Using agricultural land for utility-scale photovoltaic solar electricity generation

Dr Turlough Guerin, Agricultural Institute of Australia

The renewable energy sector in Australia is experiencing unprecedented levels of investment, and this presents a unique opportunity for the national economy and for communities in regional Australia. Environmental impacts are minimal and community benefits can accrue from both large- and utility-scale solar projects, such as jobs and regional investment, but there are questions for the agricultural sector to consider as these opportunities open up: To what extent is the concern of energy generation versus food production warranted? Should large-scale solar power stations even be built on agricultural land? The author uses a case study from the Central West of NSW to explore these issues.

Introduction

There has been a longstanding debate on whether or not agricultural land should be used for producing energy. This debate emerged in recent decades with the prospect of biologically-derived liquid fuels being produced from agricultural grain crops. However, agriculture has for centuries been a producer of energy, albeit indirectly through feeding of animals used to power land-based transport. In recent times, the question of energy versus food emerges again as large-scale and utility-sized solar photovoltaic (PV) projects secure approvals across Australia.



Figure 1: Cumulative solar PV installed in Australia as a proportion of world total.

Source:  IEA (2016).



Figure 2: The size of business of the PV market as a proportion of country GDP.

Source:  IEA (2016).



Figure 3: Employment in large-scale renewable energy in Australia.

Source:  ABS (2017).

Overall, Australia is a small contributor to global solar PV generation (Figures 1–3). Solar PV installations have, nevertheless, increased significantly in recent years in Australia. Although Australia represented only 2% of the global market share of solar PV in 2015, in the same year this represented a total installation of just over 1 GW of installed capacity.

While not considered as primary stakeholders in this emerging sector and debate, farmers and their advisors have an important role to play to ensure the growth trajectory of large-scale solar reaps benefits for rural and regional Australia. Without the support of farmers and regional landholders, regional investment in solar PV would be considerably limited.

This article highlights the benefits of constructing large-scale renewable energy projects in regional areas of Australia, over continued agricultural use of land. Specifically, a case study site in Central West NSW (rainfed wheat and sheep) is used to illustrate these impacts and benefits.

Case study location

The case study site is located in Nyngan in Central West NSW, Australia. The power plant has an installed capacity of approximately 102 MW. The project was constructed on entirely rural land and located on one land parcel. Approximately 250 ha of land on a larger 400 ha paddock was required for the plant and infrastructure (Figure 4). In terms of agricultural productivity, average yield data for the site’s district varies between 3–4 tonnes per ha for wheat.



Figure 4: (left) Tables on posts prior to placement of solar panels (referred to as flat plate solar); (right) installed solar panels with heavy grass growth within and around alleys (spaces between rows of solar arrays).

Approvals process

The approvals process for the project led to a total of approximately 300 consent conditions being applied to the project and the related facilities including the construction and decommissioning of the bespoke accommodation camp. A construction environmental management plan for the project was prepared which included all the necessary subplans to address each of the consent conditions stipulated to be followed during construction. Logistics, fauna and flora management, visual impact, fire risks, soil, water and dust management, and waste management and resource use impacts, were the key impact areas and are discussed in further detail in a previous publication (Guerin 2017).

Benefits of large-scale solar

The project has delivered significant social and environmental benefits on a local, state and federal level and has global environmental benefits on the basis that the development will lower greenhouse gas emissions created in the production of electricity. The project also did not significantly affect the conservation values nor agricultural output of the locality. The development has provided indirect benefits as it will decrease costs to the community as a result of a reduction in the externalities involved with burning fossil fuels, such as those resulting from particulate air pollution and emissions from burning coal (Table 1).


Table 1: Benefits from the expansion of renewable energy developments into Australian farming land.


 New leases with renewable energy developers means new revenue streams from on-farm activity
 Encouraging local and regional investment, such as new jobs
 Gives farmers and landowners an opportunity to be agents of change in contributing to new, non-fossil fuel infrastructure
 Stimulation of new industry sectors and encouraging new avenues for trades and employment

Co-benefits can occur when existing agricultural land is co-located with solar PV generation. With potential minimal risks to food security, co-location schemes can reduce land deficits for food and fibre production. This is a relatively new area for research and the practical experience of this in Australia has been variable and inconclusive based on the author’s experience in construction of large-scale solar power plants across Australia. Researchers in Europe have also shown through modelling that trade-offs between agricultural productivity of land, environmental sensitivities and solar irradiance should be made in order to find the optimum location for the construction of solar PV installations (Sacchelli et al. 2016).

Overall there has been a loss of approximately 0.02% of available agricultural land within the local government area (out of a total of 1.2 million ha of land dedicated to broadacre agriculture in the region). Therefore, there has only been a small reduction in land available for agriculture. However, this reduction was negligible and unlikely to impact on the agricultural production capacity of the region. This loss of area is equivalent to approximately 1500 tonnes of wheat per year.

Farmers and the energy security challenge

From an Australian farmer perspective, the construction of large-scale solar PV power stations may or may not be of concern or an issue. Why is that? New infrastructure for a regional area will generally be seen as positive as it will stimulate local business. Of course farmers are also consumers and are already adopting solar PV technology for their own household and operational use (eg irrigation, pumps, etc). The key issues for farmers are security of energy supply, price transparency and keeping energy costs low (Table 2). So it depends on whether large- and utility-scale solar PV investments impact upon these existing concerns.


Table 2: Expectations and needs of farmers in relation to on-farm energy use and supply of energy to farms.


Need for low cost energy, but mostly agnostic about its source
As price-takers, they cannot readily pass the costs on into the supply chain
Concerned about lack of transparency in pricing and advocate for competitive market reform
Expect bioenergy sources to be incorporated into a broader renewable and conventional energy mix offering
Concerned about underinvestment in the power distribution system given farmers are often towards the edge of these electricity distribution networks
Expect greater government support for on-farm energy efficiency investments as is available in other sectors
Recognise that energy security is vital for agricultural production but expect productive farming land to remain productive in agricultural sense

Conclusions

It is evident that the opportunities for utility-scale solar are greater where the prospective land area is of low productivity potential. However, this is the case in any land use setting where a new renewable energy project is proposed [not just agricultural]. The benefits versus negative impacts will vary case-by-case and from site-to-site depending on local soil type, water availability, topography, access to the electricity grid, number of sunny days expected each year, the soil’s cropping or stocking potential, among other factors. The overall contribution and impact of any proposed utility-scale solar farm on the wider regional community should be considered. It ought not to focus on the immediate loss of potentially productive agricultural land it is making unavailable [temporarily] for agricultural production.

Whether or not agricultural land should be used for solar PV will depend not only on the presence of a good solar resource, access to the grid and a market for the electricity generated, but on the specific business case for the land and property in question. Further, the law requires that particular issues are addressed, eg foreign ownership, construction consent conditions, and that the project’s overall sustainability and contribution to the region is considered, and is materially important (Figure 5). Both energy and land productivity need to be assessed when selecting locations for new, large- and utility-scale solar PV projects. Nevertheless, large-scale solar has the potential to transform Australia’s rural landscape in a positive way.



Figure 5: (left) Local employment during the construction phase is a significant benefit to local regional communities, (right) technology transfer through field and community days increased the awareness and wider ownership of the project.

References

Guerin, TF (2017), Evaluating expected and comparing with observed risks on a large-scale solar photovoltaic construction project: A case for reducing the regulatory burden, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 74, July, pp. 333–48.

Sacchelli, S, Garegnani, G, Geri, F, Grilli, Paletto, GA, Zambelli, P, Ciolli, M & Vettorato, D (2016), Trade-off between photovoltaic systems installation and agricultural practices on arable lands: An environmental and socio-economic impact analysis for Italy, Land Use Policy, vol. 56, November, pp. 90–9.

IEA (International Energy Association) (2016), Trends in 2016 Photovoltaic Applications, Survey Report of Selected IEA Countries between 1992 and 2015, Report IEA PVPS T1-30.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017), 4631.0 – Employment in Renewable Energy Activities, Australia, 2014–15, Australian Government, Canberra.

Turlough Guerin has a PhD in Agricultural Chemistry from the University of Sydney, is a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Science Editor and Non-Executive Director at the Agricultural Institute of Australia, and has held several environmental management roles in the energy, mining and communications sectors.

Image:  Chris Baird