By Heidi Asten, Partner, Melbourne, Ellen Tarasenko, Senior Associate, Melbourne and Alice Gilbert, Solicitor, Melbourne
The Victorian government has today released the new Solar Energy Facilities – Design and Development Guideline (Guidelines), reflecting the similar policy approach to wind energy facilities.
A planning scheme amendment is now expected to occur imminently to introduce the Guidelines to the Victoria Planning Provisions which will require all applicants for a solar energy facility to, as relevant, consider and follow the Guidelines prior to, and when, making a planning permit application.
In summary, the Guidelines cover three overarching matters:
- Identifying a suitable site: the policy, strategy and legislative matters to consider when selecting a site and approvals that may be needed including the question raised in a number of recent solar farm applications as to whether the proposed land is agriculturally significant
- Best practice for applicants: the things to consider when considering and preparing a planning permit application including community engagement and benefit sharing
- Application requirements: the Minister for Planning will be the responsible authority for applications for solar farms generating over 1MW of electricity, and a range of potential referral authorities are identified
The Guidelines address a number of planning-related issues specific to solar farms, including glint and glare, landscape screening and heat island effect. These are matters that have been recently considered in a comprehensive decision of VCAT for a solar facility in ESCO Pacific Pty Ltd v Wangaratta RCC (see case here).
Victoria is on track to meet the Victorian Renewable Energy Target of 25% renewable energy generation by 2020, and the Victorian government plans to increase the Target to 50% by 2030. With a number of wind farms having been developed and in operation, or under construction, in recent years, we have begun seeing an increased focus on planning regulation for solar farms. The release of the Guidelines coincide with a number of related initiatives, including:
- Amendment VC157 approved in March 2019, which requires transmission lines and substations associated with energy generation facilities to obtain planning approval. Planning issues related to these items of infrastructure, including native vegetation removal and impacts to Aboriginal cultural heritage places, will now need to be included within community engagement and consultation processes.
- A review of Victoria’s strategic agricultural land, which will be recognised and protected in the planning system. The siting of solar farms in areas of strategically important agricultural land will be discouraged with new policy updates forming part of the imminent planning scheme amendment to introduce the Guidelines. The government’s consultation on its strategic agricultural land review is ongoing.
A key message within the Guidelines is that solar farms will not be permitted to undermine the integrity of the irrigation network within a declared irrigation district. This follows the review of four solar farm proposals in Shepparton by an Advisory Committee in July 2018, including implications for Goulburn Valley Irrigation District infrastructure. To date, only one of the four applications has been approved by the Minister for Planning.
If you would like further information on the application of the Guidelines, or require assistance in progressing a planning permit application for a solar energy facility in Victoria, please contact our team below.