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Solar strikes back

Fears about the potential for adverse environmental impacts from proposed solar farms in the region are “hypothetical worst-case scenarios and scaremongering”, according to one vested renewable energy business.

Auckland-based developer Far North Solar Farm’s application to develop a 235-hectare solar farm by Greytown’s Bidwills Cutting Rd is currently lodged with South Wairarapa District Council.

On Saturday, August 28, the Times-Age published a story regarding the concerns of Greytown resident Dayandra Hettige, who is also secretary of community group South Wairarapa Whenua Action Group [SWWAG].

Hettige raised concerns about the proposed development’s fire risk and mitigation, potential land and groundwater contamination, and panel disposal infrastructure.

Far North Solar Farm has since contacted the Times-Age to address some of Hettige’s concerns.

Responding to Hettige’s claim that the new solar sector is currently subject to loose regulation in New Zealand, Far North Solar Farm communications and engagement lead Greg Hay said this is not the case.

“To state solar farm development is an unregulated activity, as SWWAG have done, is simply incorrect,” Hay said.

“The resource consent process is extremely rigorous and assesses projects on all aspects of suitability and safety.”

A major concern raised by Hettige was the presence of toxic components and heavy metals in solar farms, which he said had the potential to contaminate the land and groundwater under the development in the event of an electrical fire.

Hay said the panels that would be imported for the farm are silicon-based, which “is non-toxic and does not pose a risk to public health or safety”.

“Unlike the wind power and EV sectors, the solar PV [photovoltaics] industry isn’t reliant on rare earth materials,” Hay said.

“Instead, solar cells use a range of minor metals including indium, gallium, selenium, cadmium, and tellurium.”

Prior to operation, an emergency response plan [ERP] would be developed with Fire and Emergency NZ [Fenz], which would also be consulted about the layout of the solar farm.

Hay said this relationship would ensure relevant mitigation to manage fire risk and other types of incidents and emergencies.

“There is a potential risk of fire everywhere, that’s why we have a fire service,” Hay said.

“Due to the level of investment and technology involved, the estimated risk of a fire in this solar farm is estimated to be very low.”

Citing this “low risk”, Hay said no one would build solar farms if they regularly burnt down.

“We expect to invest tens of millions of dollars into the region by building the Greytown solar farm. We would not be doing so if we felt there was a risk of the facility burning down.”

Discussions with Fenz up to this point have not indicated there would be a need to use chemicals should a fire occur, Hay said.

Referencing a fire mitigation and management plan requested by SWWAG, Hay said all reports and plans with the solar farm are lodged with the council and discoverable.

“As stated previously, we have already worked closely with FENZ to design the solar farm in a manner that they are happy with. The ERP will be developed with them prior to operation, as they have agreed,” Hay said.

“SWWAG has no jurisdiction to request anything from us.”

As the solar panels have a 30-year life span according to the manufacturer, Hay said Hettige’s recycling qualms are not significant enough to warrant halting localised renewable energy development.

“According to data from European PV manufacturers, approximately 96 per cent of the materials from solar panels can be reused for producing new solar panels.”

While most of the components can be recycled, Hay said there is not yet a facility that does this on a large scale in NZ.

“The reality is not everything we use in our world can be recycled and we need to improve in every aspect of how we operate in this regard,” Hay said.

“For example, we currently export 11,000 tonnes of plastic overseas to be recycled because we can’t do it here – it doesn’t mean we ban the use of plastic.

“As New Zealand is yet to install solar energy on the same scale as other countries, we have not accumulated the same level of panel waste.”

Hay said placing a solar development on productive land – something SWWAG believe could impact its quality in the future – would “simply change the land use”.

“In this case, it will continue to be grazed, so will actually increase in productivity,” Hay said.

“Anyone who tries to use the ‘productive land’ argument against solar development just doesn’t want solar, not because they’re worried about preserving anything else.”

Citing a preliminary study from Massey University looking at grass production under solar farms, Hay said benefits from shading from the panels could make a positive difference to the site’s productivity.

Results from the study indicate pasture growth was reduced by 84 per cent directly under the panels, but increased by 38 per cent in the larger areas between panels.

Due to the raised elevation and non-fixed panel structure of the Far North Solar Farm proposal, Hay said the benefits would come from intermittent shading. development in the event of an electrical fire.

Hay said the panels that would be imported for the farm are silicon-based, which “is non-toxic and does not pose a risk to public health or safety”.

“Unlike the wind power and EV sectors, the solar PV [photovoltaics] industry isn’t reliant on rare earth materials,” Hay said.

“Instead, solar cells use a range of minor metals including indium, gallium, selenium, cadmium, and tellurium.”

Prior to operation, an emergency response plan [ERP] would be developed with Fire and Emergency NZ [Fenz], which would also be consulted about the layout of the solar farm.

Hay said this relationship would ensure relevant mitigation to manage fire risk and other types of incidents and emergencies.

“There is a potential risk of fire everywhere, that’s why we have a fire service,” Hay said.

“Due to the level of investment and technology involved, the estimated risk of a fire in this solar farm is estimated to be very low.”

Citing this as “low risk”, Hay said no one would build solar farms if they regularly burnt down.

“We expect to invest tens of millions of dollars into the region by building the Greytown solar farm. We would not be doing so if we felt there was a risk of the facility burning down.”

Discussions with Fenz up to this point have not indicated there would be a need to use chemicals should a fire occur, Hay said.

Referencing a fire mitigation and management plan requested by SWWAG, Hay said all reports and plans with the solar farm are lodged with the council and discoverable.

“As stated previously, we have already worked closely with Fenz to design the solar farm in a manner that they are happy with. The ERP will be developed with them prior to operation, as they have agreed,” Hay said.

“SWWAG has no jurisdiction to request anything from us.”

As the solar panels have a 30-year life span according to the manufacturer, Hay said Hettige’s recycling qualms are not significant enough to warrant halting localised renewable energy development.

“According to data from European PV manufacturers, approximately 96 per cent of the materials from solar panels can be reused for producing new solar panels.”

While most of the components can be recycled, Hay said there is not yet a facility that does this on a large scale in NZ.

“The reality is not everything we use in our world can be recycled and we need to improve in every aspect of how we operate in this regard,” Hay said.

“For example, we currently export 11,000 tonnes of plastic overseas to be recycled because we can’t do it here – it doesn’t mean we ban the use of plastic.

“As New Zealand is yet to install solar energy on the same scale as other countries, we have not accumulated the same level of panel waste.”

Hay said placing a solar development on productive land – something SWWAG believe could impact its quality in the future – would “simply change the land use”.

“In this case, it will continue to be grazed, so will actually increase in productivity,” Hay said.

“Anyone who tries to use the ‘productive land’ argument against solar development just doesn’t want solar, not because they’re worried about preserving anything else.”

Citing a preliminary study from Massey University looking at grass production under solar farms, Hay said benefits from shading from the panels could make a positive difference to the site’s productivity.

Results from the study indicate pasture growth was reduced by 84 per cent directly under the panels, but increased by 38 per cent in the larger areas between panels.

Due to the raised elevation and non-fixed panel structure of the Far North Solar Farm proposal, Hay said the benefits would come from intermittent shading.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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