Getting your renewable energy project through planning and approvals

June 21, 2022

The planning and approvals system is complex, and its potential impact on the cost, timeframe and overall success of your renewable energy or storage project should never be underestimated.

Investing time and energy in planning for project approvals makes it more likely that your project will get off the drawing board and into reality. The following principles can help you smooth the process and avoid common pitfalls.

Understand constraints and impacts

The planning system tends not to differentiate between various forms of renewable energy generation, constraining all forms due to the perception and experience of those forms with greater perceived impacts (such as wind farms). Yet each project is unique, as is every piece of land – so each development will bring different values, impacts and benefits into play.

Getting the earliest possible understanding of the environmental and approval constraints over the development site will help reduce risk and avoid a later re-design.

All developments have potential impacts. Communities may be concerned about potential impacts on human health, biodiversity, heritage impacts, visual amenity, noise, changes in land use, construction impacts, just to name a few. However, it is generally ecology and heritage that make or break a project because there may be underlying regulatory requirements associated with existing overlays that prohibit or limit development.

Particularly in the Commonwealth jurisdiction, but increasingly across all state jurisdictions, developers must clearly demonstrate how the project has avoided and reduced impacts, rather than merely offsetting them by purchasing parcels of land elsewhere. Some states actually require the developer’s option analysis process to be documented. Only when the authorities are satisfied that the project has actively avoided and reduced impacts, will they negotiate what mitigation methods are preferable.

Communities are often concerned about visual amenity, so this analysis should be done early as part of identifying ‘red flags’ or constraints. When used properly, visual impact assessment can be a powerful way to design sensitively and responsibly, reducing impacts on views.

The overall impact assessment often takes into account the context of the new development, such as whether it is in pristine environment or existing built-up or industrial areas. An increasing trend is to redevelop brownfield sites for renewable energy or storage projects, instead of focusing solely on greenfield prospects. There is enormous potential to re-use existing infrastructure, former industrial sites or degraded sites, such as mine sites which are no longer viable or operational or former thermal power station sites. This can complement the existing management and rehabilitation regime for these sites which often have very poor environmental conditions, making projects rewarding for the developer and the community.

Get to grips with the regulatory landscape

Depending on the scale, location and potential impacts of the project, approvals may be required at the Commonwealth level (through the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999), the state level (through the implementation of state environmental protection legislation), and the local level (through the implementation of a local development control plan or planning scheme).

These three levels interact differently in each state and for different processes. Some states have very streamlined and integrated approvals processes for large-scale projects which can coordinate Commonwealth requirements and facilitate local government discussions, making the process easier for the proponent or consultant. In other states, consultants often coordinate the different levels of processes, navigating the greater potential for conflicting or onerous requirements across the Commonwealth, state and local level.

Don’t launch into writing the approvals document without first conducting a mapping exercise and developing an approvals strategy. The approvals strategy helps map out all Commonwealth, state and local government requirements across each project component (e.g. a transmission line on a road reserve will often have different environmental values and require different approvals than a transmission line across a farm paddock). This will help you understand what approvals will likely be required and where dependencies exist. Your approvals strategy should be a live document, reviewed whenever there are changes to the project or legislation.

Building a transparent and honest relationship with the regulator/s is a worthy investment, and a consultant can lead this relationship for you. By listening to the regulator/s, paying attention to their advice, and changing the project’s design accordingly, a developer may be able to pre-empt or avoid conditions being applied to the project.

Develop a solid submission

Once the approval requirements are confirmed, detailed technical studies are essential for clearly demonstrating that the issues are understood and that the development (and any mitigation or management measures) is appropriate.

Target the application documentation to match and address the requirements of the relevant development control document, drawing on the conclusion of the technical studies. Include a summary of the proposal that identifies the key issues and mitigation measures, as well as the detailed technical studies underpinning the planning assessment.

Manage conditions

When permits are issued, it is common for there to be a number of conditions requiring further actions or additional documentation. Once you have a permit, create a conditions management plan to lay out clearly what all parties involved in the project need to do. Determine when the conditions apply (e.g. pre-construction, construction, post-construction or during operations) and who should be responsible. This will reduce the risk of not complying, which may be an oversight but could result in action by the responsible authority or, in some cases, lapsing of the permit.

Take the community with you, right from the start

It is important to differentiate between planning for and planning with communities. Those who will be impacted – whether positively or negatively, and over the short or long term – need to be involved in the process. A developer, owner or operator should identify and meet as many different stakeholders in the community as possible to get to know their individual interests and needs.

Engaging with the host community early in the development stages is key to a successful project and developers may be required to demonstrate that they have done so, even before submitting a permit application. This will help assure authorities (and potential buyers) that the project has a ‘social licence’ to operate.

By engaging early, the developer will have time to explain how the technology works, outline the construction process, and conduct a social risk assessment. Engagement should preferably be face-to-face and consistent. People are far more likely to accept projects when they feel that they have been included, heard and respected.

A particular consideration for large-scale developments is that sites are often located in areas outside of council jurisdiction, some of which are state-owned and can be subject to existing leasing arrangements. More remote areas also have greater potential to involve existing Native Title rights. Planning with genuine respect and acknowledgement of Indigenous communities is crucial, but often undervalued. First Nations/traditional owner groups should not be treated like any other stakeholder but as a land-owner (because they are, and governments are increasingly recognising this).

The task of building the community’s confidence in a project is sometimes difficult. The best approach is to communicate any foreseeable short-term and long-term impacts as early as possible and in an open and non-defensive manner. Listening to the community and working together to identify social and environmental risks will help build trust between the project team and stakeholders, and result in a development the community are proud of.

Give your project the beginning it deserves

Ultimately, there’s nothing to be gained by cutting corners or rushing these processes. Your best chance of planning success is through exploring and understanding – at the very earliest opportunity– the development control provisions, permits, consents and the levels of assessment that are required, obtaining high-quality and comprehensive specialist studies, and getting off on the right foot with the project’s stakeholder and community. Your project and your reputation will benefit from doing at least what is required and, preferably, even more. What you put into your ‘once upon a time’ will dictate whether you can reach a ‘happily ever after’.

If you would like to discuss how Entura can help you with your environmental or planning project, please contact us.

About the author

Bunfu Yu is an Environmental Planner with experience across multiple Australian jurisdictions, including Commonwealth, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland. She advises on a variety of land use and development issues, and scopes environmental and planning projects with a focus on water, energy and electricity infrastructure for a range of clients, including private developers, state utility providers and government agencies. She has qualifications in planning and science, is a sessional lecturer at the University of Tasmania, and serves as a committee member for the Planning Institute of Australia Tasmanian Division and a member of the National Policy and Advocacy Committee of the Planning Institute of Australia.

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