The Victorian Government recently released the draft "Solar Energy Facilities – Design and Development Guidelines" ( Guidelines) which outline the assessment and development process for large-scale solar energy facilities in Victoria.
The Guidelines were developed following a review of similar guidelines and best practice standards applied across Australia and internationally and on the basis of a recent recommendation of the Planning Panel appointed to consider four solar energy facilities proposed near Shepparton (Shepparton Planning Panel).1
The Guidelines are open for comment until 1 March 2019.
Purpose of the guidelines
The Guidelines apply to large-scale facilities but not proposals for solar panel arrays that supply energy for an existing use of the land on which they are located.2
The purpose of the Guidelines is to assist proponents and regulatory authorities address the key considerations when planning and assessing solar energy facilities, including relevant government policy, appropriate site location, regulatory requirements, best practice design and development and ensuring effective community engagement to allow for meaningful participation by interested stakeholders.
Policy, planning and legislative considerations
The Policy, Planning and Legislative Requirements section of the Guidelines provides an outline of some of the important considerations at the pre-application stage of a development including:
- state policy objectives – to be considered early in the site selection process such as the Government's Renewable Energy Target, Water for Victoria (a long term strategy for managing Victoria's water resources), Victoria's Regional Statement, Agriculture Victoria Strategy, regional growth plans and the protection of biodiversity;
- the planning policy framework – the state level planning policies concerning land use and development in the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP) against which planning permit applications will be considered, such as Clause 19.01-1S which aims to facilitate appropriate development of energy supply infrastructure, and Clause 19.01-2S which promotes the provision of renewable energy facilities which meet appropriate design and siting considerations;
- proximity to the existing electricity network and spare connection capacity available at the connection point. Five Renewable Energy Zones within Victoria have been identified by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) in the recently released Integrated System Plan. The Zones are areas where large scale energy facilities can be developed through coordinated investment in transmissions and generation, and highlight where AEMO is proposing that infrastructure planners prioritise network upgrades and a high-level timeline for their delivery.
- strategic site section assessment – strategic site selection factors which should be investigated at the regional level include:
- relevant planning policy zones and overlays;
- agricultural values including irrigation infrastructure impacts;
- heritage and Aboriginal cultural values;
- landscape values and visual amenity;
- biodiversity and native vegetation;
- access to the Victorian electricity grid; and
- other infrastructure requirements.
The Guidelines note that the potential impacts of solar energy facilities on agricultural land should be considered in the site selection process. All Victorian planning schemes contain strategies to preserve productive agricultural land. The strategies are focused on:
- protecting strategically important agricultural and primary production land from incompatible uses;
- protecting productive farmland that is of strategic significance in the local or regional context; and
- avoiding permanent removal of productive agricultural land from the state's agricultural base without consideration of the economic importance of the land for the agricultural production and processing sectors.
While most rural land is not considered to be strategically significant, when making decisions on the appropriate location of solar energy facilities, the Guidelines suggest that Councils should request that applicants provide an assessment of:
- the agricultural quality of the proposed site (taking into account both soil and landscape attributes as well as access to secure water supply and economic attributes);
- the amount of strategically significant agricultural land in the Council area and in the region; and
- the potential impact of removing the land from agricultural production.
Land serviced by modernised irrigation infrastructure is designated as strategically significant and Councils should refer to the rural water corporations planning applications for solar energy facilities in these locations. Proponents will need to demonstrate that the development will have limited impacts on irrigation infrastructure which supports agricultural production.
The Government is considering providing rural water corporations with a formal referral authority role for non-agricultural developments in areas serviced by the modern irrigation grid. This change would also be complemented by changes to the state planning policies to include a map of the modernised irrigation grid and guidance for decision makers when water corporations provide their input to Council on solar farm applications.
One of the key issues for the Shepparton Planning Panel (in which Norton Rose Fulbright acted for one of the permit applicants) was the appropriateness of four solar farms within the Farming Zone, where substantial parts of the land within this Zone are irrigated and used for agricultural production. The Panel concluded that the four proposed developments would not impact existing and future farming operations and/or the broader irrigation district. The soil types of the subject land were of a lower quality than other areas in the irrigation district with higher value agricultural production.
The local council is the responsible authority under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Act) for assessing planning permit applications and granting permits for solar energy facilities. Clause 53.13 Renewable energy facility (other than wind energy facility and geothermal energy extraction) under the VPP sets out the application requirements for proponents and the decision guidelines for the responsible authority to consider in an assessment of a planning permit application for a solar energy facility.
The Guidelines set out the steps for applying for a permit application to construct and operate a solar energy facility under the Act including:
- holding pre-application discussions with the Council;
- lodging permit application documentation such as:
- a signed application form;
- payment of the lodgement fee;
- a current certificate of title for the land;
- consideration of any applicable particular provisions in the planning scheme;
- a site and context analysis – which should reflect the process of site selection and feasibility analysis;
- design response including detailed plans of the development; and
- access and traffic management plan.
Apart from a planning permit for the construction of a solar energy facility, other approvals and licences may be required under state and federal legislation to remove native vegetation or wildlife, to manage impacts on cultural heritage and matters of national environmental significance and to facilitate road access and utility connections.
Best practice guidance
The Best Practice Guidance section of the Guidelines provides proponents with suggestions to improve the quality of their applications and minimise impacts on neighbouring land during construction and operation.
Key areas for proponents to consider which are outlined in the Best Practice Guidance section include:
- community engagement and stakeholder engagement - the Guidelines strongly suggest that proponents consider stakeholder engagement from the outset of a project (rather than waiting until the statutory requirement to notify the public of the proposal as part of the planning permit application) involving the community, relevant agencies and landowners. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning guide – Community Engagement and Benefit Sharing in Renewable Energy Development provides guidance on engagement and shared benefits of renewable energy projects.
- design stage - the use of best practice design can aid in minimising visual impact on surrounding land uses and proponents should consider using appropriate screening such as vegetation buffers, and implementing methods to reduce the impacts of glint, glare, light spill and noise. The Guidelines also refer to the opportunity to increase site productivity by co-locating solar energy facilities with other rural land uses such as sheep grazing.
- construction stage – consideration should be given to implementing management strategies for site access and dust and noise management.
- operations and decommissioning stages – management of fire risk, contamination management, and returning the land to its original condition should be addressed.
How to make a submission
Written submissions on the draft Guidelines can be made via the website of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
1 Shepparton Solar Farms Permit Applications
(PCI)  PPV 72. Norton Rose Fulbright represented one of the
applicants in this Panel hearing.
2 Victoria, Draft – Solar Energy Facilities – Design and Development Guidelines (2018) 5.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.