Since it conducted the community information session on Monday, April 9, ESCO Pacific has directly contacted residents at 20 neighbouring properties regarding the proposed $130 million solar farm on 378ha of agricultural land bordering Tocumwal Road and Savernake Road.
About 30 Mulwala and district people attended the 75-minute session at Mulwala Football Netball Club on April 9, which was led by ESCO Pacific’s head of development Allison Hawke.
A leading Australian developer of utility solar farms, ESCO Pacific staff said they would meet with any person about the proposal on the Thomas property, including the neighbouring Jacques family who expressed their displeasure at the proposal.
“I’d be horrified at the thought of living adjacent to it - in a centralised area, a beautiful area and in my front yard,” Mrs Sue Jacques said.
“We’ve been farming here for 50 years. It would look like a power plant,” Mrs Jacques said.
The utility scale solar farm would consist of up to 400,000 solar panels and, in the words of Ms Hawke, “would represent a significant injection” in the area.
“I’d be very happy to meet community members to see how we can manage their concerns,” she said. Due to its size, NSW State Government must decide on the proposal, after receiving any concerns from Federation Council.
But the overwhelming mood of attendees at the community information session in Mulwala was of support for the project, subject to appropriate planning conditions attached to the approval, which would include extensive and appropriate landscaping, and traffic management.
Located in Melbourne, ESCO Pacific had two staff at the Mulwala meeting, with founding member of the two-year-old firm, 35-year-old Allison Hawke, the firm’s sole speaker. She has eight years experience in the renewable industry and possesses a B. Sc. in Social Science and Planning, and a Diploma in Project Management. ESCO Pacific project manager Cedric Berge recorded the meeting.
“ESCO Pacific is an Australian company positioned in the top three solar farm developers in Australia,” Ms Hawke advised attendees. “We were founded in 2015. Our biggest project is the Ross River Solar Farm (148MW) in Townsville. During construction it is employing upwards of 200 staff and four permanent staff through its operation.”
The nearest to Mulwala solar farm being managed by ESCO Pacific is Finley (6km west of town, $170 million farm, 170MW). Some of their many other projects include Horsham (5km from the city’s centre, a $160 million project up to 130MW), Glenrowan (2km from town, up to 140MW), and Susan River and Childers located near Hervey Bay and Maryborough respectively with a combined value of $200 million and 175 MW.
“It is very early stages,” Ms Hawke said of the Mulwala proposal. “As soon as we know the project has potential to go ahead we consider it very important to engage with the neighbouring landowners.”
The property’s owner, Albert Thomas, was approached some 12 months ago by various companies regarding a solar farm on his property. “We had at least seven offers,” he told the Yarrawonga Chronicle.
Like other farmers, Mr Thomas has experienced the “ins and outs of farming with droughts and floods”. “We were made an offer and we thought, why not take it up?
“It’s obvious power stations are being shut down in Australia, and Yarrawonga and Mulwala - especially Yarrawonga - has always been short on electricity. There’s no heavy industry.”
The proposed utility scale renewable energy project of up to 140MW would generate renewable energy from the power of the sun. The power station would export its electricity via value cable to the adjacent Mulwala Substation.
Construction of the solar farm would generate an estimated 130 jobs over nine months. Upon completion, there would be an estimated four full-time and eight part-time jobs covering ongoing operation and maintenance, including skilled workers such as “a local electrician or someone with an operations or manufacturing background to manage the project,” Ms Hawke said.
Ageing poles and wires contributing to increased power bills, increased applications for wind farms and solar farms, and government policy of decentralisation of energy have been conspicuous features in Australia in recent times, she said.
Mrs Jacques said she is not against solar farms but against such “a massive energy format” on the edge of town (which husband Ken said was just 60 or 70 metres diagonally opposite a residential area). “I can’t see how we’ll have screening,” she said.
Ms Hawke said ESCO Pacific’s practice of consulting local nurseries and landcare groups in respect of solar farm screening would apply here.
Mrs Jacques referred to the journal titled ‘Nature’ which stated solar farms produce heat banks. “We don’t want it to get any hotter here,” she said. Ms Hawke said she is aware of the article in ‘Nature’ and acknowledged some increased heat on the actual road but added that dissipation of heat is significant a short distance from the road.
A landowner at the meeting said he has thousands of trees of good size, many from seedlings which have proven an effective screening of his large property in a relatively short space of time - some two or three years.
Mulwala resident Greg Hope recalled how Mulwala was overlooked in favour of Benalla for the super explosives factory (which replaced many factories in Melbourne, Lithgow and St Marys) due to less local energy.
But the biggest point Mr Hope wanted to make was the effective planting of numerous large trees back in the mid 1990s which block off any view of the large and widespread munitions plant along the Yarrawonga to Benalla Road. “There was a little concern at the time of the development but overwhelming support. There has been no major complaint since,” he said. “There have just been positive impacts.”
Mulwala resident David Rose said Mulwala loses many potential employees because it lacks manufacturing industry. Attendees felt increased electricity was necessary for future growth of Mulwala which leads building activity in the Federation Council area.
Third generation Thomas family member Peter Thomas, a builder for 25 years, said the family was not going anywhere else to live in the foreseeable future. “I’m sitting on the fence on this one,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with the solar farm proposal itself. I acknowledge it would stifle residential development (in that area).”
Some nearby Riverland Estate Mulwala residents enquired about possible impacts on residential values and reduced energy costs.
Ms Hawke advised that the project is part of a Federal Government initiative to reduce energy costs over the coming years but said the project would not have a direct impact on the bills of Mulwala residents.
She said that studies of the impact of wind farms have found no direct link to an impact on property values.
“We’re seeing a peak now wind farms and solar farms in the development phase,” she said. “Generally, people, communities, businesses and governments can see the value, particularly long term, in them.”