How social licence could shape large-scale solar

By Tom MeashamJanuary 28th, 2021

As large-scale solar farms continue to expand across regional Australia, CSIRO begins a unique study on public acceptance and its impacts on the industry's social licence.

Big solar farms are becoming more common across regional Australia, with the proposed development of the world’s largest solar array covering an area of 12,000 hectares (that’s around double the area of Sydney CBD and Melbourne CBD combined!). And there are others in the pipeline.

As with any industry, there is a need to ensure responsible development and to consider the industry’s social licence. CSIRO has begun a unique long-term study that investigates public acceptance of large-scale solar, including a review of existing literature about factors influencing social licence to operate in the solar industry, and a national survey on identified issues.

Large-scale solar on the move in Australia

Major changes are underway in Australia’s energy system. Solar is no longer just about the familiar roof-top domestic installations we see across our suburbs, or the medium-sized installations of local councils.

Solar installations are increasing in size and number around the country – providing a crucial supply of renewable energy, helping Australia to reduce emissions from energy generation, and contributing to a sustainable national energy system. This continued expansion of large-scale solar farms is a major part of the energy transition currently underway in Australia, and beyond.

Utility companies have been installing solar farms in the range of 200-400 hectares (around 100-200 times the size of the MCG) in regions across Australia. Future projects are expected to get even bigger with the proposed Sun Cable project in the Northern Territory expected to cover 12,000 hectares, connected by underwater cable to supply a fifth of the electricity needs of Singapore.

Compared to other countries, Australia can produce solar energy relatively cheaply and the price of solar power generation continues to fall, giving Australia a comparative advantage. The price of energy storage is also falling, providing even further opportunities.

Large solar array

Solar farm between Toowoomba and Dalby in central Queensland. Photo Credit: John Carnemolla.

Social acceptance: what do Australians think of large-scale solar?

To date, large-scale solar farms have experienced a relatively high level of social acceptance compared with other forms of energy production. But as the solar industry continues to change, so too do community expectations.

Research on social licence shows that public acceptance of an industry can change rapidly. We know from other sectors that changes in people’s views can be catalysed by adverse events, legal challenges, media reports or persuasive films. Any risks around an energy technology may be amplified quickly via the fast news cycles afforded by mass and social media.

In addition, local acceptance of a project or industry may not ensure wider public acceptance (or vice versa). And we don’t need to look too far to see this playing out in renewable energy, given the turbulence of acceptance and rejection experienced in the wind industry.

The reasons why an industry may experience reduced public acceptance may be real or perceived. Public acceptance can cover a range of factors, such as health impacts, aesthetics, waste, economics and biodiversity loss. And each of these factors, as well as the perceived advantages and disadvantages, can be measured and modelled.

What are the social acceptance issues?

A recent literature review published by CSIRO looks into potential social licence issues for the large-scale solar industry and considers a range of social, environmental and economic factors.

One of these factors is whether the economic benefits for communities close to solar farms aligns with public expectations. At the local scale, aesthetic effects from solar PV are likely to be the main perceived negative impacts, along with competing agricultural land uses and environmental concerns associated with local developments. Developers should therefore carefully consider where projects are situated to avoid impinging on other high-value land uses, such as agriculture, and to avoid ecological damage.

At a national level, reliability and affordability of electricity for households are also important factors that are likely to affect the degree to which solar energy is accepted by the public.

This review asks what might affect the continued acceptance of large-scale solar farms by local and regional communities, and how these communities may realise local benefits.

Where to from here: researching social licence for large-scale solar

The review also identifies important gaps for further research. It highlights the need for more attention around the number, type and location of direct jobs in the solar industry. Where will the jobs be in renewables? What sort of jobs are they and how well do they align to community expectations over time? In addition to direct employment, what kind of indirect jobs are feasible if renewable energy can be used to support new industries? These are important questions as Australia increases the number of renewable energy zones around the country.

Waste is another area for future consideration, especially when solar panels start to reach the end of their lifecycle. What are public expectations around dealing with end-of-life issues for solar farm installations and managing waste in the long-term? And how well does the reality of increasing numbers of large-scale solar farms align to our overall expectations over time? It is important to consider Australians’ tolerance for new infrastructure, increased investment, energy disruption and the cost of power moving forward; how will we manage potential trade-offs in this energy transition?

The energy transition – a social process and a technical one

This review led to a social science research study into societal acceptance of large-scale solar development. A national survey has been created to consider public views on various-sized solar developments in regional Australia. Questions cover perceived risks and impacts, possible benefits and potential support of, or resistance to, large-scale solar developments. The data will help inform government and industry of any issues the public might have with the ongoing acceptance of solar developments.

This research emphasises that the energy transition is as much a social process as a technical one. The key to success is to develop socially acceptable renewable energy infrastructure and installations for sustainable, reliable, cost-effective energy.

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