Large-scale solar farms in the Greater Hume Shire could be fast-tracked as the NSW government seeks to prop up the state's economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes has announced a "planning system acceleration program" which will see assessments of state-significant developments sped up.
What this will mean for the proposed Jindera, Walla and Culcairn solar farms, with an estimated combined capital investment value of $1.2 billion, is yet to be seen.
Regardless, the two former projects are a step closer to being assessed after submissions reports complied by the respective developers were published.
The NSW Planning Department will next review the merits of the project, put out an assessment report and ask the consent authority to determine the development application.
The Independent Planning Commission will be the consent authority for these solar farms, as the Greater Hume Council has formally objected in each case.
"The Minister announced on April 3 that the NSW Government will cut red tape and fast-track planning processes to keep people in jobs and the construction industry moving throughout the COVID-19 crisis," a spokeswoman for the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said.
"The Department will continue to conduct detailed assessment of all state significant projects, including solar developments, in accordance with applicable legislative requirements.
"The Department is currently conducting its detailed assessment of both proposals ... and will consider all submissions made on the respective applications in consultation with Greater Hume Shire Council.
"Once complete and referred to the IPC for determination, the IPC is expected to make a determination within 12 weeks."
The IPC was due to hold three public hearings from March for projects being considered by the Commission, which is considering video-conferencing and other online options.
The Commission will not schedule any new public meetings and the written submissions of Greater Hume residents will be weighted the same as if they were spoken.
Last month, the Commission approved a 720 megawatt solar farm to be built six kilometres east of the Uralla township in New England.
Supported by 20 people in the community and objected to by 67, many similar issues to those raised in Southern NSW of agricultural land use, amenity and biodiversity were debated.
The Commission agreed with the planning department's statement that the development "would not fragment or alienate resource lands in the LGA as the land could be easily returned to agricultural land following decommissioning, and the inherent agricultural capability of the land would not be affected".
No valuations done after solar
No land value study has assessed the impact of solar plant developments on surrounding property values in Australia, according to consultants working on behalf of the Jindera Solar Farm developers.
Hanwha Energy Corporation and Green Switch Australia are behind the 120 megawatt proposal.
A report responding to submissions to their plans raised the lack of precedence in regard to land value.
"Existing studies in relation to wind farms have found no conclusive evidence to support the claim that wind farms devalue nearby property on the basis of visual impacts," the report reads.
"The Insurance Council of Australia do not believe that there will be any effect on the ability of near neighbours to obtain cost competitive insurance premiums."
According to an Agricultural Impact Statement, there are examples across Australia where success is achieved through sheep grazing on solar farms, with an 80 per cent retention in stock rate.
"Only 10 per cent of the development site will be removed from production, not the entire site, with capacity expected to reduce by an estimated 25 per cent," the report said.
"The Landowners intend to continue to farm the land for both meat and wool to 'feed the nation', with pasture maintained for sheep feed as well as additional benefits such as dust and erosion control."
The report argued "the proposal is not expected to adversely affect the biophysical nature of the land".
"The proposal would positively affect soils by providing many of the benefits of long-term fallow," consultants stated.
"[NSW Department of Primary Industries] have asked if consideration was given to cumulative impacts from numerous large scale solar farms.
"Riverina Agri-consultants replied stating it would not be reasonable to extrapolate the findings of one farm to another, and a land use assessment of each farm would be required."
There were 49 objections received to the project from parties located within two kilometres of the land.
Changes to the project have been nominated in the submissions report, including new setbacks, the development of local sourcing plans for labour and resources and installation of poles to assist squirrel gliders.
'Not highly productive land'
The proponents of the proposed Walla solar farm says there is "little evidence" of the subject site's ability to support long-term cropping despite labels of the subject land as being important to agricultural output.
Objectors have raised that all land that would be leased for the 30-year duration of the solar farms is key to supporting Australia's food bowl as it is currently used for grazing and some cropping.
Greater Hume Shire Council has also objected in this way, raising draft mapping done of the region.
But NGH, in compiling a report for developer FRV Services Australia, note the current output "is consistent with the description class four under the land and soil capability scheme".
"The Riverina Draft Important Agricultural Land Mapping Project maps the subject land as important agricultural land," the submissions report states.
"The current land use of the site is predominantly sheep and cattle grazing with intermittent canola and wheat crops.
"There is little evidence that the land could support continual cropping without significant inputs and should therefore be considered moderately productive."
"The two farm contractors leasing the development site provided letters of support for the proposal because they believe that the land that would be lease for the proposal is only 'marginal land.'
"As a result of the proposal both contractors would have access to more productive land, retained by the landholder for agricultural land use.
"The landholders are leasing land to the solar farm with soil too marginal for regular cropping.
"As sheep will continue to graze on the solar farm area at about 85 per cent of the normal carrying capacity, the loss of agricultural production will be minimal."
JLL Valuations and Advisory were commissioned to gauge the impact on surrounding properties.
"Our study of the agricultural market value trends within 30 kilometre radius of the proposed Walla Walla Solar Farm indicates the predominant landowner type comprises family farmers and larger scale corporate farming entities," they said.
"As a result, the drivers for the local land market are primarily those surrounding the production of livestock, cereals and oilseeds.
"Within the subject market, buyer demand and market sentiment has been high and has driven significant growth over the past three years.
"The majority of this value growth has been driven by corporate and family scale primary producers seeking to increase the scale of their current enterprises on the back of several years of favourable commodity prices, particularly in the beef and lamb sectors.
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"A secondary influence has been producers seeking to enter the region from other drought affected areas of northern NSW and Queensland.
"Given the primary drivers of value within the subject market are related to agricultural production, we consider the proximity of the proposed Walla Walla Solar Farm would be a low-level consideration of owners and prospective purchasers of land in the area and unlikely to influence land value trends."
The submissions report done for developers behind the Culcairn project, Neoen, is yet to be published.
The Glenellen and Jindera solar farms were the first to be lodged with the NSW government, but progress on the former project has stalled with no movement in over six months.