assesses projects between $5m and $30m  
    • the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) assesses projects over $30m. Projects that are environmentally sensitive and over $10 million are also considered by DPIE.  

Like other new developments, solar projects must consider a range of issues, particularly social and visual impacts on the surrounding community. Social and visual impact assessments are carried out to help identify and define potential social and visual impacts (positive and negative) of the project and make recommendations to help reduce and manage those impacts.   

Solar farm artist impression

 A key part of the new draft guidelines is the requirement for community engagement. Any proponent looking to develop a solar farm proposal will need to consult with affected landowners surrounding the development, as well as the broader community and local council.  

 Community consultation should not only be done in accordance with the approving authority’s requirements, but also with best practice methods in mind. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online engagement is essential, so it’s important to use a range of tools to gather genuine feedback.  

What are the potential impacts? 

Canstar’s list of large-scale solar farms are all in regional areas and sites that are great for ground-mounted solar panels are often also prime agricultural land. Additionally, as the land is usually cleared, the solar panels are visible from surrounding properties and passers-by. The visual impact and potential loss of agricultural land are two of the most common concerns for large solar projects.  

Effective communications and engagement can  reduce community fears about a project and minimise the potential for conflict between renewable energies and land used for agriculture. We can clearly communicate what the impacts might be by using visual aids such as photomontages, artist impressions, flythroughs, and drone imagery of the site. Importantly, these tools usually help to reduce fears about the project. That’s why drone and aerial photography are part of our suite of services.  

 Meaningful conversations about the project’s impacts can also lead to opportunities to work together, turning a potential negative into community advocacy for the project.  

Solar farm proposal

How can we reduce the impacts? 

Where there is a visual impact, in most locations it can be mitigated through careful planning and using vegetation for screening. During the visual impact assessment, the potential glint and glare effects are measured. This is the reflection caused by the angle of the panels, which can be a safety concern as well as a nuisance factor. Changing the angle or using visual screening can help to alleviate impacts and concerns.  

Tips to get you started

We suggest engaging with your community early. Here are our tips for getting started:  

      1. Be clear about what you do and don’t know and when you will be able to provide more information 
      2. Be frank about what people can and can’t influence. Some clients refer to these as negotiables and non-negotiables  
      3. Understand your stakeholders and what their likely concerns are going to be. If you can think like your stakeholder and anticipate their questions, you’ll be prepared for any conversation 
      4. Above all, put a stakeholder engagement plan together at the beginning of the project to map out your consultation and communication. It will be a requirement for state significant developments and increasingly councils will require consultation as well as a social impact statement/assessment. 

Need help? Think Pink. 

Need help with social impact assessments, visual impact assessments, drone and aerial photography or community consultation, Think Pink and get in touch.  

Contact us. 

Email: mara@marasulting.com.au 

Phone: 02 49654317 

About the writer

Kelly LofbergKelly Lofberg is a communication and engagement specialist. Kel specialises in media and issues management, social impact assessments, consultation, advocacy campaigns and strategic communication.

Get in touch kelly@maraconsulting.com.au or 02 49654317.

Consultation will make or break bar trial in Newcastle

We are watching with interest to see what happens with the potential changes to liquor laws in Newcastle, NSW. One thing for certain is that community and stakeholder engagement will make or break this trial.  

Get it right and Newcastle’s night-time economy can grow and support a range of venues and experiences. Get it wrong and it will be a decade before any government – local or state – will go anywhere near it.  

Consultation is our thing here at Mara, so we have put together our top tips to help our local businesses keen to get involved in the trial. 

1. Talk to your community  

There is no point sitting on the sidelines assuming the worst, so only way to know what people think is to have a conversation and build a relationship with your community. Your locals might be itching for you to stay open later or serve cocktails until midnight but they just haven’t had the opportunity to tell you.  

2. Listen to feedback  

Ignoring what people have to say is only going to get you into hot water. Once you know what the issues are, you can investigate whether there are measures you can put in place to see if this helps the problems. The key is having a continuing conversation – yes you will be able to resolve some issues and not others but keep people up to date with what’s happening is a winning approach. 

3. Be persistent 

We are all time poor, so make sure you give your stakeholders time to respond. If you aren’t getting responses, adjust your consultation activities. Think like your stakeholder and anticipate the best way to gather feedback. It is okay to change your plan than get to the end of the process and have to do it all again.  

4. Ask for help 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you would rather stick to making great food and serving tasty beverages, that’s ok. There are plenty of people that are experts in this field, and we are one of them. Don’t be shy, get in touch.  

Need help? Think pink.  

We can help you identify relevant stakeholders, come up with a plan, write communication materials that are easy to understand and help facilitate conversations with your community. Once we have all the information, we can help you work through ways to address issues that arise and report back to your community and other interested stakeholders.  

Relevant links

NSW Government – Community Impact Statement

Liquor and Gaming NSW – Community Impact Statement

Contact us