Jayne Rutter Member Name
Principal Environmental Consultant
As we strive towards a cleaner and more sustainable future, the Australian power sector is increasingly looking to transition to lower emissions. Being clean, green, and increasingly lean, renewables are getting lots of love. But all love affairs have their challenges – and the first one usually involves getting a ‘yes’.
It can be challenging to navigate the path to project approval, whether the project takes the form of wind, solar, hydro, or the many other technological possibilities currently available and emerging. However, with some specialist support, careful upfront mapping of requirements and consideration of potential risks, you’ll be heading in the right direction.
Here are a few suggestions to help you set a course for success.
Find the most appropriate location for the project
In comparison to mining and oil and gas projects, most renewable projects (except hydropower) may have the flexibility to site infrastructure away from sensitive environmental and cultural areas because these projects are not constrained by the location of the underground resource. Designing the project to avoid sensitive areas with important features can save a great deal of time, effort, headaches, and extra approvals.
Achieving an environmental approval with realistic, tailored conditions is more likely if you can demonstrate to regulators that the project location is the most appropriate selection and that you’ve done your utmost to avoid significant environmental and cultural features.
For example, the initial design for linear infrastructure associated with the Ramu 2 run-of-river 180 MW hydroelectric scheme in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea envisaged a route that could have impacted a historical village site. During the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), and through intensive community engagement, this historical village site was identified, and its significance recognised. Identification of an alternative road alignment minimised the impact on cultural heritage values. On the same project, a need arose to re-examine the design of the scheme due to noise impacts on sensitive receptors (people and fauna) in the proximity of the powerhouse. An alternative below-ground location for the powerhouse was identified as a preferential approach (subject to technical feasibility).
The Goat Hill Pumped Hydro Project in South Australia is another good example where site selection and optimisation of design led to minimised impacts on local vegetation communities, averting removal of Sandalwood trees. Similarly, the ecological surveys undertaken for the Kingaroy Wind and Solar Farm in Queensland resulted in the adjustment of the initial layout to limit clearing and align with approval requirements.
Communicate with your stakeholders as early as possible
Another critical factor in achieving approval is demonstrating that you’re committed to engaging openly with the affected community and traditional owners to build their trust and confidence. Get your stakeholder engagement underway early – including with regulators – and keep it going, especially if your project is technologically complex or if the project approvals will require multiple government agencies.
Map out your approvals path
To smoothly navigate project approvals, first build a reasonable understanding of what lies ahead. It’s best to hold some early workshops with the government regulators and environmental specialists to understand the project approval stages and timeframes, map out the requirements, scope the range of specialist studies and identify potential issues or show-stoppers. Consider the following questions:
- What studies need to be done?
- How much will they cost and how long will they take?
- Who will prepare the documents you’ll need to give to the government for assessment and approval?
If the project could potentially trigger the need for additional tiers of approval, this should be well understood, with the timeframes factored into project planning.
Technical specialists with practical, real-world knowledge and experience of approvals pathways in the relevant state will be valuable guides on your journey towards an approval. They’ll understand the approvals process, which differs between jurisdictions, and the likely hurdles that your project may encounter.
Pinpoint the most critical risks or environmental impacts and explore possible solutions
Try to identify the biggest challenges and constraints for the project (from an approvals perspective) early. Ask yourself: What are the potential risks to the project, the environment, the community and the stakeholders?
For hydropower, these could be availability of water, adequate elevation head, impacts to downstream ecology or water users, water quality, land disturbance and stakeholder concerns. For wind and solar projects, communities are likely to be concerned about construction traffic, glare and glint, visual impact, noise, birds, sterilisation of the land underneath the solar panels and the lifecycle impacts of the technology (such as the short lifespan and limited recycling capability for solar panels at this time).
None of these issues need be insurmountable if they’re considered early. Can environmental impacts or community issues be ‘designed out’ or is additional mitigation needed during construction and operation? There are many examples from around the world of innovative solutions that can be leveraged to find a suitable, efficient approach for the particular conditions and constraints of your project.
Prepare a robust, credible ESIA
When the time comes to prepare the application for the project (whether it be a local government development approval or higher-level assessment such as an Environmental Impact Statement), it is important to prepare the assessment based on a thorough understanding of both the environmental and social values in the area and the requirements of regulators to provide a robust and defensible assessment of impacts.
Don’t be complacent and assume that a renewables project will be loved by everyone. There are still many environmental risks and challenges with any development, and community members and stakeholders are not always supportive of change. Be forthcoming, open, and transparent in communications and reports prepared for the government and public.
A robust ESIA and consultation process increases the likelihood of gaining acceptance from the community and protecting the environment and public from potential impacts. A credible ESIA will also support project assessment by the regulators.
By smoothly navigating the hurdles of the assessment pathway for your renewables project, you’ll be setting yourself up with confidence for that big ‘yes’.