Shepparton council’s solar guidelines push

By Thomas Moir

Greater Shepparton City Council is urging the Victorian Government to include a set of standard permit conditions and more detail on factors planners should consider in assessing solar farm applications in the state guidelines.

The city is still awaiting formal decisions on three solar farm developments currently with the planning minister.

But councillors have endorsed a submission to help inform a set of state guidelines for the planning of solar facilities.

Councillors endorsed a submission to the government at a council meeting this week. In its submission, the council argues it would be useful to include a section for planning officers assessing applications.

It would help provide certainty for officers and avoid delays in assessment, they argue.

How to address adequate siting and design, how to balance the loss of agricultural land with renewable improved energy supply and how to assess amenity, such as impacts on rural landscape, are suggested inclusions.

‘‘A set of model planning permit conditions based on recent planning permit approval granted by the minister would be beneficial in ensuring consistency in decisions made,’’ the council writes.

It also asks for more information about fire management requirements for solar farms, while stressing the guidelines would benefit from conditions around decommissioning facilities.

The Victorian Government has developed draft solar farm design and development guidelines, open for comment until March.

At this week’s council meeting, Cr Dinny Adem said the council ‘‘didn’t have the knowledge to make informed decisions on these subjects’’.

The council had ‘‘helped instigate the state government to put together a panel to hear everyone’s submissions with the ultimate aim of actually developing some guidelines,’’ he said.

The city needed to encourage solar farms, he said, but also had to ‘‘make sure (it’s) done in a regulated way’’.

‘‘These guidelines will go a long way to make sure that happens.’’

Following the meeting, Mayor Kim O’Keeffe said the council previously had not had the ‘‘right framework’’, making it ‘‘too difficult to make a decision’’.

‘‘We need to have the correct policy and guidelines in place to be fair to the submitters and be fair to the objectors, to make sure we do have a more broader understanding than what we’ve had in the past and this is bringing us much more information.’’

Cr O’Keeffe said the council did not want to ‘‘have to handball things off to the minister because it’s too difficult’’.

‘‘We have to make sure we have the information we need to make an informed decision.’’

The council background said continued interest in solar farms being located in the farming zone made it important to establish guidance for how to balance agricultural production against renewable energy as competing land uses.

In 2017, four permit applications were submitted to the council for large-scale solar development, collectively comprising more than 800 hectares, having almost 850000 solar panels, capable of generating more than 240MW.

A combined almost 70 submissions were received about the proposals.

The council later that year had requested the state’s planning minister to decide the applications.

He ‘‘called in’’ the applications and referred them to a planning panel, with the intention of not just providing advice on the applications, but helping inform state guidelines.

‘‘The panel recommended that permits for all four applications be issued,’’ according to the council report.

The minister has issued a planning permit for the Congupna solar development, while ‘‘a decision on the remaining three applications is still pending,’’ the council says.