The Policy, Planning and Legislative Requirements section of the Guidelines provides an outline of some of the important considerations at the pre-application stage of a development including:
- state policy objectives – to be considered early in the site selection process such as the Government’s Renewable Energy Target, Water for Victoria (a long term strategy for managing Victoria’s water resources), Victoria’s Regional Statement, Agriculture Victoria Strategy, regional growth plans and the protection of biodiversity;
- the planning policy framework – the state level planning policies concerning land use and development in the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP) against which planning permit applications will be considered, such as Clause 19.01-1S which aims to facilitate appropriate development of energy supply infrastructure, and Clause 19.01-2S which promotes the provision of renewable energy facilities which meet appropriate design and siting considerations;
- proximity to the existing electricity network and spare connection capacity available at the connection point. Five Renewable Energy Zones within Victoria have been identified by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) in the recently released Integrated System Plan. The Zones are areas where large scale energy facilities can be developed through coordinated investment in transmissions and generation, and highlight where AEMO is proposing that infrastructure planners prioritise network upgrades and a high-level timeline for their delivery.
- strategic site section assessment – strategic site selection factors which should be investigated at the regional level include:
- relevant planning policy zones and overlays;
- agricultural values including irrigation infrastructure impacts;
- heritage and Aboriginal cultural values;
- landscape values and visual amenity;
- biodiversity and native vegetation;
- access to the Victorian electricity grid; and
- other infrastructure requirements.
The Guidelines note that the potential impacts of solar energy facilities on agricultural land should be considered in the site selection process. All Victorian planning schemes contain strategies to preserve productive agricultural land. The strategies are focused on:
- protecting strategically important agricultural and primary production land from incompatible uses;
- protecting productive farmland that is of strategic significance in the local or regional context; and
- avoiding permanent removal of productive agricultural land from the state’s agricultural base without consideration of the economic importance of the land for the agricultural production and processing sectors.
While most rural land is not considered to be strategically significant, when making decisions on the appropriate location of solar energy facilities, the Guidelines suggest that Councils should request that applicants provide an assessment of:
- the agricultural quality of the proposed site (taking into account both soil and landscape attributes as well as access to secure water supply and economic attributes);
- the amount of strategically significant agricultural land in the Council area and in the region; and
- the potential impact of removing the land from agricultural production.
Land serviced by modernised irrigation infrastructure is designated as strategically significant and Councils should refer to the rural water corporations planning applications for solar energy facilities in these locations. Proponents will need to demonstrate that the development will have limited impacts on irrigation infrastructure which supports agricultural production.
The Government is considering providing rural water corporations with a formal referral authority role for non-agricultural developments in areas serviced by the modern irrigation grid. This change would also be complemented by changes to the state planning policies to include a map of the modernised irrigation grid and guidance for decision makers when water corporations provide their input to Council on solar farm applications.
One of the key issues for the Shepparton Planning Panel (in which Norton Rose Fulbright acted for one of the permit applicants) was the appropriateness of four solar farms within the Farming Zone, where substantial parts of the land within this Zone are irrigated and used for agricultural production. The Panel concluded that the four proposed developments would not impact existing and future farming operations and/or the broader irrigation district. The soil types of the subject land were of a lower quality than other areas in the irrigation district with higher value agricultural production.