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Gina Rinehart says renewable energy could use one-third of Australia’s prime agricultural land. Is she right?

The figure is based on an Institute of Public Affairs report, but its extrapolations have been described as ‘ridiculous’

Sheep graze under a wind turbine near Lake George, north-east of Canberra. Critics of the IPA report say it does not allow for the fact that grazing or cropping is commonplace under windfarms. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Wind and solar farms are popping up in renewable energy zones and designated development areas around Australia. Within those zones, it can feel as though new projects are everywhere: on your property or your neighbour’s, on the hills into town.

Fuelling this narrative is Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, who said at an event naming her as the Australian Financial Review’s 2024 business person of the year that one-third of Australia’s “prime agricultural land” could be “taken over” by renewable energy projects, particularly solar.

That figure comes from a report released this month by the Institute of Public Affairs. The report by the rightwing thinktank, which has consistently advocated against emissions reductions policies and called for Australia to pull out of the Paris agreement, claims that one-third of Australia’s agricultural land would “have to be sacrificed” to renewable energy developments to meet Australia’s energy needs with a 50:50 mix of wind and solar by 2050.

According to the Australia Institute, the Clean Energy Council and projections by the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo), both the IPA’s prediction on the amount of area required and the demand assumptions it is based on are incorrect.

“I can’t overstate how ridiculous the extrapolations in this report are,” says Australia Insitute principal adviser Mark Ogge.

The energy demand claim

The report forecasts that energy demand in Australia will grow to 15,459 terawatt hours by 2050 – more than 30 times the projections by Aemo and the Net Zero Australia report of 420TWh and 450TWh respectively.

Nicholas Aberle, director of energy generation and storage at the Clean Energy Council, says basing energy demand calculations not on actual demand but on the potential energy value of fossil fuel resources has “fabricated a scenario which forecasts more than 30 times the energy requirements detailed in expert analysis by the Australian Energy Market Operator and the Net Zero Australia report”. The analysis contained in the IPA’s report also “ignores critical facts that do not support a pre-determined view of Australia’s clean energy transformation”, Aberle says.

Dr Kevin You, the author of the IPA’s report and a senior research fellow at the institute, rejected criticism of his analysis, describing it as “weasel words from the climate lobby” that are “desperate and have no credibility”. He argued critics of the analysis had grossly misrepresented the report.

A spokesperson for Rinehart confirmed her comments were in reference to information published by the IPA, and said they related to the loss of prime agricultural land – not agricultural land as a whole. They said the IPA was “renowned over many years for their meticulous research”.

The IPA report does not refer to “prime agricultural land”, but a press release that accompanied its release did so.

The IPA analysis is based on the assumption that renewable energy will have to “proportionally replace all the energy attributable to Australia’s hydrocarbon fuel production as of today, including for export purposes”.

Ogge says the report is based on primary energy – all the energy used in the current processes of power generation – not energy demand or even the current delivered energy output of coal-fired power stations. He says that results in a “200% exaggeration of demand figures”.

“With fossil fuels, most of the energy is lost as heat – in coal-fired power stations, 60% is lost as heat,” Ogge says. “They are saying that renewables have to generate enough energy to cover the heat lost by fossil fuels. It’s a crazy assumption.”

The land claim

After making these assumptions about energy demand, the report sets out to calculate “how much land will be required if energy from wind and solar were to replace all the energy contained in the hydrocarbon fuels (coal, gas, and oil) produced in Australia each year”. The figure it arrives at is between 57m and 181m hectares by 2050.

According to the Clean Energy Council, replacing all Australia’s coal-fired power stations with solar farms would take less than 0.016% of the country’s land area, equivalent to 0.027% of agricultural land, on a calculation of two hectares per 1MWdc of installed solar capacity. But it notes it is “unlikely” that the 50GW of renewable energy needed to replace retiring coal-fired power station would be generated by solar farms alone.

It says this impact can be further minimised by pursuing solar projects that can be integrated with agricultural production.

In New South Wales, where concentrated development in renewable energy zones has caused angst in some local communities, a 2022 report by the NSW agriculture commissioner says it “it seems unlikely” that the total area of rural land to be converted to renewable energy production would exceed 80,000ha and is “more likely” to be about 55,000ha. That’s 0.1% of rural land in NSW. However, the commissioner notes there will be “many small local effects … and it is important these local impacts be minimised”.

The IPA’s report also does not include rooftop solar – which in the first quarter of 2023 was the single biggest contributor of renewable energy to the National Electricity Market – nor does it include offshore wind, hydro or other electricity generation sources. It also does not account for greater efficiency in energy use due to electrification.

According to Aemo, one-third of all detached homes in the national grid – most of which are in cities – have rooftop solar panels. By 2050 rooftop solar is expected to account for 72GW of Australia’s energy production, compared with 70GW from utility-scale wind and 55GW from solar farms.

What about shared land use?

The suggestions around loss of agricultural land assume that all renewable energy would be built on agricultural land and do not account for mixed use under solar and windfarms.

About 97% of land under onshore windfarms is either grazed or cropped, says Karin Stark from Farm Renewables Consulting, and there is growing work on using the land under solar farms.

“You can’t really include the area that a windfarm covers as being taken out of farming,” she says.

Stark co-authored a report released last month called Pursuing an Agrivoltaic Future in Australia about the opportunities associated with integrating solar developments and agriculture, and the policy settings required to help it along.

Grazing sheep under solar panels is already a common practice and has the dual benefit of keeping grass low to reduce the fire risk as well as providing shade and protection from predators for sheep, resulting in increased soil moisture, increased grazing time and a reduction in lamb loss.

But Stark says most of these arrangements have been put in place after the solar farms were developed and that considering agricultural co-design earlier in the design process would allow for more productive shared use. There are examples in the US and Europe of co-locating solar panels and horticultural crops, particularly berries and leafy greens.

“Farming can actually benefit from having solar on the land because of the increased soil moisture, reduced irrigation demands and partial shade, which is becoming more and more important in Australia as the climate warms,” Stark says.

Hosting a renewable energy project also allows farmers to diversify their income and increases resilience through unproductive years.

Stark, who lives on a farm in the central west Orana renewable energy zone in regional NSW, says she understands the rush of development can feel overwhelming for farmers living in renewable energy zones, and the rollout has not always been handled well.

“It can feel like it’s all around you,” she says. “Farmers aren’t really being supported in this transition to understand their rights.”

That makes it even more important to counter misinformation, she says.

“It is a big deal for regional communities if they see productive land being taken out of supply for energy production,” she says. “It’s very ideological, so trying to put facts around it doesn’t always convince people. We need more meaningful engagement.”

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