‘For me, and others, it will be a disaster’
WHEN Tom Shew retired, he headed for the hills outside Warwick on the Darling Downs, choosing a home site overlooking the picturesque Freestone Valley.
But his idyllic views of lush farmland and dairy cattle are about to be blotted out by 250,000 large solar panels.
And it's a story that's about to be played out throughout regional Queensland.
Shew, 71, a horticultural scientist and educator, says he will have virtually no other views except the panels once the $125 million Freestone Valley project is complete.
"I will see solar panels from my living room, the bedroom, the rumpus room and the patio," he says. "For me, and many others, it will be a disaster."
Shew and his neighbours in the Sladevale community fear they will suffer reflective glare, as each of the 2.6m solar panels have been designed to tilt up and down to follow the path of the sun. Each panel has a little motor.
In its application, Terrain Solar said glare and noise would be minimal. However, Shew says a web-based interactive tool used to measure glare was fed the wrong co-ordinates.
He checked his address on Google Maps and discovered his longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates differ from those on the official assessment to council. Shew questions whether the GlareGauge desktop tool can accurately assess glare anyway, because of undulations in the ground.
His neighbour, Meryl Strand, 65, a foreign exchange analyst, agrees. She will see the panels from her bathtub.
Strand says Shew's research puts a cloud over the solar farm's approvals.
"It's shocking," she says.
Strand says the Southern Downs Regional Council made a dreadful mistake in approving the farm. "They dismissed legitimate community concerns about glare, noise, and the threat of fire and flooding," she says.
More than 40 more solar farms are planned for regional Queensland - two more near Warwick.
Unlike her hilltop neighbours, Karen Green, 55, says she will look up to the panels. Her farm is down the hill in flood-prone Campbell's Gully, and a corner of the solar farm will be just 32m from the corner post of her horse stud.
"It's on top of me. I'm in the corner looking up," she says.
Green fears the health effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the panels.
And she believes the solar farm will exacerbate flooding. "Solar panels do not have gutters," she says.
The community believes the solar farm should have been built away from families, perhaps on the unproductive Traprock country near the town dump. And they are right.
In a mad rush for unreliable renewable energy, 154.7ha of prime crop land will be sacrificed for an unsightly "factory" plonked down in the middle of a community that doesn't want it.
As well as the large, moving solar panels, residents will look down on a research centre and up to 20 electric current "inverters" the size of shipping containers.
Engineer Mark Pierce, who lives further down the hill, says each inverter has fans that will emit a humming sound.
Pierce, 42, does not believe the noise threat was properly assessed. And he raises questions about the roles of the University of Queensland and the Queensland Government in the approval process.
The project was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning and still is, he says.
Although the project was initiated by Sydney-based Terrain Solar, it will soon fall into the ownership of the university.
"We were not even told of University of Queensland's involvement until three hours after the council voted 5-4 to approve the solar farm," Pierce says.
Pierce and others I spoke to say they feel betrayed by the council, which had conducted private discussions with Terrain and the university without telling them.
Despite being taxpayer-funded, UQ will not tell me how much it paid Terrain. So much for transparency.
It is known the university's senate approved the purchase in October last year.
UQ received a loan from the Queensland Treasury Corporation, the State Government's financing arm, to pay Terrain. It declined to give details.
"We were kept in the dark all the way," Pierce says.
None of the families I spoke to believe UQ acted in the best interests of the community.
Strand is also furious that Mayor Tracy Dobie, who championed the project, failed to take the people most affected into her confidence.
"At the public meeting she said there would always be 'winners and losers' in a project such as this," she says. "It's shocking. I can't believe the Mayor said that."
Strand and Pierce are also concerned about statements Dobie made last month to the Warwick Daily News suggesting UQ had offered to put solar panels on council buildings and start an annual scholarship program for local students seeking to study an energy or engineering degree.
"It would be a tremendous outcome for our ratepayers if we were able to access some of this solar-generated electricity to power our facilities and to help reduce council's operating costs," she told the paper.
In a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the university and the council, UQ offers to investigate the possibility of supplying the council with "clean energy from the project at a competitive price … to help reduce council's operating costs".
And it offers a free electric vehicle-charging station for the general public.
Strand and Pierce are concerned about the timing of these sweeteners and whether they swayed the council.
However, Dobie denies the council was in any way influenced by the offers.
She says she and the councillors did have discussions with the university about three weeks before the vote. However, the cheap power offer and scholarships suggested in the MOU were not discussed, she says.
The MOU she signed with acting vice-chancellor Aiden Byrne was "non-binding", she says.
UQ is in a race to become the first major university in the world to offset 100 per cent of its electricity usage through its own renewable energy assets.
It seems to me the folk of Freestone Valley will become collateral damage in the process.
Vice-chancellor Peter Hoj says UQ may be energy neutral by 2020. The solar farm will generate about 154,000 megawatt hours of energy a year - enough to power 27,000 homes.
Hoj says the solar farm will also become a teaching and research facility.
"We are already the largest solar generator among Australian universities, and this initiative will complement the 50,000 existing solar panels on our campuses.
"This project makes a clear and bold statement about UQ's commitment to leadership in renewables."