This article was written by Mark Beaufoy.
From 17 September 2019 an amendment to the Victoria Planning Provisions has effect which impacts the approval of large ground-mounted solar energy facility projects in Victoria. The change was made by way of ‘Amendment VC161’ and amends all planning schemes in the State.
The amendment’s introduction is timely, being closely followed by VCAT’s refusal of two permits for solar farms in Mildura due largely to their impact on viable agricultural land (see Powervault Mildura Solar Generator One Pty Ltd v Mildura Rural CC  VCAT 1473). Although VCAT’s decision was based on planning provisions prior to the approval of Amendment VC161, protection of agricultural and irrigated land is a key principle of the amendments and will be a focus of VCAT considerations for large scale solar farm proposals going forward.
The most significant changes made by the amendment include:
- New Responsible Authority: designating the Planning Minister as the responsible authority for all large-scale solar farm applications (facilities with an installed capacity of 1 megawatt or greater) and associated utility infrastructure;
- Updated Guideline: introducing the Solar Energy Facilities Design and Development Guideline (Guideline) as a mandatory consideration for responsible authorities when granting permits for solar facilities; and
- Irrigation District Considerations: introducing a new state policy affecting solar facilities planned in irrigation districts.
The changes do not impact solar panel arrays located on rooftops or where the generation of electricity is principally for an existing use on the land and not for export to the national electricity transmission network.
Prior to the amendment, councils were generally responsible for granting consent for solar farms. Designating the Minister as the responsible authority for large solar projects is intended to streamline and encourage greater consistency in the decision-making process. Local councils however remain responsible for solar energy facilities with a capacity below 1 megawatt (which would generally be located on 4 to 5 acres of land).
Clause 53.13 of the Victoria Planning Provisions now also require decision makers to consider the new Guideline when deciding whether to approve a solar energy facility. The Guideline describes the planning permit application and assessment process, the policy considerations and legislative requirements for the siting and design of such facilities.
In particular, the Guideline protects the integrity of current and future irrigation districts and productive agricultural land. It requires decision makers to consider new Victoria Planning Provision clause 14.02-3S, which seeks to ensure non-agricultural uses of land do not undermine the integrity of irrigation infrastructure and are sited and designed to protect the productivity of declared irrigation areas. Applications to develop a solar energy facility within a declared irrigation district are now required to be referred to the Secretary of the department administering the Water Act 1989 for consideration.
Protection of cultural heritage, landscape values, glare management and traffic and noise impacts are also addressed by the Guideline.
The Solar Guideline was developed through a nine-month development process involving consultation with communities, local councils and industry. Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the amendments would provide certainty and confidence to the sector and in doing so encourage greater investment.
If you have questions about the application of the new Solar Guidelines or the assessment and approval process for new solar projects in Victoria, please contact Mark Beaufoy.
Thank you to Perry Singleton for the preparation of this article.