As with any type of major infrastructure development, the process for obtaining planning and environmental approvals for renewable energy projects can be complex and confusing. Taking the time upfront to map out a regulatory approvals pathway will help project developers avoid costly roadblocks and increase the chances of the project’s success.
The recent heightened buzz around renewable energy projects in Australia, including large-scale solar PV, can be likened to the frenzy of the gold rushes of the nineteenth century. Largely driven by cost reductions and bipartisan political support for the 2020 Renewable Energy Target, 2017 will undoubtedly be the biggest year that the renewables industry has seen in the last 50 years.
There are many renewable energy projects under construction, or commencing construction this year. However, for those projects still in the feasibility stage, it is important for developers to remember that renewable energy projects undergo the same level of scrutiny in terms of approvals as their non-renewable energy project counterparts. This includes consideration of planning, environmental and cultural heritage approvals.
The planning systems in many Australian jurisdictions are complex, difficult to navigate and hard to change. This represents a genuine hurdle for developers to get their approvals. As a result, it is important that developers do not underestimate the potential for cost blow-outs and project delays.
Establishing the approvals pathway and level of assessment
As with all major infrastructure projects, it is critical that a regulatory approvals pathway is mapped out as part of any feasibility stage. This will give a clear picture of information likely to be required to inform the regulatory approvals process. It will also assist developers by highlighting any potential delays and assist with identifying strategies to avoid them. For example, large-scale solar projects are likely to be captured by local government planning schemes, which generally restrict the areas in which such developments will be permitted by planning authorities.
Depending on the project’s size, location and potential impacts, planning and/or environmental approvals may be required by any (or all) of the three tiers of government:
- Commonwealth – under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
- State – under environmental protection legislation and, in some cases, ‘major project’ legislation, and
- local– under a local development control plan, environmental plan or planning scheme.
The level of assessment required can vary widely, and there are many hidden traps which new developers may not be aware of. It is therefore important to consult early on with relevant planning authorities and other regulatory agencies to understand what is involved.
Understanding the project’s potential impacts
Once the approvals pathway and level of assessment is understood, a desktop assessment of the project’s potential impacts is often the next step. This step is critical to the identification of detailed technical studies that will be required. Some specific things for developers to keep in mind include:
- Is a permit required to clear native vegetation on the development site? If the answer is no, remember that this does not necessarily mean that other environmental approvals will not be required. This particularly true where vegetation it is animal breeding habitat or habitat for threatened species.
- Fauna and flora surveys may need to be undertaken in accordance with relevant guidelines. There may be timing constraints regarding what time of year they should be undertaken.
- Cultural heritage matters will need to be considered early on and appropriate strategies put in place to ensure appropriate consultation, protection and conservation of Aboriginal cultural heritage.
- Other specialist studies may be required, including visual amenity, noise, social impact and traffic assessments.
Getting the documentation right
In preparing planning and approval documentation, it is important that it clearly addresses the regulatory requirements and is supported by the findings of any technical studies. In addition to the technical studies, such documentation should include a description of the proposal, the potential impacts, and the measures that will be taken to avoid, mitigate and, if required, offset them.
Complying with conditions
Development approvals and environmental permits are often issued with a number of conditions that may require further actions or additional documentation to be submitted. It is important that developers understand that noncompliance with these conditions can result in action by the responsible authority or, in some cases, lapsing of the permit.
In summary, developers can maximise the likelihood of getting their projects approved on time and on budget by making sure they fully understand their project’s approval pathway, the level of assessment that is required and obtaining high-quality specialist studies.
If you would like to find out more about how CO2 Australia can help you navigate the development and environmental approvals pathway needed for your renewable energy development, contact Kate McBean on +61 7 3248 0200 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Kate McBean is the Senior Manager, Environmental Approvals at CO2 Australia. Kate has over 10 years’ experience project managing some of Australia’s largest biodiversity offset programs and is currently overseeing the EIS for a large-scale aquaculture project in the Northern Territory. Kate has developed an extensive understanding of environmental legislation and policy, and is responsible for providing environmental approvals advice for clients across Australia.