The Dingo Lane Solar Farm development application (DA) has been passed by the Northern Regional Planning Panel (NRPP).
All the safeguards that were set up over time for the community’s wellbeing have just been trashed by the use of the Infrastructure SEPP. This planning trump card overrides everything. The State Government Large Scale Solar Guidelines, DCP (development control plans), LEP (Local Environment Plan), State Significant Farmland (SSF) mapping, wildlife corridors – these are all meaningless when it comes to infrastructure.
Not financially viable
Even more astounding is that the financial viability of a project is irrelevant when it comes before the NRPP.
The Preliminary Financial Report commissioned by Byron Shire Council in April 2019 estimated that the project’s investment would have a shortfall of around four million dollars over a 25-year period. This advice was ignored and the Council committed $600,000 to it!
This original analysis of curse did not forsee COVID, escalating interest rates, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent 25 to 40 per cent increases in construction costs.
At the April 2021 Council meeting, Councillor Paul Spooner raised concerns regarding the current financial estimates for the project and said that, ‘No commercial enterprise would take on the project, and the Council would have a 100 per cent debt-to-revenue ratio if they went ahead – and no other projects would be able to be done’.
In other words, the Council would be insolvent!
The Mayor (at that time), Simon Richardson, replied that ‘the financials stacked up’ to him.
The motion to continue with the DA was passed and the mayor resigned that night and took up a new job shortly after on the NRPP!
$3M in project development wasted?
The Council has now spent $1M of ratepayers’ funds to get this project to the DA stage.
More shocking is that Council has poured nearly $3M into the Vallances Road project, Sunrise bioenergy facility and the Dingo Lane Solar Project. None of the projects have stacked up as being viable.
The state government has set up Renewable Energy Zones in NSW. These zones are where the infrastructure for NSW Renewable Energy is being constructed and will be distributed from.
Twenty-five local Sydney councils have now partnered with Zen Energy, who is going to supply 100 per cent renewable energy to them from the Renewable Energy Zones. These councils are on a path to be Net Zero realistically sooner than Byron Shire’s estimated 2025.
Byron Shire Council’s model of ‘going it alone’ is financially fraught with only 17,000 ratepayers to pick up the bill. It is not in the community’s best interest to proceed with this Dingo Lane Solar Project.
Byron Shire Council used the future revenue from the West Byron development as the reason that they were ‘fit for governance’ and would not have to amalgamate with Ballina or Tweed Councils.
If this project were to proceed, and fail, the prospect of amalgamation will be inevitable. The prudent investment for Council, and for its ratepayers, would be to fund solar installations and batteries on Council’s individual assets. Byron Shire should also be looking at contracting their energy needs from the NSW Renewable Energy Zones and partnering with companies like Zen Energy.
I sought independent advice from a large-scale solar consultant. He looked into the project and said that it was too far from the sub-station; the transmission lines are only 11kv and they are not close to the site. Upgrading the lines to cope with transmission would cost $1M plus. The energy generated would need to be sold to a supplier and a contract set up to buyback at a higher rate. Council would be at the mercy of the retailers.
He also said that the glare study (the glare and reflection study presented in the DA is for fixed panels only) didn’t take into account that if the panels rotate, they will adjust their angles to be oblique at sunrise and sunset. This creates reflection and glare for the surrounding properties. The vegetation screening would not adequately shield the surrounding hills from the project. He concluded, like Councillor Spooner, that realistically it was not a commercially viable project.
Large scale solar installations
In 2017 Council had another potential solar site and spent a lot of money investigating the Vallances Road Sewage Works site, they shelved the project because the substation was too far away. The Mullumbimby Substation was closer to that site than the Ewingsdale substation is to the Dingo Lane Solar site.
Byron Shire now has a far greater risk of being sold out to the developers. By default, Mayor Lyon is now blindly considering selling the Solar Project off to a private developer. If he does, he will let the genie out of the bottle and Byron Council and the community will have lost control forever.
The properties in Myocum valley have already been approached to have large-scale solar installations on their land and the carrot offered will be too big to be refused.
A five megawatt solar farm isn’t commercially viable, but a 150-megawatt installation would be.
The precedent is what Mayor Lyon would be selling and the NRPP would use the infrastructure SEPP to hand over our beautiful valleys to the developers forever.
♦ Tom McHugh is a Coorabell resident.