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The surprising way renewables can help farmers cope

Tom Warren, a farmer whose land hosts a solar farm near Dubbo, says more renewables will help revive regional economies.

Tom Warren, a farmer whose land hosts a solar farm near Dubbo, says more renewables will help revive regional economies.Credit:Janie Barrett

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This week, the government said the plan to foster installation of 3000 megawatts of new-generation capacity in the Central West renewable zone had drawn interest from investors for nine times that amount.

So strong was the response, Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean said, that “there’s absolutely room to increase the capacity”. The other two zones, in New England and the Riverina, are also likely to attract strong interest.

Some 450 jobs would be created in the first zone based on the 3000MW goal, drawing in new industries, Mr Kean said.

“It will see Dubbo and the Central West become the powerhouse of NSW and the powerhouse of our nation,” he predicted. “It’s a win for NSW, delivering cheap, clean energy.”

Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro, who has often advocated coal and gas over renewables, has lately been more supportive of the jobs wind and solar farms can bring to rural communities.

“We need to build diversity in our local economies,” Mr Barilaro said at the Dubbo solar farm.

“The ability for a landholder to have a solar farm or have wind turbines … gives him off-farm income,” he said. “It means you can future-proof the regions.”

Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro (left) with Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders and Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean (right), at the South Keswick solar farm near Dubbo.

Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro (left) with Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders and Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean (right), at the South Keswick solar farm near Dubbo.Credit:Janie Barrett

Mr Kean said “no one would be a bigger beneficiary than the farmers” but consultation would be key.

“We want to work with you,” Mr Kean. “We want to get the balance right between our state’s energy needs and also to support the agricultural production that we rely so heavily on from this region.”

Mr Warren said he would welcome visitors to his farm, run by France-based renewables developer Neoen, if they needed reassurance about the benefits of clean energy.

“It’s tremendous,” Mr Warren said of the potential for renewable energy’s growth. “This can drive the decentralisation of industry — this to me is the future of regional Australia.”

Garth Heron, Neoen’s head of development in Australia, said his firm had lodged interest for five projects within the Central West renewable zone. If they proceeded, they would total more than 1GW of solar, wind and batteries and require at least $1 billion to build.

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Falling costs of renewables and storage meant they were becoming more competitive against new coal and gas plants and were closing in on existing coal plants.

“Average wholesale power prices in Australia are about $70-$90,” Mr Heron said. “We’d be looking at two-thirds of that in terms of firmed power [involving both renewables and batteries].”

The company already has 1.3GW of capacity in Australia, making the country Neoen’s biggest single market. That tally will pass 2GW within 18 months even before any new Central West projects start.

“It’s a great time to be in this sector,” Mr Heron said. “This is the tipping point.”

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