Implications of National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land on Solar Farm Projects
Solar Farms are highly aligned with New Zealand's renewable energy aspirations, as more electricity must be generated from renewable sources. The Climate Change Response Act 2002 enshrines greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets for New Zealand domestically, while internationally New Zealand has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate human induced climate change including under the Paris Agreement in 2015 .The Government's Emissions Reductions Plan 2022 sets a target for 50 per cent of total final energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2035 . Currently renewable energies share of total energy consumption is 28 per cent.
These numbers demonstrate that a conversion of land use, most likely in the rural environment, is required to provide for the large number of solar farms envisaged. Large scale solar farms generally involve conversion of mostly flat farmland from rural production use to energy generation (albeit some rural production uses, such as sheep farming, may coexist with the solar farm). Suggestions as to how much land will be required for these new energy generation projects vary, with some suggesting the equivalent of 13 additional large wind farms are needed by 2035 .
Resource Management Act 1991 provisions
In the context of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), current plans and policies generally lend support to renewable energy generation. For example, the National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy Generation 2011's overall objective is:
To recognise the national significance of renewable electricity generation activities by providing for the development, operation, maintenance and upgrading of new and existing renewable electricity generation activities, such that the proportion of New Zealand’s electricity generated from renewable energy sources increases to a level that meets or exceeds the New Zealand Government’s national target for renewable electricity generation.
Section 7 of the RMA requires councils to have particular regard to the effects of climate change and the benefits to be derived from the use and development of renewable energy when undertaking their functions under the RMA .
National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land 2022
Against this background, there is now another key consideration for the assessment of viability of these energy projects. The National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land 2022 (NPS-HPL) was gazetted on 19 September 2022, and it commences on 17 October 2022. As the aim of the NPS-HPL is to protect productive land – the question arises whether it might operate to constrain the boom of solar farm (or wind farm) developments in the rural environment.
The NPS-HPL requires regional councils to identify, map and manage highly productive land within three years of the commencement date, by notifying changes in a proposed regional policy statement. Until this occurs, the NPS-HPL will be applied to highly productive land defined as being land zoned rural or rural production, that is Land Use Capability Class 1, 2, or 3, as mapped by the New Zealand Land Resource Inventory. This means that although the NPS-HPL requires Councils to undertake a change to the regional policy statement (using the Schedule 1 process) to map highly productive land, from 17 October 2022, it has immediate relevance until that change is made operative.
Clause 3.9 of the NPS-HPL deals with protecting highly productive land from inappropriate use and development. A use or development of highly productive land will not be inappropriate where it is associated with the maintenance, operation, upgrade, or expansion of ‘specified infrastructure’, which includes renewable energy generation , where there is a functional or operational need for the use or development to be on the highly productive land (and the measures in subclause (3) are applied), being:
(a) minimises or mitigates any actual loss or potential cumulative loss of the availability and productive capacity of highly productive land in their district; and
(b) avoids if possible, or otherwise mitigates, any actual or potential reverse sensitivity effects on land-based primary production activities from the use or development.
In other words, where solar farms can meet these requirements of the NPS-HPL, they will be 'exempt' from the policies constraining inappropriate use and development on highly productive land. Those requirements being that there is a functional or operational need for the development to be on the highly productive land, that loss of productive land capacity is minimised or mitigated, and that reverse sensitivity adverse effects are avoided and mitigated. This sets the bar higher for certain new solar projects.
The NPS-HPL is an important new consideration for solar farm proponents to be aware of. It must be taken into account as part of site selection and project design, in order to ensure that the location where the solar farm is proposed does not fall foul of the NPS-HPL.
3.United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2015) Adoption of the Paris Agreement, 21st Conference of the Parties, Paris: United Nations.
6. Section 7(i) and (j) of the RMA.
7.Clause 3.9(2)(j)(i) of the NPS-HPL; ‘specified infrastructure’ being defined in Clause 1.3 of the NPS-HPL as including ‘recognised as regionally or nationally significant in a National Policy Statement, New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, regional policy statement or regional plan’; See National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy Generation 2011, 'matters of national significance'.