Elementus wins environmental exemption for Williamsdale solar farm

The Monaro Highway site at Williamsdale set to become home to a solar farm. Photo: Graham TidyElementus Energy has been granted an exemption from having to prepare an environmental impact statement for its planned solar farm at Williamsdale, despite concerns from residents about native tree clearing.

Elementus plans a 10 megawatt array on 34 hectares of land beside the Monaro Highway.

The company has been dogged by controversy over its planned solar farm, which was originally to be sited adjacent to Uriarra village but was moved after vehement opposition from Uriarra residents.

Earlier this year, the ACT government offered it a site at Williamsdale, on land owned by Actew Water (now Icon), a move welcomed by Uriarra residents.

Actew bought the block in 2009 and in 2013 ActewAGL put it forward as the site for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the government solar auction. It missed out on a contract.

In March this year, the government’s Land Development Agency bought the land for $3.1 million to smooth the way for the solar farm and will lease part of it to Elementus.

The solar array means the removal of about 116 trees, mainly yellow box, plus half a hectare of native vegetation.

Elementus applied for an exemption from having to prepare an environmental impact statement on the basis that an exemption had already been given to Actew for its planned solar farm on the site.

Elementus argued that the native vegetation had already been significantly degraded through exotic pasture and a history of grazing. It also pointed to numerous weeds on the site and the lack of dead trees and fallen limbs for native habitats.

The Conservator of Flora and Fauna said many of the trees to be removed were “hollow bearing” and so likely to support animals. All trees along Angle Crossing Road should be retained and native tree loss should be minimised, the conservator said. The removal of any mature trees outside of the array must be justified.

The planning and land authority said its assessment “confirmed that the proposal will result in impacts on some species and ecological communities but these impacts are unlikely to be significant” and “further investigation and environmental assessment of the potential impacts of the proposal on species and ecological communities is not recommended for this project”.

It also pointed to glare and views from the Monaro Highway but said Elementus would move the array at least 200 metres away from the highway, would use non-reflective solar panels and would plant natives as screening.

It noted the Murrumbidgee River nearby, but said measures had been proposed to protect stormwater run-off during and after construction and the government’s water policy team did not expect significant impacts on water quality.

The site is in a bushfire-prone area and the array would be “exposed to a high level of risk due to the site being located on the eastern rim of the Murrumbidgee River valley and also being exposed to the influences of strong, drying northwest to southwest winds that will, due to the steep slopes to the west, increase the rate of spread of a fire upslope towards the east”, the planning authority said.

It recommended measures including a Colourbond fence on the northern boundary, water tanks and grazing to keep grass low.

In his decision to grant an exemption from an environmental impact assessment, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman said the impact of the proposal had been sufficiently addressed, and the solar farm was now free to lodge a planning application for the array.

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