The NSW Government has released a revised Large-Scale Solar Energy Guideline (Guideline), which provides updated direction on the planning framework and assessment of State significant development (SSD) solar developments, including how the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) will assess impacts.
- SSD solar projects must now engage with new assessment principles under the Guideline when considering their environmental, social, and economic impacts.
- The key assessment principles focus on landscape character, visual amenity, agricultural land, glint and glare, waste management, and decommissioning.
- A new Technical Supplement supports the Guideline which standardises the methodology for visual and landscape impact assessment and provides for a more rigorous assessment of such impacts specific to large-scale solar projects.
Key objectives and application of the Guideline
To support a sustainable solar industry, the Guideline encourages suitable site selection, guides how to measure and assess environmental impacts, and promotes best practice community and stakeholder engagement for solar projects in NSW.
The Guideline applies to applications for new large-scale, ground-mounted solar energy projects that are SSD and their associated works, unless:
- an applicant has already received the Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements prior to 25 August 2022 and will lodge their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before 31 January 2023; or
- an applicant has lodged their SSD application and EIS prior to 25 August 2022.
The Guideline should also be considered by proponents looking to modify an existing SSD consent or carry out solar energy projects that are regionally significant development.
Focus areas and new changes under the Guideline
The Guideline expands upon the original guideline released in 2018 under the following focus areas.
The Guideline provides an overview of the process to obtain or modify a development consent for an SSD solar energy project and sets out additional approvals that may be required (e.g. Commonwealth approval). Notably, projects sited in regional cities must not adversely impact the regional city’s capacity for growth or scenic values, or the uses of the surrounding land.
Community and stakeholder engagement
Effective community consultation in accordance with Undertaking Engagement Guidelines for State Significant Projects (November 2021) is a focus of the Guideline. Early engagement with the community is recommended and consideration should be given to aspects of the project and environmental assessment that may be shaped by community input (e.g. project siting and the assessment of landscape and visual impacts).
The benefits of good site selection are identified in the Guideline, including a greater social licence to operate, shorter assessment timeframes and reduced offset obligations.
Key site constraints for proponents to consider when undertaking a constraints mapping exercise during the site selection process are also explored, including proximity to existing transmission infrastructure, size and shape of land parcels, and the level of solar radiation.
Assessment issues and requirements
The Guideline introduces ‘key principles’ that consent authorities will consider in determining the significance of impacts and appropriate mitigation measures. These principles are summarised below.
- Visual amenity: Applicants are to engage with the local community to determine baseline landscape character, consider landscape character and visual impacts during the early stages of project siting and design, ensure the project is designed and sited in an area to avoid high visibility, and mitigate moderate or high level visual impacts.
- Agricultural land use: Applicants are to consider the agricultural capability of the land during site selection, avoid siting projects on important agricultural land, undertake a proportionate level of agricultural assessment and mitigate any significant impacts on agricultural land.
- Waste management and circular design: Applicants are to minimize construction waste, prioritizing the use of reusable and recyclable materials, minimize impacts on local waste management facilities over the life cycle of the project, and prioritise the recycling of PV panels and associated equipment.
- Decommissioning and rehabilitation of land: Applicants are to restore the land to its pre-existing use (including land and soil capability class, if agricultural land) and remove infrastructure following the decommissioning of a project. The owner or operator of the project should be responsible for decommissioning and rehabilitation, which should be reflected in a landholder agreement.
- Glint and glare: Solar panels are to be sited and constructed to minimize glint and glare, with mitigation measures required for substantial glint and glare impacts.
The Guideline also explores infrastructure contributions and the emerging importance of benefit sharing and private agreements. In particular, voluntary community benefit sharing programs are strongly supported as initiatives to deliver community-wide benefits and protect the overall public interest.
Landscape character and visual impact assessment of key importance
The supporting Technical Supplement directs the preparation of:
- A landscape character assessment (the assessment of the overall impact of a project on an area’s cumulative built, natural, and cultural character or sense of place); and
- A visual impact assessment (the assessment of impact on views from both the private and public domain).
The Technical Supplement identifies baseline information that must be provided in a landscape character and visual impact assessment as part of an EIS and prescribes the use of assessment tools and requirements to produce consistent outcomes. These tools include photomontages that overlay a 3D model of the solar panels over an existing landscape, to assist in visualising potential impacts, and a Visual Magnitude Grid Tool that splits these photomontages into a grid of 720 ‘cells’ to assess the number of ‘cells’ taken up by the project and thus quantify the magnitude of visual impacts.
Applicants are expected to engage appropriate professionals with demonstrated experience and capabilities who are to follow the Technical Supplement to perform an effective and consistent assessment for large-scale solar energy development.
The Guideline sets out greater and more detailed requirements for applicants to consider when preparing SSD applications for large-scale solar energy developments.
It is clear that early community and stakeholder consultation and rigorous impact assessment (particularly landscape and visual) are key themes under the Guideline that should be carefully considered by applicants.
If you would like to know more about how the Guideline might affect your project, please contact us.
By Peter Briggs, Partner, Tom Dougherty, Senior Associate, and Grace Huang, Solicitor.