The 'land grab' rush for solar farms

Source: Q and A

Up and down the country, solar power developers are locking up farming land and being met with opposition.

Greytown resident Liz Creevey lives next to a farm, and out the back of her property can look over fields and stands of trees.

"This will soon be a sea of four and a half metre high solar panels on all three sides of my section. I will be surrounded by it," she said.

In late August, the local farmer who owns the land around Liz, surprised immediate neighbours with some news.

He had signed a 35 year lease with American backed energy company Helios to turn 190 hectares of his land into a solar farm. The $140 million project would eventually power 20,000 homes.

Helios is expected to submit a resource consent application to the South Wairarapa District Council over the next six months.

Liz Creevey bought her property four years ago and is running a bed and breakfast operation. The promise of a hedge to screen out the solar farm doesn't cut it she said.

"No one will want to buy my property. I am penniless. Nobody wants to come and have a holiday at a power station."

Another proposed solar farm, just 400 metres away from the Helios project has already lodged an application with council for a 141 hectare solar farm developed by Far North Solar Farm. Four of the company's proposed farms have already gained consents.

Director John Telfer told Q+A the company will engage with the residents close to the solar farm and soften the visual impact of the panels with attractive tree planting. It's intended that sheep will graze between the panels.

The rush to solar power is world-wide but there's extra momentum here as the New Zealand government has set a target of 100 per cent renewable power generation by 2030.

Helios is investing $1.3 billion into a suite of solar farms. Lodestone, Meridian, Contact and Genesis are also set to be big players in the solar market. In the last few weeks, UK company, Harmony Energy was given the green light for a large solar farm in the Waikato.

Transpower CEO Alison Andrew said there's been a sudden surge in the number of enquiries from renewable and mainly solar companies about connecting up to the grid.

"In the period 2014 to 2019, we had five to 10 enquiries a year about connection. In the last year alone, we've had 120."

Energy analyst from Jarden Securities, Grant Swanepeol described the shift to solar farming as a land grab.

"There's a bit of a gold rush going on. For the developers, I think there's an opportunity to make some money over the next few years especially since wholesale prices are very high and it's quite quick to build a solar farm. People are locking up land where they can, close to the grid."

Both farms on the outskirts of Greytown are close to a sub-station. Developers pay to transport their power to the nearest grid point.

Lloyd Penfold is another resident who would be neighbouring the proposed Helios solar farm. His home is just off an avenue of elm trees, a favourite spot for wedding photos and visitors to Greytown.

He scoffed at the NIMBY label: "Not in my back yard? No, it's not out of my back pocket."

"If Helios want to build this, then invest," he said. "Pay for the infrastructure and build it somewhere appropriate and don't try and get the local residents to pay for it in the loss of property prices."

Helios declined an interview with Q+A. Through a Helios statement, the farming family said they had been on the land for seven generations and seen the effects of climate change. They wanted to be part of the solution.