Can a solar farm be a lambing paddock?

Solar farm offers dual purpose land use


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Soil and solar farmer Clint Nugent, “Balaclava", White Rock Creek, via Glen Innes, believes he can work under renewable energy and still produce prime lamb.

Soil and solar farmer Clint Nugent, “Balaclava", White Rock Creek, via Glen Innes, believes he can work under renewable energy and still produce prime lamb.

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Locked up land acquired to produce power may offer benefits when grazing sheep

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With wind towers up, slowly turning, and paddocks filling with black solar panels there is a change of landscape on the western slopes near Glen Innes.

Matheson farmer Clint Nugent, “Balaclava”, produces lambs and wool, beef, beans and corn. Lately he grows watts; millions of ’em.

The renewable energy farm “White Rock”, is named for the mountain whose headwaters run through Balaclava, an historic sprawling station of 4000 hectares originally selected by John Ross.

The geography appealed to Chinese turbine manufacturer Goldwind, in partnership with China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group Wind-Power Corporation. Now a number of 175 MW windmills pierce the skyline on the Nugent family’s property, among 70 in this first stage. 

“I was unsure about the project at first,” Mr Nugent said. “But a week after the first turbines went up there were ten cows and 100 sheep camped under them. I can see no impact. The closest one is four kilometres away from my place and they make a soft noise on a still night. I don’t notice them now.”

The latest energy addition has been the construction of a 31ha, 20 megawatt solar farm, comprising 30,000 by 350 watt, 37 volt panels on a framework that includes 16,000 posts, all enclosed behind nearly 3km of chain link fence, on country that never did produce a crop. “Too stoney,” Mr Nugent explains.

The family’s Ilparran Road enterprise leased part of their White Rock land to the renewable energy project, under a program which runs for a quarter century with the option to go again, and can still work in with another family enterprise of 100,000ha near Bourke, where there is plenty of solar energy.

Western classed-out ewes are brought east and crossed with Border Leicester to produce prime lamb. Now, it seems, those tender lambs have a new place to hide from predators – under rows and rows of sloping solar panels.

Mr Nugent reckons he’s got the best lambing paddock in the vicinity.

While cattle and goats are not allowed in the enclosure, because they would rub on or jump on the panels, sheep are most welcome to keep down the fire risk and, contrary to what you might expect, there may be no loss of productive land or Dry Sheep Equivalents, as a result of the solar farm.

A recent trial run of 700 sheep grazed the enclosed pasture down to manageable levels, which had grown riot before Christmas. Despite heat and dry and cracking soil through February there was enough soil moisture under the shade of those panels to produce grass. 

“I can only see this as being a good thing,” Mr Nugent said. “The panels will protect lambing ewes from eagles and ravens, the six-foot high exclusion fence (with a tail along the ground) will keep foxes, pigs and rabbits out. I reckon there will be more lambs. I can’t see a reduction in DSE at this stage.”

Next stage up for discussion

Disparity between neighbours who initially received no compensation versus those who did, has now been largely rectified. Much of the concern had to do with potential for reduced property values associated with visual amenity and potential hazard from subsonic noise. A study in South Australia is currently addressing the science behind claims of ill health as a result of sub sonic noise.

Stage two of the Whiterock project, with heavy traffic travelling through Ben Lomand ,is now up for public discussion, with 48 turbines, producing up to 202 MW, with tip to ground height increased to 200 metres.

Wind farm or weed farm?

Across the Gwyder highway at the Sapphire wind farm other neighbouring landowners are less generous with their judgement, and along with the change of horizon, that now involves flashing red lights at night as well as spinning rotors in the day, is the worry about weeds.

Hereford breeder Angus Vivers, Kings Plains, says he has concerns that land bought by Sapphire and destined to remain a “bio-bank”, to offset land used for renewable energy, will only become a weed source. “They tell me they can control the likes of St John’s Wort with a knapsack but I’ve been using a boom spray and can only just keep on top of it,” he said.

Mr Nugent is sympathetic to the concern, and worries himself about the incursion of African Lovegrass, St John’s wort and Chilean needle grass,  all of which have appeared beside access roads leading to wind turbines on his property.

“They were required to put in wash-down bays,” he said. “And they did. But the washdown didn’t work 100 per cent. However they have signed in writing that they will maintain weeds on the property for the next 25 years.”

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