07 Oct 2021
WA is leading the rest of Australia when it comes to renewable power. In this article Michael Willcock looks at how the planning system is helping to drive the growing renewables sector.
Wind and solar energy supplies a large percentage of electricity in WA. In fact, it accounted for almost one third of electricity used across Perth and the SW last year, according to recent figures published by The West Australian.
This has proven to be an emerging challenge (and opportunity) in the planning system as we work with clients to explore where and how such developments can be approved.
A number of reasons behind the growth of renewables include financial incentives available via government rebates, falling costs of installation, and the growing awareness of humanity’s impacts leading to climate change. All of which are contributing towards utilities, industry and households making the switch to renewables.
The WA Government is supporting the industry with its Energy Transformation Strategy (announced in 2019) and its changes to the Wholesale Electricity Market to facilitate the entry of low-cost renewables into the electricity system. This acknowledges the growth of large and small-scale renewables and batteries, whilst needing to maintain the security, reliability and affordability of power within the system.
It’s certainly positive to see the State Government encourage investment in renewable energy production. And as large-scale wind and solar projects are gaining momentum, it's becoming evident that more can still be done in this field – including in the planning system.
Over the past few years, I've taken a number of solar farm projects through the planning process. Through my experience on a number of solar farm projects such as the Northam solar farm, and JDAP approvals for solar farms in the Shires of Collie and Gingin, I've seen the reliance placed on decision-makers (i.e. Joint Development Assessment Panels) exercising their discretion to approve these projects.
Solar farm projects now generate a significant proportion of electricity for the South West Interconnected System. There has been a 144% increase in large-scale renewables in the SWIS between 2019 and 2021.
Renewable energy and batteries will become more cost competitive, reliable, accepted and continue to form part of the broader electricity system.
The future is looking bright for very large projects, with a pivot towards export markets. Arguably the largest in WA is the proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub, which has a development envelope of 6,500 square kilometres and includes plans for export. The project is aiming to produce 26 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation; 23 GW of generation for production of green hydrogen and green ammonia, with a design life of 50+ years. Ammonia is one method of storing and transporting hydrogen to export markets; subsea cables are another.
Further afield, Sun Cable in the Northern Territory is proposing a solar farm + storage with capacity between 17 and 20 GW, for export to Singapore via a high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea cable.
Rooftop solar panels are a common sight in our suburbs. Households in WA have been embracing rooftop solar. A range of factors can be taken into consideration for this, not least the number of sunny days we enjoy. Western Australian households have been clear adopters of the technology, with 15% of households in 2017 having solar panels installed. In 2020, the ratio was one-in-three households and by 2030, it is expected to be on-in-two households.
Trials are occurring including the White Gum Valley microgrid and battery storage system. This is a demonstration of a shared energy model to share power between neighbours. This is an important innovation as shared networks could help offset electricity costs for medium and high-density developments that may not have available roofspace for renewables, but want the choice to have access to low-emission electricity.
A future consideration will be growth and uptake of small-scale wind generation. When the community thinks of wind power, the likely image that comes to mind is a white tower 80-100m high with three long blades. Various innovations are looking to bring small wind turbines to market. Challenges for small-scale wind will be planning approval processes along with height limits, and community perceptions (in relation to visibility, noise, and other impacts). If the planning framework is too difficult, or there is insufficient policy guidance for decision makers, then these opportunities could be lost.
Ongoing reform for renewables in the planning framework
It will be important to ensure that the planning framework supports the transformation of our electricity system, including how we generate, store and export renewable energy.
Hydrogen (blue or green) is of clear interest to leverage on available land and resources; promotion of regional development and employment; and the opportunity to link hydrogen facilities to export markets. It is evident that technology is demonstrating these projects have potential, and it is up to Australia to harness these opportunities.
I am working on an important project in the State's north that will demonstrate how land tenure, environmental approvals and planning can be beneficial to a project. These are increasingly more important to be viewed as integrated processes to deliver investor certainty and project success. We will be excited to share more on that in the future.
Providing certainty in the planning system will help to reduce costs and build investor and industry confidence. It is important to review regional frameworks, state and local policies, and local planning strategies and local planning schemes, to ensure that the community, government and proponents have greater certainty that large-scale projects can be proposed, approved and constructed.
I look forward to seeing further milestones being achieved in this field. The benefits to our environment, our climate, our communities and the electricity system will continue to help build confidence for future investment and the transition to a zero-carbon emission economy.