One of Australia’s biggest solar farm projects is awaiting development approval in South East Queensland.
Queensland company SolarQ is proposing an 800-megawatt renewable energy facility adjacent to the Lower Wonga high-voltage power sub-station, some 30 kilometres north-west of Gympie. If approved, the $2 billion solar energy farm and battery storage facility will be built over a four-year period, will cover an area of roughly 1572 hectares (18 square kilometres) and is expected to generate 450 jobs during the 18-month construction period.
Since the project is planned ‘in my backyard’ so to speak, I was keen to meet the man behind this exciting new solar project.
I arrange to have coffee with SolarQ Managing Director Scott Armstrong at Emilia’s, a popular cafe in Gympie, to discuss the project in more detail. According to what’s written on the company website, Scott is an “energy sector consultant, developer, construction, and operator/maintainer with 36 years’ experience specialising in site identification, project development and delivery working with major energy companies.”
When Scott arrives at the coffee shop, I instantly notice his size (he seems a 6’3 solid build from where I stand) and his easy-going polite manner (I later learn he started his career as a ‘sparkie’ who went on to complete an economics degree). After ordering some lattes (I’m vegan, so I order mine with soy milk) , we sit down to discuss the proposed solar facility, its planned location some 25 kilometres from where I live.
“I come from a technical and economic background. I always work on the view that you don’t get something for nothing. There’s always an impact so you can never discount what that impact is – it’s just solar is the least of all impacts,” Scott explains. Having worked in the energy sector for more than three decades with companies such as Santos, Energex and Tarong Energy, this admission speaks volumes.
“But then again if you live beside [the facility], you still might say that there’s some visual issues or I don’t want it to be there. But at least with solar if you’re two kilometres away and you’re looking at something two meters high, it disappears into the horizon whereas a wind farm is a 100 metres in the air.” Solar farms may be ugly to some, but at least it produces clean lower-cost energy and has minimal environmental impact, unlike coal-fired power plants.
Scott goes on to tell me that they were “lucky” to have found the ideal location. The proposed site for the facility was chosen for its close proximity to the customer base, that it had largely been cleared, and that the location wasn’t prime agricultural land. I am familiar with the Woolooga substation that Scott is referring to. I drive past it on my way home. From the Wide Bay highway, you can see it. The towering high voltage powerlines are hard to miss. The grazing cattle dotting the landscape underneath are barely noticeable however.
Scott explains he and his team of Queensland-based consultants (they are a small team of three) are seeking initial approval from the Gympie Regional Council for a 350-megawatt facility to be built on 572 hectares. Stage two, he tells me, is to expand solar power generation to 800-megawatts with an area allocated for around 4,000 mega watts per hour of energy storage.
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Once up and running, the facility will supply electricity to 15 percent of South East Queensland, areas within the Wide Bay load area such as Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and Gold Coast. By then, the solar farm will rank as one of the largest in Australia producing enough electricity to power over 300,000 homes. And since the proposed solar farm will use existing transmission assets and will be located close to customers, it will also deliver lower energy costs.
What most delights me about the project however – aside from the fact that it will help build a sustainable future – is that it will create jobs in my community. Having left cosmopolitan Melbourne to settle in this regional part of Queensland, I had been concerned about the local unemployment rate which has sat well above the national average in the three years I’ve lived in the area. What is particularly devastating is the youth unemployment rate which hovers around 25 percent, much higher than the state average of 13.5 percent.
It is clear that new investment is needed in our part of Australia. We need to create jobs in order to create hope. Scott assures me that if the solar farm is approved, he is keen to offer apprenticeships to help boost youth employment and trades qualifications. Why? He wants to give young people the same opportunity he was given as a “non-academic” school-leaver-tradie-wannabe all those years ago.
The company is working closely with government, council and other regulatory authorities for satisfactory approval. If the project is given the green light, the SolarQ team will begin the task of raising development capital and will start building early next year so that it can achieve its goal of efficiently supplying local customers with cleaner and cheaper power.
After chatting for what seems like hours (but in real time just over an hour and 25 minutes according to my Sony recorder), we say our goodbyes. I tell Scott I’ll be watching intently what happens and doing what I can to help. Walking away I wonder if I’ve overstepped the mark. But then I dismiss the thought. I founded one of the world’s largest eco fashion and sustainable lifestyle sites. My bias is evident. At least I own up to it.
SolarQ has initiated the “Public Notification Period” running until 22 August 2017. Should you wish to formally register your support or have concerns about the solar farm project, email email@example.com by this deadline.