Are solar farms the answer to boosting our energy sources?

News in April that an agreement had been signed between Island Green Power (IGP) and mana whenua for a 600 ha solar farm in north Waikato has raised the issue of protecting our elite soils for productive land use.

The north Waikato solar farm comprises two sites – in Rangiriri and Waerenga – and will involve the installation of around half a million solar panels, mounted on tracking systems that allow the panels to rotate to follow the movement of the sun during the day.

IGP is a renewable energy developer, based in the UK, that specialises in the development of utility-scale solar photovoltaic plants, or solar farms. I met with one of their development managers in August last year on the Waerenga site with the landowners and I have also been in contact with the NZ consulting engineer. Construction is expected to get underway next year.

IGP has built over 20 projects around the world, including several in Australia. The Rangiriri and Waerenga farms will be their first in New Zealand. Once operational, the solar farms will generate over 300 megawatts, enough to power around 70,000 homes, with the power fed directly into the national grid.

Most of New Zealand’s electricity capacity (57 per cent) comes from hydroelectric generation, the majority of which is in the South Island. Geothermal generation, mostly within the Taupo Volcanic Zone, accounts for around 15 per cent, with wind farms, mostly located in the North Island, providing around 5 per cent. However, around a quarter of our electricity generation comes from the combustion of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas.

The development of solar farms in the North Island, therefore, is good news because the cost of transmitting power from the source of its generation to the end user goes up exponentially over distance – especially when transmission lines have to cross Cook Strait.

The role of the Government is to ensure New Zealand has access to appropriate energy sources which means we need to continue to encourage investment in a range of sources, and especially renewable sources such as solar and wind.

To deliver on New Zealand’s climate goals, we need whole sectors of the economy – especially industry and transport, our biggest users of energy – to switch to clean electricity. It makes no sense to encourage the shift to electric vehicles if the power comes from burning coal. New Zealand must have enough renewable electricity to meet the rising demand.

However, at present it takes too long to get resource consent to build the infrastructure for solar and wind farms. Red tape from our overly bureaucratic planning system adds years and millions of dollars of unnecessary costs to the construction of renewable generation and transmission infrastructure – a problem that’s only getting worse.

Electricity generators tell us it can now take as much as ten years to bring a new wind farm online – eight years to obtain consent and just two years to build. Transpower, the state-owned enterprise responsible for electric power transmission in New Zealand, says consenting and land access for large projects can take anywhere between three and seven years to complete, with actual construction taking no more than three.

National is concerned about this. Recently we announced that we will address this by requiring decisions on resource consents for non-hydro renewable generation to be made within one year of application.

Alongside this we will create nationally consistent rules for each type of renewable generation so the requirements are clear. Consents for most types of renewable generation will be near-automatic, provided these national rules are met.

Furthermore, we intend to increase the minimum duration of consents for all renewables, including hydro, to 35 years to increase investment certainty.

The Rangiriri and Waerenga solar farm project is one of five significant renewable energy projects that have been referred through the current Government’s fast-track consenting process. However, there has been considerable concern in the district about whether the solar farms will be taking up valuable class 1 and 2 arable land and their elite soils.

Our Land Use Capability (LUC) system categorises land into eight classes according to its long-term capability to sustain one or more productive uses. Classes 1 and 2 are for ‘most versatile’ and ‘very good’ multiple-use land with minimal limitations (such as susceptibility to erosion or flooding, steepness of slope, and depth, texture, structure and nutrient supply of the soil). These classes of land are highly suitable for cropping, viticulture, berry fruit, pastoralism, tree crops and forestry.

The current National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land, published last year, provides direction to improve the way highly productive land is managed under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and that New Zealand’s elite soils are kept available now and in the future for food and fibre production.

National is concerned about the issue of where solar and wind farms are located. It makes no sense to use prime arable land and elite soils for a solar farm, especially land that is located so close to the country’s biggest market – Auckland. While the land below the solar panels can be used to graze sheep and for beehives, there’s no room for a dairy herd, and there is concern about whether the land could be returned to dairying once the solar farm lease expires and the panels removed.

For solar farm developers, the primary driver for investment will be finding locations close to the national grid lines. However, investors have a choice and our strong preference is that solar and wind farms are not located on elite soils.

This will be an issue we will address through a National Policy Statement for Renewable Electricity Generation (NPS-REG) which we will issue within a year of National taking office. The new NPS-REG will be strongly directive about enabling renewable generation and will make solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy generation a controlled activity under the RMA.

National will make it easier to use abundant green energy to achieve a low-emissions, high-growth economy and put New Zealand on track to meeting its climate change goals this decade.