On green rolling hills amid prime grazing and wine country, many landholders near Gulgong thought they lived in the promised land. That was until a huge solar farm plan arose on the horizon.
Vicki Walsh had returned from the centre of Australia with her husband Max, who was recovering from cancer, to Gulgong, an area Max grew up in, to run cattle. Casey Dirk bought two small blocks of land, one as a promise to his son and his future, and ran his blueblood stock horses on the other. Angus cattleman Alan Pinnock, who lives in Gulgong, but owns several blocks outside town, thought he was in area where he could feel the spirit of bush poet Henry Lawson rising up.
But what none of them thought, including one couple who had just bought a subdivided block near Beryl substation, was that a 206-hectare, 95 megawatt solar farm would arise in their area.
The plan to build the ‘state significant’ solar farm has divided the Gulgong community. Known as the Beryl Solar Farm, because of its proximity to the substation, the internationally-renowned photovoltaic (PV) company, First Solar, has an option to buy a parcel of land for the solar farm if the NSW Department of Planning approves the project.
Public submissions on the project closed last week, and Mid-Western Regional Council has put in a submission to the NSW government citing issues with noise during construction, disturbance to aboriginal artefacts, and risks to threatened vegetation including box-gum grassy woodlands. But because the project is of state significance (over $30m in value), the council has no veto on the plan.
What seems to have angered many Gulgong landholders who face looking at a hillside of solar panels, is the lack of consultation. Already a laneway has been blocked off where locals used to ride their horses.
Vicki Walsh, “Willow Bend”, says moving back to Gulgong from Alice Springs, Northern Territory, was a dream for her husband, Max, 10 years ago when he was recovering from cancer. Mrs Walsh expresses the opinions of many in the area: “We thought this was our future, now we find we’ll be overlooking 100 acres of solar panels. We just can’t understand why good rural land and is being taken up by industry.” The lack of consultation has hurt many.
“Why do they have to have it so close to town?”. Most know the main reason is to save on infrastructure costs as the project will be in arm’s reach of the substation. Most believe solar is a great idea, and will readily agree it’s a case of “not in my backyard”. Mrs Walsh says they should build the solar farm out on Ulan road.
Most landholders close to Beryl substation fear the value of their land will depreciate. Casey Dirk says he did not know anything about the development until someone told him. He’ll see the solar farm from his front verandah. “We’ve been offered no compensation,” he says.
Alan Pinnock is worried about the fire risk from the solar farm. “We’ve already have been burnt out once from a fire at the Beryl substation,” he said.