Renewable energy is coming fast. Australian planners are struggling to keep up

A wind farm in South Australia. Image: Getty.

Renewable energy is driving profound changes in cities. It’s happening much more quickly than was expected even five years ago. Responding to climate change, networks of decision-makers, such as the C40 collective of major cities, have begun adopting strategies to promote the uptake of renewable energy. Yet land use planning has seemingly begun to lag behind.

As an example, few, if any, planning codes in Australia prevent overshadowing of rooftop solar systems (photovoltaic and hot water). Instead, disputes are being decided in the courts.

Effective guidance on the retrofitting and redesign of built environment energy systems must occur across scales, from rooftops to wider electricity grids. We need reliable institutional and policy guidelines to improve investment certainty and limit negative outcomes.

So what is the role of planning? What challenges and actions must planners consider for the renewable energy transition to be effective?


Renewable are proliferating

Historically, cities have been built on fossil fuels. These power buildings, lighting, transport, air conditioning, water supply systems, sewage treatment and more.

Technological change and concerns about climate change threats, energy security, air pollution reduction and fossil fuel power costs have recently driven huge advancements in renewable energy options for cities. As renewables rapidly gain market traction, the costs are falling dramatically relative to fossil fuel options.

Many different types of renewable energy have the potential to radically transform built environments. These include solar (both photovoltaic and molten salt), wind, tidal, biogas, biofuel, pumped hydro and potentially even nuclear fusion – though the latter may still be some time away.

At present, this technological growth appears to be outpacing land-use planning systems, and many planners seem to be fighting a rear-guard action.

What role can planners play?

Traditionally, planners have assessed the acceptability, or otherwise, of different types of development. Land uses that were deemed incompatible were separated into different zones. Infrastructural and technological provisions associated with developments are usually strategically planned in advance. Site-specific issues are then assessed through development approval processes.

There are, however, still relatively few land use planning policies and guidelines for engaging effectively with renewable energy. This is a global problem, though some jurisdictions are ahead of others.

A front-runner is the UK, where the Department for Communities & Local Government issued planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy in 2013. This was a welcome early response. And perhaps surprising, given the comparative lack of sunlight in the UK.

Conversely, Ireland still lacks a strategic plan for solar farm development. This seems remiss given Ireland has an almost identical planning system and roughly the same amount of sunlight as the UK.

In sunnier Australia, the signs are that things are beginning to change. For example, the New South Wales government recently issued guidelines on the approval of solar and wind farms. Queensland has a wind farm state code and guidelines. The City of Melbourne now provides planning guidance for solar energy.

California is forging ahead with solar leasing and is experimenting with mandatory solar for new buildings. The state is also making strides in wind energy.

How should planning systems adapt?

We urgently need more renewable-friendly planning systems to capture its potential benefits and avoid overshooting the 2°C target for global warming. This will mean finding ways to “fast-track” energy generation deemed to be low risk with manageable impacts.

As well as developing practical guidance, planners need to ask some key questions. Are these technologies safe? Might they disrupt other land uses? Does large-scale uptake potentially have unintended consequences?

An easy win for planners is to devise codes and planning scheme provisions to protect rooftop solar installations from overshadowing. Rooftop solar is becoming an integral part of the energy mix in many areas, with surplus production often feeding back into the grid.

A failure of planning to manage a simple issue like overshadowing will result in a loss of potential electricity production, with negative implications for householders and grids.

Medium-scale commercial solar PV farms, providing 1-10MW generating capacity, are likely soon to be a common feature of many suburbs and communities. However, these facilities can present challenges when placed in urban areas. Again, clear planning guidance is needed.

The planning implications of these solar PV farms are only beginning to be understood. The issues include, but are not limited to, site selection, (re)zoning, stakeholder engagement, visual impact minimisation and mediating social, economic and/or ecological constraints.

Suburbs could increasingly be home to medium-scale solar farms like this. Image: Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr/creative commons.

Even as planners begin to engage with the issues of current renewable technologies, newer technologies are quickly encroaching. This adds to the urgency of the planning challenges; constant reappraisal is needed.

Where to next?

Soon we will likely have to better consider emerging technologies such as solar windows, integrated solar roofs, backyard biogas generators and even algae biofuel farming.

For example, could using backyard waste-to-biogas systems create issues with hygiene and infectious disease? What about maintenance? Will microgrids, which can help transitions to a grid with significant volumes of renewable energy, be able to handle demand?

The ConversationWe’ll need effective land use planning to answer these questions and many more. In times of intense transformation, planners will have to provide clear guidance. They must not let themselves fall behind the pace of urban energy transitions.

Tony Matthews is a lecturer in urban and environmental planning, and Jason Byrne an associate professor of environmental planning, at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.