Guidelines required for solar farms

23 May 2018, Mr McCurdy (Ovens Valley): I rise to make a contribution on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee's Report on the 2017–18 Budget Estimates, particularly chapter 6.7, page 112 of that report.

This refers to the affordability of gas, water and electricity. As we know, the cost of electricity is an area that is affecting the cost of living for a lot of people. The focus clearly should be on renewables, and that needs to continue. The area I want to highlight that this report touches on is renewables and certainly solar farms and the lack of guidelines on those solar farms.

The current approach to solar farm rules and regulations has no such guidance, unlike wind farms where guidelines and legislation have been put in place. We are certainly seeing different local governments having different outcomes, and this is where I think the government needs to have a look at consistency and what is needed from local governments rather than this ham-fisted approach with different local governments having different standards.

Over the weekend I met with four local farmers at Naringaningalook fire station primarily to discuss the lack of consideration for the adjoining landholders and their rights and their fears. Pat Hanagan and Kim Bosse were asking about what happens when you have got a solar farm next door. The public liability on a property is normally set at about $20 million, which most farmers have.

Should that public liability now be raised to $60 million? Should having infrastructure like a solar farm next door need to be considered? Another concern, for example, is who is responsible if a farmer's wheat header or slasher creates a spark and generates a fire? Is their public liability going to be high enough? Who is in the best position to dictate this, and who is going to pay for that higher policy?

The Country Fire Authority has been told not to spray water onto solar farms if they catch alight underneath. At 1500 volts you can understand that is a fair comment to make, but will adjoining landholders have to increase their public liability to $60 million? I think government needs to focus on that. It needs to take a long-term view for landholders and not focus only on the shortfall of the power. Obviously the tripling of the coal royalty has contributed to this, and we have just got to have a sharper focus on these renewables.

John Gilroy and Ryan Quinane highlighted the social impact and the land value impact on neighbouring farms where these solar farms are starting to spring up. Moira shire, for example, had 44 stipulations on the planning permit, but none of the local government authorities apparently asked for the views of neighbours or comments from adjoining landholders. I have not spoken to Moira shire about this — and I am not having a dig at the shire — but this suggests that the Victorian government has a much larger role to play in the public debate on solar farms.

Pages 114 and 115 of the report talk about management and future changes relevant to renewable energy, but again it fails to cover off on the issues I have raised today. On the Victorian Country Hour program on 1 May Warwick Long talked about similar changes in the Shepparton region to applications for solar farms in Tatura, Tallygaroopna, Lemnos and Congupna that were called in by the Minister for Planning. These are projects worth over $300 million. That is a positive step forward, but more thought needs to be put into the rules and regulations around the prime agricultural land that is being lost and the impact on neighbours.

When we look at investment in irrigation infrastructure, like the $2 billion for the Connections Project in the northern region — which the Deputy Speaker would be well aware of — which sets us up for the next 50 to 100 years, we have got to think wisely as to where we put these solar farms and again about the greater impact on the local community.

We know that rate capping has meant local governments have had to rein in their spending, so now they are starting to slug other communities and other places that can become cash cows. We do not want the local government areas to be given a free kick to raise dollars wherever they can to the detriment of other individuals. More thought needs to go into these solar farms. Otherwise we will end up with a divide-and-conquer effect in the smaller communities thanks to our local government authorities. I know the UK has a land grading philosophy where land is graded between grades 1 and 5, with grade 1 being the most productive and grade 5 being the least productive. I think the government could consider that in terms of solar farms and where they would be best located.

Further discussions need to be held with the Victorian Farmers Federation and farming communities, and these further discussions need to be open and transparent. New South Wales is a long way ahead of us in terms of rules, regulations and guidelines regarding solar farms, and I think the Victorian government could well follow their lead and look at supporting local communities to make sure that solar farms are in fact in the best possible places.

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