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Solar And Ecological Restoration Combine In Mackenzie Basin

A solar farm proposed for the Mackenzie Basin that would produce enough renewable electricity to power around 100,000 homes would also see the creation of the largest ecological restoration project ever undertaken in the area, developers say.

A resource consent application to construct the 420MWp solar farm on 670ha of leasehold farmland near the northern shore of Lake Benmore has been submitted to the Mackenzie District Council and Environment Canterbury.

The project is proposed by utility-scale solar developer Far North Solar Farm (FNSF) and is part of a larger pipeline of 11 solar farm sites totalling 1.4GWp of renewable energy capacity the company has in various stages of development throughout the country.

The site near Twizel is currently used to support cropping and dairy and was specifically chosen as it is flat and sits within an already highly modified landscape of existing power infrastructure beside the Ohau C hydropower station and national electricity grid transmission lines. Close proximity to grid connection points is a vital element of successful solar farm design.

FNSF director John Telfer says at least 89ha of the site would be ecologically restored and the company was actively working with stakeholders to refine how other conservation values could also be achieved.

“The environmental restoration plans will see upwards of 500,000 native plants indigenous to the area reintroduced, providing a significant increase in the overall ecological value of the site as it currently exists. On top of that, we’re also looking at how we can use the solar farm to act as a sanctuary for some of the lesser known but equally threatened insect species we have in the Mackenzie”.

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“Panels will only cover around 30% of the entire site and the perimeter will be fenced off from pests, so it’s perfect for invertebrates. Everyone involved is excited by the conservation potential we could achieve, and we’ve been told nothing else like it has ever been attempted in the Mackenzie on this scale,” Telfer says.

Telfer said the company was aware of a recent decision to refuse consent for a solar farm near Tekapo due to ecological concerns.

“One of the main differences, we think, with this proposed site is that farming activities have already destroyed any ecological value, there’s nothing left to protect. By developing a solar farm on the site, we achieve the common good of creating renewable energy which can help displace the remaining electricity in our system still generated from fossil fuels, but we also displace the nutrients currently going onto the land to support farming operations.”

Telfer said they were acutely aware the site area is identified as an Outstanding Natural Landscape in the Mackenzie District Plan.

However, because the solar panels will sit no more than 2.2m above ground at their highest point once operational, their visual impact will be limited by the flat nature of the entire area.

“A landscape and visual assessment report shows the solar farm will not be seen from the most frequented public places in the area, including SH8 and Twizel township,” Telfer says.

New Zealand has committed to an aspirational target of 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030 yet as much as 15 percent of the country’s electricity is currently generated by burning fossil fuels. With rising demand for electricity, the country is in desperate need of new renewable energy generation technologies such as solar power if it is to meet its obligations and help protect future generations from the negative effects of climate change.

Once operational, the solar farm would generate enough renewable energy to effectively displace emissions from up to 45,000 cars. FNSF have requested the resource consent be notified for public discussion and are engaging with other relevant stakeholders while the application is considered.

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