The selection criteria for a potential site for a proposed project may be based on a range of factors including the available wind or solar resource, proximity to existing transmission infrastructure, potential for securing landowner arrangements and other approved development in the area.
Current transmission infrastructure was originally designed and built many years ago based on the location and availability of existing energy resources (such as coal, gas, pumped hydro) which, at that time, did not envisage the significant shift to large-scale renewable resources such as wind and solar energy. These relatively new resources are often optimally (in all other respects) best located in different geographies and often well away from existing grid infrastructure.
Prospecting developers are not generally restricted in initiating a new project on a particular site and almost always pursue sites that are very close to existing transmission infrastructure. Developments often commence by prospectors initiating discussions with adjoining landowners at a transmission optimal site to seek their agreement to host the project. However, because existing transmission infrastructure is often located near communities, lifestyle dwellings and primary producers, prospective and developed wind and solar farms are more likely to be located in areas that will cause friction with non-involved neighbours and communities.
The Commissioner’s experience to date indicates that there is a much higher likelihood of community issues and concerns to contend with when a proposed or operating wind or solar farm is located near or amongst more populated areas. Often, the more populated areas correlate with the proximity and availability of transmission infrastructure, however, they can also result in a very large number of neighbours who will reside in close proximity to multiple turbines or solar arrays.
Further, there may be multiple proposed (and/or existing) projects in a given area, with the potential for residents to be ‘surrounded’ by wind turbines and/or solar arrays if such projects proceed. These scenarios could lead to a range of compounding issues for residents including noise, visual amenity and potential economic loss. A further complication may occur if project construction timeframes overlap, placing enormous pressure on local resources and infrastructure, in addition to the usual annoyances such as construction noise, traffic and dust.
Based on our complaint handling experiences, the Commissioner has found that locating wind turbines on the top of hills or ridges, while optimum for capturing the wind resource, can have greater impacts on visual amenity, may lead to specific noise and shadow flicker scenarios for residents in the valley beneath and may have other dislocation impacts on the community. Access roads for hill and ridge wind farms can also be obtrusive and significantly damage and constrain the remaining available farming land in the area.
Conversely, there appear to be minimal issues raised to date about wind farms that are located on large land holdings, or on flat or slight to moderate undulating land and sites that are well away from neighbours and towns (noting comments made earlier regarding landowner and neighbour agreements in subsections 1 and 2).
Location and capacity of transmission grid remains a significant challenge for the renewable energy industry. A number of more recently completed projects have discovered, upon connection to the grid, that there is insufficient capacity in the existing transmission line for the project’s generational output to be delivered – resulting in significant curtailment of the generation capacity of the project. In particular, a number of large-scale solar projects have experienced this situation, as these projects tend to be in more remote locations in order to capture the solar resource. Again, it may be prudent for developers to engage early with AEMO and transmission operators to ensure that the project’s output can be accommodated.
Optimising site locations
There may be opportunities to select and prioritise wind and solar energy projects in the current pipeline based on an increased likelihood of acceptance of the project by the surrounding community. With the increase in development and construction costs, the ongoing grid connection issues and the declining value of large-scale generation certificates, not all projects in the development pipeline are expected to go ahead. There is an opportunity to select projects that meet other key parameters, including economic and regional development goals, while also selecting sites that are optimal from a community impact perspective.
Recent state and territory government initiatives, such as Renewable Energy Zones (NSW), VRET Program (Victoria) and Reverse Auction Program (ACT) have enabled governments to become involved in selecting projects that are located in more optimal sites. These administrators also have a level of control to mandate community support programs through to ensuring minimal or no cumulative effects from neighbouring projects. Upgrades to the grid system at a national level may also provide opportunities to explore new locations for renewable projects.
There can be great variances in the final design and layout from the project’s original design and approved permit conditions. As these changes occur, there are not necessarily sufficient processes in place to re-assess other nearby projects for potential compounding impacts on residents and whether or not projects with such compounding impacts should proceed. There can also be severe cumulative effects during construction of more than project in a specific locality, placing enormous pressures on roads, resources (such as gravel), accommodation and skilled tradespersons.
Given that existing projects have most likely already selected optimal sites for their location, management and selection of appropriate new sites from remaining site options may become more difficult. A more ‘top-down’ approach to selecting projects, together with appropriate long-term planning and augmentation of the grid, should assist greatly in managing this challenge going forward.
8.2.1. State/Territory and local governments should consider assessing proposed wind and solar energy projects on a wider range of criteria (including ability for power output to be transmitted and consumed, the suitability of a location from a community impact perspective and the degree of community support) and then prioritising projects for approval or progression accordingly. ‘Reverse auction’ feed-in tariff schemes such as the schemes deployed by the ACT and Victorian governments, could be an example of how to prioritise and incentivise projects to be developed in preferred locations. These schemes can also promote best practice community engagement. Visual amenity guidelines such as the Wind Energy Visual Assessment Bulletin for State Significant Wind Energy Development introduced in New South Wales in 2016 can also restrict development in more populated areas, including assessing the acceptability of multiple wind farms in a given location.
8.2.2. State and local governments may also consider other criteria in assessing and prioritising wind and solar energy projects, including economic development and the ability to both support regional and industry development through improved local electricity supply and infrastructure in regional communities. Appropriate zoning for renewable energy development and overlays for clarifying where it would be appropriate or not appropriate to build and operate projects should also be considered.
8.2.3. Prospecting for new wind and solar farm development sites could be subject to an ‘approval to prospect’ requirement issued by the responsible authority before formal prospecting commences. The approval to prospect a specified potential site would be granted on a range of criteria, including the suitability of the proposed site, alignment with the State’s renewable zone strategy, transmission capacity as well as the credentials of the developer and key personnel. See also Recommendation 1.2.9.
8.2.4. As part of the assessment suggested in Recommendation 8.2.1, the responsible authority should have processes in place to obtain and verify clear evidence of the developer’s consultations with affected landowners and residents and be able to assess the likelihood of strong community support for the project.
8.2.5. Once an approved project has materially commenced construction, the responsible authority may need to check other approved projects in the area which are yet to commence construction, to ensure any compounding effects on residents, including noise, shadow flicker and visual amenity, have been properly considered in those applications/permits. If necessary and where reasonable, the responsible authority should also have the ability to require a modification to the approved planning permit and layout of those projects that have not already materially commenced construction. Background noise levels should exclude any noise contribution from a neighbouring operating wind farm for the purposes of applying the noise standard.
8.2.6. State governments should publish and maintain a map of all operating and proposed wind and solar farms, including the location of the project, location of wind turbines or solar arrays, the status of the project (proposed, permitted, in construction or operating) as well as information about the project’s design, including number and size/rating of wind turbines or solar arrays and information about the proponent.
8.2.7. State governments, in conjunction with the appropriate Australian Government departments/agencies and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), should review current and planned transmission infrastructure to ensure it allows for new large-scale renewable generation facilities to be connected in the most optimal locations for renewable resources. AEMO’s Integrated System Plan has identified a number of potential renewable energy zones that provides insight and direction transmission planning. The resulting new and/or augmented transmission infrastructure needs to be commissioned and in place in a timely manner.