A gold rush is a good time to think slow.

As a mum, farmer  and citizen nerd I am interested in all things renewable in our region, especially projects that are generating clean power AND jobs, and paying something back into the local economy. I’m also interested in productive and environmentally sensitive land use. These two worlds are colliding in our region with the steady march of large scale renewable energy projects, and their hunger for large tracts of land in and around the national electricity grid.

So, it was good to meet with the team from the RES Group this week, who are developing the Avondale solar farm at Sandigo and understand how their business works and how they work with community. RES is the renewable energy arm of the McAlpine engineering group out of the UK. They have been developing primarily large scale wind projects in Australia, and now are moving toward large scale solar. These projects are coming on line in response to demand in the corporate market (think Telstra / Coca Cola) to source clean renewable energy. Because the policy environment on renewables in Australia has been shaky at best these corporates are entering into direct Power Purchase Agreements with groups like RES, who will build the system and supply the clean energy over a given period of time – say 25 years.

RES is currently working to ensure that the neighbouring community and shires are fully informed on the project and understand its parameters.

These large scale projects come with their challenges. There is the question of the change over in land use from the production of food to the production of energy – and how that will be accepted in the community. Large scale wind and solar can be an aesthetic challenge – yes they are big, and yes they are right in your eye – how do people feel about that. The job generation is there with dozens of direct jobs on the project ‘build’, and then the multiplier effect that a project of this scale has in the community – think accommodation, food supply, food service, fuel purchasing, cafes, kids in local schools etc as well as short term contracts such as plant and equipment hire, truck drivers, fencing contractors.

At a national scale it is good to see more large scale renewables going into the energy market mix (might save Snowy 2.0 from pumping coal uphill….).  At a community level we need to consider carefully the risks and benefits right here of these developments, what they mean over the long term, how we feel about the change over / multiple land use, ways we can work with developers to maximise the long term outcomes for the community.

Renewable energy is a good thing. Job creation and investment are good things. Robust planning frameworks and a community who puts the time into thinking through all of the issues and opportunites over the longer term are also a very good thing.

Remember from your history lessons the Chinese business model on the Australian gold fields?  In the main, they did not dig for gold, they grew and sold food, imported picks, shovels, tents, pots and pans and sold them to the diggers.  They found the opportunity without the risk.

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