INSIGHT

New planning and community engagement guidelines for solar farms in Queensland

By Bill McCredie
Environment & Planning Renewables

In brief

New guidelines for planning and community engagement for solar farm development in Queensland will encourage local governments to adopt a consistent approach when assessing solar farm development proposals. Partner Bill McCredie and Senior Associates Julieane Materu and David Thorpe look at the Queensland Government's push towards further growth in the renewable energy sector, and consider the Guidelines.

Solar farm development assessment in Queensland

The Government has previously committed to increasing the production and use of renewable energy, and its new solar farm planning and community engagement guidelines indicates that solar farms form a key component to achieve its target of growing renewable energy generation to 50 per cent by 2030.

The assessment of a solar farm development application can be challenging for various local governments, particularly where local planning instruments do not include specific codes or measures against which solar farm proposals can be assessed and where the complex technical characteristics specific to solar farm development are not adequately dealt with in existing planning provisions.

The Guidelines

On 14 March 2018, the Queensland Solar Farm Guidelines (the Guidelines) and the accompanying draft guidance for local governments (the Local Government Guidance), were released for public consultation. The Guidelines will inform and guide stakeholders, including local governments, proponents and the community, through the project development process.

This approach can be contrasted with that adopted for wind farm developments, whereby the Department of State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning (DSDMIP), via the State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA), is the assessment manager for development applications for all new or expanding wind farms (as can be seen in our Client Update: New wind farm planning code and guideline for Queensland).

Application of the Guidelines

The Guidelines specifically relate to commercial scale (typically greater than five megawatts) photovoltaic solar arrays; however, they can be applied to smaller solar farms and other renewable energy projects.

The Guidelines are not binding. However, they give a good indication as to how the Government will assess development applications for which they are a referral agency. They also may give proponents an indication as to how local governments will assess applications in their role as Assessment Manager. 

Key points

  • While the Guidelines do not include any major reforms or place any new statutory obligations on proponents of solar farm projects, they are wide ranging and create greater certainty about the full spectrum of solar farm regulatory and policy settings.
  • The Guidelines aim to assist communities, landowners and project proponents by providing information about the legislative framework that governs solar farm developments in Queensland, the planning and development process, and practical guidance for effective community engagement practices.
  • Proponents are given a ‘checklist’ for community engagement objectives, activities and tools at every stage of the project lifecycle, in order to ensure they maintain their 'social licence to operate'. This may have the effect of establishing (and, in some cases, raising) community expectations about the degree and nature of community engagement with respect to solar farm developments. For example, proponents are encouraged to develop and implement a Community Engagement Plan. 
  • The Guidelines also set out expectations for the proponents of solar farms and local governments to ensure proper assessment of development applications, for example:
    • the Guidelines encourages proponents to use the pre-lodgement process with local governments to discuss any site-specific issues, and for the local government to identify any information that will be required when making their decision. The Guidelines set out the type of detailed assessment that will ordinarily be required for projects, including both technical and social considerations. Proponents can expect to see future information requests reflecting the considerations addressed by the Guidelines;
    • the accompanying Local Government Guidance encourages local governments to develop mapping in their planning schemes to attract solar development to their area, as they can help identify where solar farms can be supported on a local government scale;
    • while the Local Government Guidance acknowledges that, as for all uses in a planning scheme, the category of assessment for solar farms can vary within a local government area, it encourages local government to apply code assessment (as opposed to impact assessment) in areas that the local government has identified as appropriate for solar farms or can be co-located with similarly large-scale utility infrastructure;
    • in determining what category of assessment is appropriate for solar farms, local governments should consider the strategic intent of the planning scheme, together with the expected level of impact and community sentiment towards solar farms;
    • local governments are encouraged in the Local Government Guidance to draft assessment benchmarks in their planning schemes to support solar farm development, while sufficiently addressing community expectations by conditioning potential impacts from solar farm development, such as visual amenity, glint and glare; and
    • arguably the Guidelines increase the likelihood of local governments imposing a condition of approval limiting the solar farm use of land for a certain period of time, such as 20 or 30 years, because this is expressly stated as an example of the type of condition that is sometimes imposed.

What does it mean for you?

The new guidelines will inform and guide stakeholders, including local government, through the project development process, and ensure that projects meet their social licence to operate.

While the guidelines are informative, the principles are not binding, and do not introduce radical reforms in the way a solar farm development is to be assessed by a local government. However, the release of the guidelines represents the Queensland Government's recognition of the importance of having a planning framework that guides investment in solar farm development in Queensland.

The way forward

The new Queensland Solar Farm Planning Guidelines are important to the future development of Queensland's solar industry. Submissions about the Guidelines can be made until 11 May 2018.

As part of the consultation process, the DSDMIP is separately engaging with local governments on the accompanying Local Government Guidance.