Top 9 questions and answers about building renewables
Why do we need to build renewable energy?
Our climate is already changing. The world is on average more than 1 degree warmer than pre-industrial levels and July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded. This is having devastating impacts on nature and ecosystems. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the counterpart to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ranks climate change as among the top 5 threats to nature around the world. Global warming of more than 1.5 degrees will kill the majority of coral reefs in the world and endanger human lives through flooding, drought, fires and heatwaves.
We desperately need to reduce carbon emissions. Renewable energy is a way to reduce emissions from industrial processes, heating and transport through electrification. Together, this can reduce global energy emissions by 75%, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
Queensland's emissions reduction target is currently 30% by 2030 and net zero by 2050. If everywhere in the world followed this trajectory, we would be on track for nearly 3 degrees of warming, a death sentence for the Reef.
Why do we need to protect nature?
Destruction of nature for pasture, development and mining is among the biggest drivers of climate change. The IPCC estimates that the carbon saved by stopping the destruction of nature is more than the carbon saved by building enough wind energy to decarbonise our electricity supply.
The IPCC also points out that functioning ecosystems helps build climate resilience and helps regulate the climate, as well as providing ecosystem services. We cannot solve the climate crisis if we continue our current trajectory of nature destruction.
Why do we have a conflict in Queensland when we have so much land?
Queensland has a huge amount of land, and huge amounts of cleared land. Renewable energy projects are being proposed in areas of remnant forest because:
- They are incentivised to connect as close as possible to the transmission lines (PDF) which run up the Great Dividing Range foothills by lower costs
- They have to be developed in windy areas, which, in eastern Queensland near transmission lines, are largely limited to ridgelines
- They want to be close enough to towns and cities to minimise losses but far enough away to minimise interaction and nuisance to neighbours
Solar farms also have the same incentive to connect to transmission lines but are more flexible in terms of areas that they can connect, and require less land.
However, solar farms require fully cleared land which can have significant nature impacts, as well as land use conflicts. Transmission and associated renewable energy export opportunities such as hydrogen also have potential large impacts on nature.
How much nature is threatened?
There are nearly 11 GW of wind farm projects going through Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act approval in Queensland. These cumulatively require more than 16,000 hectares of vegetation to be cleared.
This includes more than 1,000 hectares of habitat of 12 threatened species, including some iconic species such as:
- Nearly 11,000 hectares of koala habitat
- 5,500 hectares of northern and greater glider habitat
- Significant impact on critically endangered species such as the cycas megacarpa in Central Queensland and magnificent broodfrog in FNQ
The Queensland Government is proposing to build 22 GW of projects by 2035 in the Queensland Energy and Jobs Plan. If projects proceed in similar areas, this could need 32,000 hectares cleared.
How does this compare to Queensland clearing?
In 2020-21, nearly 350,000 hectares of land was cleared, according to the Queensland Government’s Statewide Lands and Treecover Survey (SLATS).
That is more than 10 times the potential clearing to build Queensland renewables out to 2035, cleared in one year. Nearly 90% of this was cleared for pasture.
Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, 0.9% of likely koala habitat was cleared, while proposed wind farms could threaten 0.03% of likely koala habitat.
QCC believes any clearing is concerning and must be carefully monitored, particularly when it impacts threatened species. However, we also have to be clear on what are the biggest drivers of clearing in Queensland, and how we can reduce land clearing.
What is the total land required for the transition?
The direct clearing required for wind farms is a small percentage of the land that is under the footprint of the wind farm, as there needs to be a lot of space between the turbines.
Queensland’s first three major wind farms, Coopers Gap, Kaban and Mt Emerald, have an average power density of 22 hectares land per MW capacity. In contrast, the proposed projects have a direct clearing impact of 1.7 hectares/MW.
Solar farms have a much higher power density, albeit on entirely cleared land. The Queensland Solar Farm Guidelines (PDF) have a conservative estimate of 3 hectares of land per MW capacity.
Transmission will also require a significant amount of clearing. Transmission often requires cleared corridors of 70 - 100m.
To build the Queensland Energy and Jobs Plan to 2035, we would need:
- 12.1 GW solar (including existing)
- 12.9 GW wind (including existing)
- Up to 3,200 km of new transmission lines
This would add up to a total land impact of nearly 350,000 hectares. This is around 0.2% of Queensland's total land area.
This is the total land would be leased by renewable companies but could still be used by For solar farms, this would be almost entirely on cleared land but wind farms only have to clear a small percentage of land impacted to build the turbines. We estimate the cleared land required to be around 10% of the total land required, at 32,000 ha.
Can't we build distributed energy?
Rooftop solar met 11% of Queensland’s energy needs in 2022-23. The Australian Energy Market Operator forecasts that rooftop solar could grow by 4 times by 2050. However, over this time electricity demands will also increase to power vehicles and electrified processes so that the proportion of demand met by rooftop solar will be less than 40%. To reach these big growth forecasts, we need to help rooftop solar and distributed energy along by:
- Mandating minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties and upholding strong energy efficiency standards for new builds
- Rolling out Virtual Power Plants in social housing to link up batteries and prove the operation of these in Queensland
- Provide support for tenants and landlords to install solar on rental properties
However, we will still need transmission and transmission connected renewable energy.
What can we do to build large-scale energy better?
Our planning frameworks are not adequately protecting nature from development of any sort. We believe the renewable energy transition offers an opportunity to do things differently, and better. The transition should be based on a regional planning framework which maps important biodiversity values, cultural heritage and land uses to identify areas for protection, enacted through both the EPBC reforms and the Queensland regional plans.
These maps should be developed with meaningful input from local Traditional Owners, communities and environment groups, who have the best knowledge of important places.
The current system of relying on desktop surveys in the beginning and offsets at the end to make up for clearing is deeply flawed. Offsets should be used as a last resort, and should be much better monitored to ensure biodiversity outcomes are achieved.
We are working with the Queensland and Federal Governments to develop these maps and frameworks. In the meantime, we also need urgent updates to existing regulations.
What planning regulations do we need to reform?
Wind farms are assessed under State Code 23, this is designed to operate in parallel with the Vegetation Management Act, so that wind farms are held to the same standards of clearing as any new development.
However, the existing assessment for environmental impact for wind farms was extremely loose. We are pleased that the Government has released proposed amendments to State Code 23 for consultation. These expand significantly upon the environmental impact, explicitly naming threatened species habitat, and requiring evidence that it has been avoided.
We believe there is still additional protections that could be embedded in State Code 23 including adding a buffer around national parks and world heritage areas. There are also still deficiencies in the social impact assessment required of developers, although we welcome the additional consideration of transport, worker accommodation and impact of renewable energy on natural hazards.
We believe a similar code should be set up for solar to consolidate this process which is currently assessed often at a local council level.