The Gannawarra Shire is located in north west Victoria, midway between Swan Hill and Bendigo. Bordered by the Murray River and Gunbower State Forest to the north east, and the Mallee to the west.
Predominately a rural farming community that has had its fair share of economic setbacks over the past 20 odd years. Droughts floods and falling commodity prices – a typical rural economy.
I have a simple philosophy for Economic development and that is about playing to your strengths and understanding what the real capacity is. Don’t waste time chasing rainbows or hoping for things to happen. Recognise your strengths and start to use them in a way that adds commercial value.
Part of our strategy is diversity, especially in agriculture. Maximise our land and water resources and look at creative ways to better use our natural resources. Easy to say but extremely hard to achieve.
The Gannawarra Shire Economic Development Strategy 2011 – 2015 had a key focus area titled “Facilitate the Development of Gannawarra Shire as an Environmental Leader”. The rationale was to utilise the available land in the Gannawarra Shire for a range of projects that link closely to the environment. Projects linked to waste, energy, carbon offsets and business with environmental requirements. It was time to think strategically about the future and about how we could use our natural environment for commercial benefit while retaining strong environmental values.
Our target of large scale solar was deliberate. We had the infrastructure, 220, 66 and 22kv transmission networks plus a large capacity terminal station. The solar resource is very good and we had land available in strategic locations.
A massive learning curve has commenced as we sought to connect with as many industry people as possible. I still remember a regulatory person telling me early on that solar farms around Kerang might scare away the many migratory birds that inhabit the wetlands. Everyone was learning!
We identified land and infrastructure and mapped the locations in readiness for development. We also established relationships with landowners and conducted desk top analysis of the sites. Our goal was to be investment ready and to be able to respond quickly to any opportunities.
A solar prospectus was developed in conjunction with City of Greater Bendigo and Loddon Shires. Two of our neighbouring Shires and municipalities we work closely with. This partnership gave us a higher level of political exposure as well as improving access to services. We used this document to sell the area and generate interest in large scale solar.
In around 2013 we issued three planning permits for 3 x 30mw solar farms located on the southern edge of Kerang and a stone’s throw to the terminal station. This was a major milestone. We continued to push for more development and in 2014 Solar Choice were issued a planning permit to build a 300MW solar farm west of Kerang. This was another major milestone and especially 300MW – that’s massive!
The RET review unlocked more developer confidence as did the ARENA funding and now the State Governments 75MW tender. Interest in the state tender for 75mw has been extremely strong and at the time of writing this article we have 8 projects proposed, totalling 620MW over 5,000 acres of land. Realistically there is likely to be attrition but it’s been an amazing transformation from the first time we started to think about renewables. There have been times when we could have given up and times when people doubted our direction but we held firm and stuck to our strategy knowing that it was only time against us.
With construction of the Solar Choice, Edify Energy, Wirsol project to start in May 2017, it’s an amazing feeling to finally see things happening. I just hope the community can see the new opportunities and leverage further benefits from these projects. If we work it right, I think it’s transformational.
We continued to believe that renewable energy had a place especially given its profile in Europe so we persevered and continued to talk up the potential. We had a very good understanding of the land and a good relationship with the landowners and this was a real bonus in our dealing. We pushed for WIN- WIN situations between landowners and developers and we recognised that our relationship with both parties was critical.
Our next stage will be to investigate base load generation to compliment the solar farms and to look at how we may take a small town off-line and what the benefits may be.
This work needs to fit in with our focus on our existing economic generators such as agriculture, retail, industrial and tourism. We have 2 strong strategic intentions. To brand Kerang as Victoria’s Solar Energy Capital and to brand Kerang, Cohuna, Koondrook as Victoria’s Nature based tourism destination.