Friday, April 19, 2024

Farmers attack energy fast-track

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Gippsland Times, 26 March 2024, Latrobe Valley Express, 27 March 2024

The state government’s new policy to fast-track renewable energy projects by accelerating planning approvals has been strongly attacked by Victoria’s peak farming body and one of the state’s leading planning experts.

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) said the policy was a slap in the face after years of sham consultation with farming communities, while the RMIT Emeritus Professor of Environment and Planning, Michael Buxton, said it would lead to “terrible decisions”, with wind and solar farms being “placed in the wrong location”.

Speaking to The Australian newspaper, he warned also that the new scheme left communities with no avenue to appeal unless they could find a legal loophole and could afford costly Supreme Court action.

The VFF President, Emma Germano, said the ‘green-lighting’ of major renewable projects added to a poor-track record of consulting landholders set to be affected and risked further alienating already frustrated farmers across Gippsland.

“Vast parts of Victoria’s farmland will be needed to reach our renewable energy targets. If we can’t get this right now, our ability to produce the food and fibre needed to feed people will be severely inhibited,” she said.

“For the government to say they are genuinely listening to the concerns of these communities and then completely ignore them and fast-track the process smacks of arrogance and them being completely tone-deaf.”

Ms Germano said the government had ignored the VFF’s pleas to introduce a fair framework and had now “hit the accelerator”.

“It’s farmers and our regional communities that are set to pay the price. Decisions like this one leave us shaking our heads,” she said.

The VFF was not against the transition to a renewable energy future but criticised the government’s failure to plan accordingly. As a result, farmers and regional communities were “the scape-goat in the process”.

“Renewable energy has lost social license and the system is broken. This move is a serious regulatory and planning failure. There remains a lack of any regulatory safeguards for landholders who host renewable energy generation, transmission or storage,” she said.

Professor Buxton told The Australian that the Victorian government for years had been progressively removing local government and communities from decisions on planning issues.

“They’ve increasingly adopted an autocratic model of decision-making, centralising decisions with the minister. It’s now become the most radically centralised and autocratic model of decision-making in the country, so it’s no surprise that they’ve extended it to renewable energy projects,” he said. “The minister has the final say.”

Professor Buxton said with no third-party rights of appeal, wind and solar generating facilities would be placed in the wrong location.

“It’s likely all those broader aspects, the loss of farmland, the impacts on biodiversity and landscapes, won’t be properly considered,” he said.

Those contemplating legal action would need to find a legal loophole to take to the Supreme Court. Government used its power to stop these possibilities.

“It’s also incredibly expensive. To go to the Supreme Court costs a lot of money, so it’s out of the reach of most people,” he said.

The new scheme, under which renewable projects will be eligible for an accelerated planning pathway under the Development Facilitation Program (DFP), applies from April 1.

All new renewable projects in Victoria will be treated as significant economic development, making them eligible for an accelerated pathway – removing the planning panel process and third-party appeals at VCAT. Stalled projects will also be able to access the accelerated pathway.

From the time a complete application is lodged, decisions can be made within four months. The government says the voices of communities who want to raise concerns will continue to be protected. Third party objections will still have a place in the approvals process, but “this change prevents time-consuming and repeated delays that hold these projects back for years”, the government says.

A dedicated facilitation team will oversee all renewable energy applications.

Projects will be monitored on an ongoing basis to identify blockers earlier and resolve them faster.

The issue comes as negotiations are deadlocked for access to South Gippsland farmland to connect proposed Bass Strait wind farms to the the Latrobe Valley electricity grid. The connections will be either by transmission lines above or below ground. The state government body VicGrid is overseeing the whole process and is expected to make recommendations soon.

Last year, the Strzelecki Community Alliance lost a battle in the Victorian Supreme Court to stop the Delburn wind farm, which consists of 33 250-metre high turbines in the middle of a HVP pine plantation. It is bounded by Coalville, Thorpdale, Darlimurla, Boolarra and Yinnar. The alliance, an incorporated association of more than 1000 members, raised more than $200,000 for the fight.

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