Should arable land be used for the development of solar farms?
- Proposed solar farm in central Queensland has neighboring farmers concerned about optimal land use
- Concerns have been raised about potential impacts to neighboring properties
- A local council says the majority of pitches on offer are not classed as prime farmland
That’s a question asked by farmers neighboring a proposed solar farm in central Queensland.
Therese Creed farms in Smoky Creek, near the proposed site of the Smoky Creek Solar Power Plant, a project that will cover 1,800 hectares of land used in part for agricultural production.
Edify Energy, a renewable energy development company, says the project could generate up to 1,194,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy per year and save 995,200 tonnes of CO² emissions per year.
But Ms Creed said she was concerned the project would be built on high-quality farmland.
Previously, the land near the proposed solar farm was used for dryland cultivation.
“It’s very good quality, food-producing land,” Ms Creed said.
Another Smoky Creek grower, Rick Tomlin, said over the years he’s seen a variety of crops grown on the land set aside for the solar project.
“Where the solar farm [will be] I have seen cotton, wheat, sorghum, mung beans, all crops grown successfully on this land,” he said.
Classify the land
State planning policy and farmland assessment guidelines define four categories of farmland, with the highest quality land designated Class A through land unsuitable for agriculture designated Class D.
According to Queensland Solar Farms guidelines, site selection should be one that:
“…where possible, avoid significant agricultural land (generally defined as Classes A and B of the Agricultural Land Classification).”
In the case of the Smoky Creek development, approval for the development of solar farms rests with the local Banana Shire council.
In a statement to the ABC, the Banana Shire Council said most land was not classed as Class A or Class B.
“Part of the development approval for this project was a requirement for the developer to undertake an assessment of the quality of agricultural land covered by the project,” a spokesperson said.
“Council has also commissioned an independent report on the quality of agricultural land in relation to the Smoky Creek proposal and is satisfied that the majority of the site covered by the project is Category C agricultural land.
“The conclusion was that only 47% of the site was class A or B with areas of soil degradation [primarily through erosion] through some of these areas.
“Follow-up correspondence […] With regard to the establishment conditions identified, the level of degradation identified would suggest that the majority of land classified as Class A would in fact be Class C, although no percentage has been proposed as to the amount.”
Fears of leaching of heavy metals from the panels
Ms Creed said that in addition to concerns about the quality of the land, growers were also concerned about potential impacts on their own properties.
“We are very, very afraid for our land,” Ms Creed said.
Beef producer Arthur Osborne, whose property adjoins the proposed development, said producers were concerned about potential risks to the water supply.
“There are a lot of unknowns with the signs,” Mr. Osborne said.
“Because our properties depend on surface water, there is concern that our properties will be contaminated and then we lose our livelihood with this contamination and cannot produce beef.”
However, the International Energy Agency found that levels of water contamination from heavy metals escaping from solar panels were within World Health Organization guidelines and that any potential risk to human health linked to heavy metals escaping from solar panels would be below US screening levels.
Call to reform the approval process
Ms Creed expressed concern that recent efforts to achieve net-zero emissions targets have pushed projects forward too quickly and without sufficient scrutiny.
“Solar and renewable energy seem to be exempt from many rules, which is why they are approved at the local level. They can avoid a lot of the bureaucracy that would happen at the state or federal level,” said said Ms. Creed. .
“We think it’s being done this way on purpose to rush these things because the government is in a rush to meet renewable energy targets, which is fine, but it has to be done with sensitivity.
“It has to be done carefully so other things aren’t lost in the process.”
Edify Energy was contacted by the ABC but did not provide comment.
The Queensland Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning has been contacted for comment.