Cane farmer Colin Ash at his property in Mirani, Queensland: ‘You just can’t get sentimental about these things.’ Photograph: Ben Smee for the Guardian
As solar farms spread across the central agricultural regions of the sunshine state, opponents are becoming increasingly vocal
Colin Ash has spent a working lifetime in the cane fields near the Pioneer River in central Queensland, out past Marian, where the mill has processed sugar for more than 130 years.
“You can’t get sentimental about things,” he says from the front seat of his truck as he drives slowly around the boundary of his property. “You’ve got to pay your bills.”
Almost two years ago Ash agreed to allow a solar energy company, Esco Pacific, to lease 169 hectares – about half his land – to build a solar farm of about 180,000 panels.
The scenario is increasingly common as renewables projects spread across the sunshine state, in some cases swallowing large parcels of productive agricultural land. Clean energy offers billions in potential investment and thousands of jobs for regional Queensland. But it also faces on-the-ground challenges, including turf wars with intensive farming that threaten to hamper the energy sector’s transition.
Ash’s decision to offer up part of his Mirani property for solar has made him something of a divisive figure locally. Two fellow growers objected, as did the company that buys and refines his cane, Mackay Sugar. Mackay regional council, whose planning officers had backed the project, voted to reject the application. Legal action is afoot.
Whenever he’s asked about the state of the sugar industry or the challenges faced by cane growers, Ash just makes a downward motion with his arm.
He wanders around his block, pointing to patches of standover cane – left unharvested from the previous season – where solar panels will ultimately be placed. He says part of the field to be given to the solar company was planted with cane just four years ago.
“If I had my time over again I wouldn’t have planted it, the way the industry has gone,” Ash says. “When [the solar plan] come around, the way the industry was going, it was going backwards and it was one way of diversifying into something that’s friendly, it’s not going to do harm.
“And if it doesn’t work, well, they’ll reinstate the ground back to how it was. You’re not putting it under cement or doing that sort of thing.”
‘It’s a very sunny place’
Modelling released by the Climate Institute last year showed Queensland had the potential to power 4m homes through renewable energy projects and create more than 7,000 jobs over the next decade, many of them in north and central Queensland where many local economies are struggling with high unemployment and the hit-and-miss legacies of mining and gas booms. The number of jobs on offer is considerably more than at Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, a project touted by many in these parts as an economic saviour.
Andrew Stock, an energy expert and councillor for the Climate Council, says about $1.6bn of renewable investment is being built in Queensland.
“Obviously ... it’s a very sunny place so solar projects both large and small, are very well suited to Queensland and north Queensland,” he says. “The amount of energy they can generate ... is among the highest output of any solar farms in Australia.”
The clean energy regulator says the government’s 2020 renewable energy target has effectively been met by projects either built or under construction. Incentives have led to an industry boom but there is a danger it will shift to bust without changes to policy settings and planning regulations that could threaten the pace of the renewable transition.
Stock says the federal government’s national energy guarantee is “woefully inadequate” and will bring forward no new renewable energy capacity over the next decade.
“If electricity demand doesn’t grow, and no existing coal plants shut, the modelling by the energy security board last year shows there are virtually no new renewables ... that need to be built,” he says.
“And that’s potentially a problem for renewables, that pipeline of investment projects, probably between $7bn to $10bn worth of investment, many thousands of jobs ... and that’s all put at risk because under the Neg, the emissions reduction requirements mean that there’s virtually no new renewable capacity that’s needed.”