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.