Solar Energy in NSW
NSW is a leader in the development of large-scale solar projects. These solar farms support jobs and investment in regional NSW, help to diversify the State’s energy mix and drive down costs for future large-scale solar developments.
There are seven major operating large-scale solar farms in NSW. Solar farms use the same technology as rooftop solar systems, but on a larger scale.
The share of solar, wind and bioenergy has more than DOUBLED from 4% to 9% of NSW’s energy mix
*as of March 2018
NSW households and businesses are also seeing the benefits of solar.
This graph shows the strong growth of solar across all scales from rooftops all the way to solar farms connecting to the electricity grid.
Solar energy is generated by using particles of light (photons) as separate sunlight particles or in wave-mode. Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells convert the energy inside the particle directly into electricity.
Solar thermal technologies on the other hand use the wave-like nature of sunlight to create heat. Concentrated solar thermal (CST) power systems focus sunlight on a single point. The heat energy captured can be stored in water, air, or molten salts and then converted to electricity as required.
By 2038, the Australian Energy Market Operator has projected total installed capacity of PV systems in NSW:
- 6,070 MW for residential (less than 10 kW capacity)
- 2,003 MW for businesses (greater than 10 kW capacity)
Solar PV systems have become significantly cheaper in recent years, increasing in popularity from small-scale home rooftop systems to large scale solar projects. Concentrated solar thermal systems can be installed with energy storage systems.
The development of battery storage technologies is expected to play an important role in growing solar energy.
According to the International Energy Agency, solar energy is the most abundant energy resource on earth, with about 885 million terawatt hours (TWh) reaching the surface of the planet every year.
Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world. With excellent solar resources and established electricity infrastructure, NSW is an attractive opportunity for solar farm developers.
Concentrated solar thermal
While solar hot water systems are commonly used, producing electricity from concentrated solar thermal energy is still in its early stages in Australia. Currently, the CSIRO’s solar research thermal hub in Newcastle is Australia’s largest solar thermal research facility. The Jemalong Concentrated Solar Power Pilot Plant, which manages innovative heat transfer and storage technology, is under construction near Forbes.
The aim of the Draft Large-Scale Solar Energy Guideline is to provide the community, industry, and regulators with guidance on the planning framework for the assessment and approval of large-scale solar energy development proposals under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act).
Large-scale solar projects in NSW are subject to planning controls and assessment criteria. Both the total capital value and the electrical power output of the project determines which authoritative body will approve the development application.
In general, projects with a capital value of:
- less than $5 million are assessed and approved by the local council(s)
- between $5-30 million are assessed by the host council(s), and approved by the Joint Regional Planning Panel
- more than $30 million (or $10 million if in an environmentally sensitive area) are classified as State Significant Developments and assessed by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.
The planning process requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that details impacts and proposed management and mitigation measures. For solar farms, the main impacts occur during the construction phase.
Key project considerations
Traffic and road safety
The impact of increased traffic is generally limited to the construction of solar farms, with activities like the haulage of components and materials to the site and contractor and employee movements. This may temporarily affect local traffic, but these movements are confined to standard hours of construction and the solar farm must repair any damage to the roads. These impacts are managed in consultation with the Roads and Maritime Services, local councils and landholders. They also form part of any EIS and include measures to reduce risk and ensure safety.
Photovoltaic panels are designed to maximise efficiency, absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity, which means they’re designed to reflect as little light as possible. Usually, it’s around two percent of the light received. In fact, the glare from panels is significantly less than that from bodies of water. Where possible, planning approvals include vegetation buffers to help minimise visual impacts.
Where possible, the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) recommends solar farms not be located in areas where vegetation needs to be cleared. Re-planting is an option if clearing is unavoidable. Any EIS will examine the individual circumstances of a solar farm proposal and its effect on the surrounding environment.
Aboriginal cultural heritage
The local Aboriginal community and OEH need to be consulted as part of the planning and approvals process. This assessment is provided in the solar farm EIS, which is taken into consideration by the relevant authoritative body.
Solar farms are generally fairly quiet. Any noise is generated from the inverter and transformers with cooling fans for temperature regulation. These are contained inside buildings in the middle of the development to reduce impact to the surrounding environment. Any sound is usually below ambient levels and occurs during daylight hours.
Solar farms typically have a low carbon footprint. They don’t emit pollution or produce emissions during plant operation and they don’t use fossil‐fuel resources. Large scale projects, usually have a life of around 25 years.
Depending on the type of solar panel used the energy payback would be between two and three years. The Nyngan Solar Plant, for example, will supply approximately 231,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year, avoiding some 218,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent) annually.
Solar farms usually last around 25 to 30 years. If a site is to be decommissioned it must be returned to its pre-existing condition. All infrastructure (above and below ground) is removed so agricultural activities or other land uses can resume.
The assessment process requires project stakeholders to engage in detailed consultation with affected landowners surrounding the development, as well as the local community and council.
The EIS must describe how this consultation was carried out, identify any issues raised and explain how they have been addressed.
Largely, community support for solar energy initiatives is positive. The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Community Attitudes to Renewable Energy survey found overwhelming support for the use of renewable energy across the state, including 89% of respondents supporting the construction of solar farms in NSW.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency also commissioned independent research in 2015, which showed strong support for solar farms and recommended best practice for community consultation guidelines.
Solar farms offer a range of additional social and economic benefits, while helping to meet NSW energy needs.
Importantly, solar farms drive investment and growth in regional NSW, which can lead to:
- employment opportunities during construction, including engagement of local contractors and materials and service providers
- long term local employment opportunities over the life of the project
- improvements in local infrastructure
- education and training of contractors and local residents
- reduced greenhouse gas emissions
- increased energy security through a more diverse energy mix
- rent received by local landowners from the developer.
- Department of Planning and Environment
- Office of Environment and Heritage
- Community attitudes to renewable energy report
- Australian Renewable Energy Agency
- International Energy Agency
- International Renewable Energy Agency
- Clean energy council
- Opportunities for investors
- Mapping resources