The Victorian government has given the green light to a solar farm in northern Victoria that could produce enough power for more than 20,000 homes.
The Congupna project, north of Shepparton, is one of four solar farms planned for the area, and is the only one in the group planned for non-irrigated land.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the government planned to reach 40 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and investment in solar and wind projects was the way to move forward.
“It’s a fantastic win for the region, and we believe both solar and wind have a significant role to play in reaching those targets,” Mr Wynne said on Monday.
“I think overwhelmingly people think solar is clearly the way to go.”
Guidelines put into place
In February the Greater Shepparton City Council found itself ill equipped to approve four projects – at Tallygaroopna, Lemnos, Tatura East and Congupna – and passed the task onto the Victorian government to consider.
Following community consultations, an independent planning panel assessed the applications.
The Congupna project was approved as a result of the panel hearing, but a decision on the Tallygaroopna, Lemnos and Tatura East solar farms, which all reside on irrigated land, has been deferred until further strategic work is completed.
The government also released draft guidelines for future big solar farm developments in Victoria.
The draft guidelines will help inform councils, developers and communities about planning requirements for large solar farm facilities.
The guidelines take location, grid accessibility, agricultural land use and sensitive landscapes into consideration.
Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke said the organisation still held concerns around developments going ahead without proper guidelines.
“One of our key election campaign issues is getting some sensible planning on regulation throughout the state,” he said.
“Energy is very important, but for us the protection of farmland is more critical. Agricultural land will be there for future generations, and that’s our focus.”
Project welcomed by economic group
It is expected the Congupna project will produce 68 megawatts of clean energy, create about 250 jobs and power 22,600 homes.
Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive Sam Birrell welcomed the Congupna project.
“I think the development of solar is really positive,” he said.
“There’s a lot of economic investment which comes along with these things. There’s employment, technology, manufacturing, innovation.
“All of these things are very good, not to mention sustainable renewable power generation at the end of it.
“So I think they’re great for the region. We just need to balance those beside another area, which has got all of those things, which is irrigated agriculture and food manufacturing.”
Farmer concerned by three further projects
Dairy farmer Natalie Akers, based at Tallygaroopna in northern Victoria, has previously stated her opposition to solar developments taking place on prime agricultural land.
While she said she had “no issue” with the Congupna project, she had concerns about the three final projects in Greater Shepparton being approved.
“Those projects would total 2000 acres of high-quality irrigation land, and the potential of having solar panels there is what I’ve got a problem with,” Ms Akers said.
But she said the new guidelines appeared to take the community’s concerns into consideration.
“From a cursory read, it would seem they’ve listened to the community’s and farmers’ concerns, and they’re also committed to doing some mapping around where that infrastructure is, so that makes it easier for solar developments to occur.
“I think there’s been a number of farmers that haven’t been against solar. It was always about getting it in the right spot, and we didn’t believe that putting them on modern irrigation properties was the best outcome.”
The Solar Energy Facilities – Design and Development Guidelines are open for public comment until March.
Mr Wynne said the community consultation would put the government in the best position to “flesh out issues” around solar.