Once approved, a project planning permit is typically granted for a period of five years. The developer then has that period of time to fulfil and complete the various plans and assessments required by the permit in order to commence construction of the project, consistent within the permit conditions. It is quite common that construction is not completed within this five year period (or even commenced), where the developer then applies for an extension or renewal of the permit.
There have been numerous cases of projects where the permit has been extended or renewed for further periods, often with changes to the project’s design due to the ongoing technological evolution of wind turbines and solar arrays.
Elongated Time Frames
As a hypothetical example, design and development activities for a proposed wind farm may have commenced in the 2001-2002 timeframe. In 2005, an approved planning permit with a five year expiry may have then been issued to the wind farm. If construction of the wind farm had not commenced or been completed by the time the approved permit expired in 2010, upon request by the developer, the planning authority may have then approved the permit to be renewed for a further five years until 2015, with the renewal approval usually based on some level of commencement of the project. If the wind farm construction was then completed in 2015, the results of post-construction compliance testing (such as noise-testing) may not be known until the 2016-2017 timeframe.
Therefore, it is feasible that a period spanning 15 years or more can occur between the original prospecting at the wind farm site and the wind farm being fully operational with post-construction testing activities and other compliance reporting complete.
Delays between the time of obtaining a permit approval for a wind farm and the actual commencement of construction works can occur for a variety of reasons. Typical reasons include undertaking and obtaining approval for the various reports and plans required by the permit prior to construction commencement, changes in turbine selection and turbine layout (which may be a consequence of issues uncovered by fulfilling the permit conditions), delays in obtaining financial close and changes in government policy.
These lengthy timeframes for a wind farm project are significant and can raise a number of issues for consideration, including:
- Standards, such as noise standards, which may change over the course of the development process. For example, at the time of initial project development, the project and permit conditions may have been based on the NZS 6808:1998 noise standard. Although the standards may have been revised in the ensuing period, the project and permit will still be based on the 1998 standard, rather than the updated NZS 6808:2010 noise standard – even though the wind farm may have been built more than 15 years after the initial project’s development and well after the more recent standard came into effect.
- Setback distances policies (the minimum distance between a turbine and a residence) can also vary over time. As an example, a number of Victorian wind farms with current, renewed permits have no default setback distance provisions as the original permit was approved in the previous decade. Prior to 2011, there were no default setback distance requirements in Victoria. In 2011, a 2 km setback distance was introduced. The current default setback distance on Victoria is 1 km.
- Changes in standards and planning guidelines could therefore conceivably take many years from the time they are introduced to when they are written into planning permits for proposed wind farms.
- Technology, such as wind turbines, may also change over the project timeframe. The original project design and permit conditions may have been based on turbines of a certain energy capacity (for example, the original proposed turbine may have been 1.5 MW, whereas the developer now wishes to deploy 4.5 MW turbines) with changes to physical size dimensions (for example, higher turbine hub heights and longer blade diameters). As a result, the developer may decide to take advantage of the new technology and propose to change their turbine selection during the elongated time period. This change may potentially alter a number of material characteristics and impacts of the wind farm, including turbine layout, visual amenity, noise and shadow flicker. Such changes will likely result in the need for a formal modification (or endorsement) to the planning permit, re-opening the wind farm to potential objections and community concerns about the proposed changes.
- An emerging issue in the last two years has been the impact of the significant increase in wind turbine dimensions on transport routes and vegetation clearance along roadways – often leading to the need for a planning modification. The modification process may well reignite original debates and issues with the project, and add further delays to project start or completion.
- The transport plan itself also needs to be holistic and be carefully planned and mapped from port to project, with appropriate consultation with all relevant stakeholders that have jurisdiction along the proposed route. This consultation will need to be repeated if there is a change to the route and/or the impacts on related matters such as vegetation clearance and property access.
- The requirements on the developer to qualify for the ability to request a renewal of the permit for a further period may be minor relative to the total project scope (for example, the building of a simple shed or road access to the site) so to demonstrate some level of commitment to construct the project. These relatively minor works, when compared to the total proposed project, may be viewed as not substantial enough to warrant that the project has materially commenced within the permitted timeframe nor obligate the project in a way that it has no choice but to proceed.
- The community affected by the wind farm (including host landowners and neighbours) can be subjected to very long periods of uncertainty as to whether or not the project will proceed.
This uncertainty can affect a range of individual landowner and stakeholder decisions as well as discourage or prevent other potential development within the wind farm’s planning envelope.
- Community engagement may also not be sustained by the developer over long periods of uncertainty and may deteriorate during the elongated time frame.
- During an elongated development cycle, other wind farms may have been subsequently planned and/or constructed in the area, which may result in possible unforeseen cumulative impacts for nearby residents.
Depending on the jurisdiction, a developer may not need to assess a dwelling that is yet to be constructed, even though the dwelling has a valid, current planning permit and building permit. In effect, the layout of a potential wind or solar farm may take precedence over existing planned dwellings, resulting in the possibility of the planned dwelling being too close to turbines to meet noise limit and other setback requirements.
It would seem reasonable to expect that a proposed dwelling that has proper and current permits in place needs to be considered as a dwelling for project planning purposes, where the dwelling permits are already approved and in place prior to a wind farm permit application being submitted.
If the dwelling is subsequently not constructed and/or the permits expire, then the developer may choose to adjust the wind farm design accordingly.
Further, once a wind farm development is approved or constructed, persons wishing to build a dwelling or infrastructure within proximity of the wind farm should have their plans referred to the wind farm to check whether or not the dwelling is within compliance zones for matters such as noise and shadow flicker.
In some jurisdictions, planning permits are not required for transmission and other associated infrastructure to connect the wind farm to the grid. This lack of review and oversight can lead to a wide range of community issues related to the design, routing and installation of the transmission line and related assets. The prospect also exists for duplicative assets connecting each wind or solar farm to the grid, with no mandatory requirement to seek consolidation of such assets to minimise community impact and promote a more efficient use of capital.
In general, state governments are the designated responsible planning authority for large scale renewable projects. However, some exceptions exist. For example, Tasmania’s responsible authority for approval of wind farms is currently local government (although there are some proposed planning reforms which may affect this framework). Queensland also has delegated large-scale solar farms to local government as the responsible authority, as was the case in Victoria until recent changes.
Given the skills, resources and expertise required to properly assess and manage the planning process for these large-scale energy assets, it is strongly preferred that state governments retain responsibility for the planning process and approvals, along with compliance enforcement. Further, council’s may avoid decision making by simply declining the proposed project, resulting in an appeal to the appropriate state planning and environment court, adding further delays and costs in the process, with the state effectively being the planning authority in any case – via the court system.
4.2.1. A wind or solar farm planning permit should only be renewed for one further term as a maximum, unless there are exceptional circumstances that have caused a delay in commencement. Approval of permit renewals should require the developer to demonstrate the likelihood of the project commencing and being completed prior to the end of the requested/approved renewal period.
4.2.2. Requests for material changes to a wind farm’s proposed design and technology need to be scrutinised through an appropriate and rigorous process by the responsible authority. The process should be transparent to all stakeholders and include re-assessments of key impacts such as noise, visual amenity, environmental considerations, aviation, transport route, transmission requirements, shadow flicker and construction impacts.
4.2.3. The responsible authority should be able to reasonably introduce and apply current/updated planning guidelines, applicable standards and updated permit conditions when assessing a request to renew and approve a planning permit or modifications to the permit. For example, a developer seeking to renew a permit issued on 1 January 2015, expiring 31 December 2019, may be required to comply with any contemporary guidelines and standards currently in force that could be reasonably expected to be complied with and prepare the renewal submissions in accordance with those guidelines and standards.
4.2.4. Evidence of ongoing community engagement for the project should be submitted to the responsible authority when seeking a renewal approval or permit modification request. Submissions should include evidence of current community consultation efforts with regard to any proposed changes in the project design and layout subsequent to the original permit approval.
4.2.5. In considering a renewal or modification application, the responsible authority should assess any compounding effects of other proposed or constructed wind farms in the vicinity, in particular with respect to residents who may experience cumulative effects that may be exacerbated by the proposed wind farm that is seeking permit renewal approval.
4.2.6. Further to Recommendation 4.2.5, the responsible authority should assess the impacts of any other planning approval requests/approvals in the vicinity that have arisen subsequent to the original permit approval when considering the permit renewal application. These could include dwellings that had legitimate planning approvals prior to the project’s original permit being approved that have subsequently been built and are inhabited.
4.2.7. In the event that the project is seeking a renewal/extension of the permit period to allow a commenced project further time for construction completion, the responsible authority needs to be fully satisfied that material construction has already commenced and provide extensions only for the period where it would be reasonably expected for the remaining construction to be completed.
4.2.8. State governments should consider including relevant questions for prospective rural property purchasers to ask about potential wind or solar farms, in the vicinity of the property, in any due diligence ‘checklist’ that may accompany a contract of sale or vendor statement document.
4.2.9. Planned dwellings within proximity to a proposed wind or solar farm that have existing, approved and current planning and building permits, should be treated as an existing dwelling when preparing and submitting permit applications. Planned dwellings that subsequently are not constructed within the specified time limits, or have expired permits, can be removed as a constraint to the planning layout. See also recommendation 4.2.10 regarding development plans subsequent to a project planning permit being approved.
4.2.10. Neighbours to projects, where the project is in either development or in operation, should be allowed to submit development plans to the responsible planning authority for new development on their property, such as a dwelling or a shed. Development proposals within at least 1.5 km of a proposed or operating wind turbine, should be referred to the wind farm developer by the responsible authority for consultation and to verify impact levels of the wind farm at the proposed neighbour’s development site. Development proposals in locations where the wind farm is likely to exceed prescribed standards and limits may require written agreements to be reached between the neighbour and the wind farm before the neighbour’s development can be granted final approval by the Responsible Authority.
4.2.11. Transmission lines, substations and other related electrical infrastructure should all be subject to and require an appropriate and detailed planning permit, ideally as part of the overall permit for the project. Careful consideration should be given to the design and routing of the powerline. Proponents should collaborate wherever possible to optimise use of shared transmission facilities. Relevant governance bodies (transmission planning, electrical safety, road safety, local councils etc.) should be properly consulted on the project and exercise their oversight responsibilities accordingly.
4.2.12. State governments are best placed to be the responsible authority for large-scale renewable energy and storage projects. Local governments have a very important role to play in the planning process, road access, community engagement, construction and operation of the project, but should not be burdened with the overall planning and compliance responsibilities.