Both the energy and agricultural industries, essential to our livelihoods in Australia, are facing a rapid pace of change and many intersecting challenges leading into the next decade.
In this context, we believe that the government has a responsibility to be an active leader in planning and expectation setting at a statewide and a local level.
We are pleased to see that the Discussion Paper demonstrates a thorough understanding of the emerging issues around hosting renewable energy projects on agricultural land.
Our submission outlines four key policy recommendations for the Commissioner to consider, and following this, comments on the discussion questions set out in the Paper.
We have been working in the Central West Orana Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to understand community and landholder priorities and concerns.
Many of our comments in this submission draw on the conversations and experiences we’ve had as part of our work there.
Four Priority Recommendations
1. Urgent and direct investment in local REZ engagement
RE-Alliance has been working in the Central West Orana REZ to understand community and landholder priorities and concerns.
Often, we have played the role of engagement consultant and community educator due to the lack of information and sense of overwhelm among impacted landholders.
The regulatory framework for REZs is complicated. There are no drop-in centres or local officials to guide landholders and the community.
The Government website detailing the REZ system has little relevant information for locally impacted landholders and is difficult to navigate, containing many acronyms and dense concepts that are time-consuming to grasp.
Attempts to engage the community over the Central-West Orana Transmission Line by Transgrid and by EnergyCo have been poor. Information has not been timely, accessible or detailed.
We believe this lack of communication, transparency and on-the-ground personnel will, if left to continue, result in further distrust of the government, and erode the goodwill and support for renewable energy in the region.
RE-Alliance recommends the NSW government, as a matter of urgency, directly employ at least three well-qualified, full-time staff in every REZ, with a mix of relevant experience, such as agriculture, NSW planning processes, community development and community engagement.
We recommend these staff run REZ information centres to:
- provide accessible information about the development of the Renewable Energy Zone
- host regular information sessions in different parts of the REZ, tailored to different groups including landholders, small business owners and environmentalists
- Provide information for landholders, and where appropriate, provide referrals to professional services, about how to navigate contract negotiation with renewable energy developers
- Assist with local engagement on transmission planning
- provide information to local businesses on how to plan for and get the most out of REZ construction
- allow developers to display information on their projects in centralised locations
- engage the community to identify targets for community benefit programs.
- maintain up-to-date online information about each REZ including maps showing projects and timelines for development
- Provide a conduit for local views back to EnergyCo and relevant government departments.
2. Establish an independent, statutory authority like the Latrobe Valley Authority
Independent, statutory authorities to support local-led planning have been very successful in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, as well as overseas.
The Latrobe Valley Authority employs around 40 experts in the region to coordinate local councils, industry and community groups to identify opportunities and priorities specific to their region.
The Authority was modelled on similar institutions in Germany.
An independent, statutory Authority like the Latrobe Valley Authority for each REZ would support people to become active participants in the transition, rather than subjects of it. It would provide visibility of, and access to decision-making processes and be an authoritative source of local information about the rollout of renewables in the region.
Civil society organisations have been increasingly vocal in their calls for more of these types of bodies in Australia.
The Next Economy, an organisation that has been strongly advocating for these types of institutions in Australia, explains that local statutory authorities have three main functions:
- The first responsibility of a transition authority is to facilitate long-term regional planning and coordination to reduce the negative impacts associated with the phase out of fossil fuels and to facilitate new economic opportunities.
- The second main role of a transition authority is to ensure that all stakeholders can meaningfully participate in decision making processes and in the design of new plans and programs to decarbonise the economy, and that they remain informed and able to participate as change unfolds over time.
- With a strong regional presence and working relationships across different sectors and levels of government, the third responsibility of the transition authority is to be across all aspects of the energy transition to enable the flow of information and to enable effective, timely and regionally appropriate investment and action.
There are many models and examples of such bodies overseas, and a small handful in Australia. On the question of whether regional, state or federal transition authorities should be established in Australia, participants in The Next Economy’s analysis preferred a state level body that could fund and ensure the coordination of regional offices, emphasising that while coordination is a key function of the authority, planning and decision-making must not be top-down.
The Hunter Jobs Alliance last year published a report calling for a Hunter Valley Authority, exploring a potential model for its establishment.
RE-Alliance recommends that the NSW continue to lead the country in its energy transition by establishing an independent, NSW Regional Transition Authority to coordinate local offices in each Renewable Energy Zone, taking on board the analysis from The Next Economy and the Hunter Jobs Alliance about what such a body should include, as well as lessons from the Latrobe Valley Authority.
3. Fund pilot projects and research into agrisolar
The NSW government can improve the compatibility of renewables with agricultural land by providing incentives for co-location—payments made to both farmers and developers using land in a way that produces energy and food at the same time.
There are some examples of co-location of agriculture and solar generation in Australia, as identified by the CEC Agrisolar guide.
Co-location of solar and sheep have anecdotally increased the carrying capacity of grazing land by providing shade that is good for sheep and grass growth, but more research is needed to establish what settings can optimise this practice in Australian environments.
Likewise, intermittent shade provided by panels could be beneficial for some crops in some environments, however trials are needed to find workable models that can be replicated at scale with confidence.
There are currently no incentives for developers to trial co-location practices.
RE-Alliance recommends the NSW government support the agricultural sector by incentivising co-location and prioritising projects that trial innovative solar cropping and grazing methods. Such a program would see the NSW government reduce land use conflicts and facilitate innovation within the renewable energy and agriculture sectors.
4. Fund independent Land Use Officers to support host and neighbouring landholders with lease contracts
Landholders are often busy farmers and graziers, and are finding themselves having to deal with an increasing number of renewable energy developers seeking to secure lease contracts that will enable them to develop a project in the REZ.
Contractual leases for renewable energy projects are complex, with many land use considerations included. Landholders often require expert support to undertake this contract negotiation process, and legal experts with experience with these types of contracts are in high demand, often unable to take new clients.
This expertise is not just necessary for host landholders but also for neighbours. Even where they are not signing agreements with developers, neighbouring landholders also have to negotiate changes to insurance and other arrangements, for which professional assistance is also required.
Ideally, the NSW Large-Scale Solar Guidelines would be thorough and give landholders confidence they will be treated fairly. Our submission to the revised guidelines details some provisions we considered were missing.
When NSW’s Renewable Energy Action Plan was released, implementation of the Plan was supported by a network of renewable energy extension officers employed regionally, who provided information about local renewable energy opportunities, the planning system, and support available from the NSW Government. Unfortunately these positions were just short-term.
RE-Alliance recommends that the NSW Government fund a network of independent land use officers across regional NSW to provide assistance to both host and neighbouring landholders.
These officers would provide a range of advice to landholders, including about new transmission routes and renewable energy developments, and importantly, the range of impacts landholders must consider when entering into lease negotiations.
The officers could produce resources and be available to landholders via information sessions and a hotline for information and advice.