Nova Energy can move ahead with New Zealand's largest solar project after gaining land use consents from Taupō District Council and Bay of Plenty Toi Moana Regional Council.
On Tuesday, on behalf of Nova Energy, Todd Generation was granted resource consents to build a 400-megawatt solar farm at Rangitāiki, about 35 kilometres southwest of Taupō. Once completed, the site will generate enough renewable electricity to power up to 100,000 homes.
Nova chief executive officer Babu Bahirathan says these "landmark resource consents" are a positive step towards expanding Nova's renewable energy generation portfolio. They are also a "significant step" towards New Zealand's emission reduction targets.
"With 400 MW consented, the proposed solar farm at Rangitāiki is now New Zealand's largest consented, grid-connected solar project," he says.
Subject to Nova's final investment decision, the first stage would build and connect up to 150 MW of capacity to the grid in the next two years. That would provide clean and affordable energy for up to 35,000 homes.
The consents also cover two further stages, eventually taking the site's capacity to 400 MW. A substation will be built to connect the output of about 900,000 solar panels to Transpower's 220 kV transmission line, which bisects the northern part of the property.
The Todd Corporation-owned generator and retailer expects the project to create hundreds of local jobs during construction, offering valuable training opportunities in the solar sector.
New Zealand's goal of reaching 100 per cent renewable generation by 2035, combined with the drive to decarbonise the economy, is driving a boom in grid-scale solar projects. Both existing generators and market entrants are moving ahead with solar farms around Aotearoa.
In September, Harmony Energy gained Environmental Protection Authority permission to build the 147 MW Tauhei solar farm in Waikato. This week, Manawa Energy announced it has a portfolio of agreements and options for up to 800 MW of North Island solar and wind projects.
Other grid-scale solar projects in the pipeline include Lodestone Energy's five North Island sites and HES Aotearoa's planned development in mid-Canterbury.
Nova Energy says it will draw on the experience and knowledge gained from its 2.1 MW Kapuni Solar Power Plant, completed in Taranaki last year. That site is currently the country's largest completed solar farm, with 5800 ground-mounted panels.
The Rangitāiki site is currently a working dairy farm. In its application, Nova said the project staging would allow that activity to be phased out.
Its plans include significant riparian restoration and revegetation around the site, shielding it from State Highway 5 and neighbouring properties. Nova expects both the planting and the shift from dairying will "help improve water quality in the local river catchments".
The economic benefits of replacing dairy with solar were questioned by some submitters. Local dairy farmer Allan Crafar claimed the proposal would lead to the economy's loss of $30 million per year.
Federated Farmers raised similar concerns about the loss of productive farmland. However, the agricultural lobby group supports increasing renewable electricity generation and improving the region's power supply.
In Nova's further evidence, farm management consultant James Allen noted that the solar farm would remove about half a per cent of New Zealand's 4.9 million dairy herd. The commissioner also noted there is scope for other agricultural activities alongside the panels, including sheep grazing.
Crafar and Federated Farmers also asked for assurances about the panels' potential for leaching toxic elements into the ground and their disposal at their end-of-life.
Nova Energy provided additional information about solar panels' structural and operational integrity, saying they are designed to withstand extreme weather conditions over their 25-year lifetime. It notes the "misconception" around leaching is due to early models containing high amounts of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Modern solar panels have only trace levels and "will not result in any land contamination to the soils beneath the panels".
The firm also proposed conditions, including developing Decommissioning Plans at least three months before removing panels to ensure the land is safe and suitable for subsequent use.
It also expects up to 85 per cent of the solar modules could remain fit for purpose after 25-to-30 years. That opens possibilities around extending their operation and re-using or re-purposing retired modules.
New Zealand does not currently have solar panel recycling facilities, Nova says. But these are likely to become available, similar to developments in the more mature Australian and European markets.
'Significant positive effects'
In his decision, commissioner William Wasley pointed to the "clear and unambiguous" National Policy Statement on Renewable Energy Generation.
"That direction has been put in place by the government, and it is a matter that I need to have regard to."
He says that increasing the energy supply also supports the national grid's resilience.
"The use of solar energy will support the national economy during periods when power from other renewable energy sources is not sufficient to meet demand, such as during periods of low rainfall in the headwaters of the hydroelectric schemes or periods of low wind speeds across major windfarms."
The Taupō District Plan also recognises and provides for network utilities in the rural environment.
Wasley acknowledged visual impacts and moderate adverse effects on the area's rural character but said these would be mitigated by planting native species and increasing biodiversity on the site. Other consent conditions will remedy, mitigate, or avoid other potential adverse effects.
The retirement of the dairy farm activity will remove approximately 2600 head of cattle from the Rangitāiki catchment and improve water quality, Wasley says.
"Overall, the proposal is considered to have significant positive effects."