By Jonathan Mills | 10 Dec 2020

Within 15 years, four of NSW’s five coal power stations are expected to reach the end of their operational lifespan, representing a loss of three quarters of NSW electricity supply.

The NSW Government has introduced a Bill (Electricity Infrastructure Investment Bill 2020) which aims to further develop the state’s renewable energy infrastructure and give effect to the NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap. Will this bill help the transition to an affordable, reliable, and clean energy future for NSW?

The Bill aims to encourage investment from developers, minimising uncertainty regarding the availability and costs of suitable transmission grid connection and capacity. A Minister for Energy and Environment will be granted the power to provide financial and technical certainty with the allocation of Renewable Energy Zones (REZs). First announced in 2018, REZs involve the coordinated development of new transmission grid infrastructure, connecting facilities such as solar and wind farms in energy-rich areas, while capitalising on economies of scale.

The Bill also provides a pathway for the private sector and landowners to seek a renewable energy zone declaration from the Minister for Energy and Environment, the objective being to allow the delivery of non-government-led renewable energy zones. The NSW Government will work with any community in the State that wants to host a REZ and unlock the Roadmap’s economic benefits.

The NSW Government aims to ensure there is a coordinated approach to the planning and delivery of transmission infrastructure projects across infrastructure type.  An ’Infrastructure planner’ will be appointed by the Minister to assess and recommend network infrastructure options for renewable energy zones and coordinate the design and development of REZs.

The Energy Corporation of NSW is to be appointed as the infrastructure planner for the five planned REZs, however there may be different infrastructure planners for future REZs or for different functions within a REZ.

Part of the Infrastructure Planner’s role will be to ensure strategic coordination of community and stakeholder management, helping to establish the social licence for new REZ infrastructure. This an important step, as meaningful consultation and obtaining social license is key to developing these types of projects. Social licence can also be used as a lever for streamlining planning pathways.

Transmission and energy generation projects proposed in REZs will still require development application approval via a regional planning panel, or under the state significant assessment pathways and associated regulatory framework.

Urbis advocates a fast-tracked planning process, particularly for developer-led proposals. Excessive assessment timeframes, costs and uncertainty within the planning system would be minimised, encouraging investment in REZs targeted by the NSW Government.

The following quick wins could enable a fast-tracked planning process:

  1. All projects over 30MW (consistent with the minimum for eligibility in REZ) should be assessed as State Significant Development and require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. This would ensure that the same guidelines and standards are applied to proposals within REZs and are held to clear technical standards, allowing consistent quality and surety of development.
  2. The NSW Government could produce land use planning maps for REZs, broadly indicating the preferred development types by area. For example, wind turbines should be located away from population centres and in elevated locations, while solar farms are suited to areas closer to populations and on flat land. This would accelerate the developer site selection process and could be aligned with engagement requirements.
  3. Facilitate a reduction in timeframes for the development application process by allowing renewable energy developments to be eligible for the NSW Planning System Acceleration Program and support from Regional Development NSW. A requirement for early consultation within REZs could further enable developments to benefit from a streamlined state agency referral process, further reducing timeframes.

These standards and changes could be incorporated into the existing State Environmental Planning Policy (Infrastructure) 2007. In coordination with existing systems in the NSW planning system such as the planning system acceleration program, these changes could be implemented quickly without new planning instruments needing to be created. The requirement for proactive engagement with communities, government and other stakeholders could also be stipulated.

Victoria announced in their November budget $540 million to help set up six REZ’s across the state. This differs from NSW’s emphasis on encouraging private sector investment to the tune of $32 billion, while providing support in the form of a framework and legislation for REZ’s.

Victoria’s approach is focused on rectifying issues with the transmissions network and encouraging renewable developers though schemes such as the Victorian Renewable Energy Auction scheme where they are testing market interest in building 600MW of generating power for government buildings and infrastructure.

The NSW Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2020 and NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will help to alleviate some uncertainties encountered by renewable energy developers relating to site selection, grid connection and economic viability of projects.

As well as responding to the upcoming phased closure of existing coal generating plants, these measures may help reverse a significant decline in investment in large-scale renewable energy projects in Australia which has been noted by developers and industry bodies.

However, renewable energy projects will still need to account for the timeframes and costs associated with planning approvals. The development of a consistent and fast-tracked planning process in REZs would encourage faster development of renewable energy generating facilities and ensure that NSW is first choice for investment.

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