New Zealand's largest planned solar farm gets overseas investment consent, eyes fast-track approval

Big skies, big country and, most importantly, big sun. 

Last year, the Mackenzie Basin in the South Island was the sunniest place in Aotearoa. 

A perfect location for New Zealand's largest solar farm, according to Far North Solar Farm, the company behind the project. 

Newshub can reveal the planned solar farm has just received approval from the Overseas Investment Office and is considering applying for resource consent through the Government's new fast-track legislation. 

"The reason you have to go so big is because of the infrastructure that runs through the middle of the property, the 220 kV power line," said company director Richard Homewood. "You need to build an enormous solar farm to justify the cost of connecting into that power line. That's one of the biggest power lines in New Zealand." 

Called "The Point", the solar farm would be built on a 670-hectare block of farmland on the banks of Lake Benmore, near the town of Twizel.  

The site would be covered with 736,836 solar panels that track the sun from east to west. Panels would be spread out across 580 hectares covering 30 percent of the actual land, said Far North Solar Farm.  

The solar farm would generate 420 megawatts, enough power for 100,000 homes, and plug into the national grid via existing power lines on the property. 

Those powerlines carry energy from the nearby Ohau C hydro station, which is another reason developers say they chose the site.

"If we have solar near the hydro, that's going to allow the hydro to wind back during the day, so that in the evening times, the peak times when everyone needs to turn their lights on, when they come home, we'll have enough hydropower to run the country," said Homewood.

RIchard Homewood, director of Far North Solar Farms.
RIchard Homewood, director of Far North Solar Farm. Photo credit: Newshub.

Land owner Doug McIntyre has been using it to support his dairy farm. 

"It's a good flat site and I need to diversify because they wouldn't give me consent to put irrigation on here, so it's quite unproductive land," said McIntyre. 

"When the guys rang me three years ago or whatever, I thought, 'I am into that' because they don't really want dairy farmers in the Mackenzie, they don't really want farmers in the Mackenzie."  

"They" is a reference to environmental groups who are opposed to solar farm development. 

The Environmental Defence Society, the Mackenzie Guardians and Forest and Bird all opposed the project's resource consent application through Environrment Canterbury and the Mackenzie District Council.

Forest and Bird regional conservation manager Nicky Snoyink said the Mackenzie Basin is designated as an Outstanding Natural Landscape. 

"More industrial clutter will undermine the values of the outstanding natural landscape. 

"There are pylons all over the Canterbury Plains and in places that aren't outstanding natural landscapes and they don't have any ecological value. So, we really would like to see them do a bit more assessment of alternative sites rather than putting [them] in a place that's going to harm nature and the landscape."

The scale of the proposed solar farm can be seen in drone shots of Te Manahuna/Mackenzie Basin.
The scale of the proposed solar farm can be seen in drone shots of Te Manahuna/Mackenzie Basin. Photo credit: Newshub.

Forest and Bird said while it supports an increase in renewable energy, the Mackenzie Basin doesn't need industrial clutter. 

It's also concerned about local birds. 

"The site is located... adjacent to the confluence of several braided rivers and upstream from Lake Benmore," Snoyink said. "And it's really important habitat for native bird species - particularly the banded dotterels and black fronted terns." 

Far North Solar Farm said the site has been intensively farmed and there is little ecology left. It plans to surround the project with a predator proof fence and plant 500,000 plants throughout an 89-hectare ecological restoration area. 

"There's been nothing of that scale ever done for ecology. And so, we think about birds but we think about all the ecology in the area," Homewood said. "And creating breeding programs for endemic species is a big part of the project."   

Another solar farm project in the Mackenzie Basin was recently declined on ecological grounds by Environment Canterbury.

A satellite render of how big the proposed solar farm could be.
A satellite render of how big the proposed solar farm could be. Photo credit: Supplied.

The decision concluded "permanent and irreversible loss of threatened land environments and threatened and at-risk indigenous species from the site would be a significant adverse effect". The Balmoral Station project near Lake Tekapo was much smaller than The Point project - 88 megawatts as opposed to 420 megawatts; 113 hectares as opposed to 670 hectares. 

Far North Solar Farm had applied for resource consent from the Mackenzie District Council and Environment Canterbury but has now "suspended" the application - which in lay terms means it's been put on hold. The company says the councils recommended the decision be made at a governmental level. 

"The practical reality is that both of those councils have decided that this is a project of national significance that's beyond their decision-making capability," said Homewood. 

Far North Solar Farm is now looking at whether it should apply through the Government's new Fast-track Approvals Bill which it said "is the most likely" path. 

Companies have until May 3 to lodge an application with the Ministry of Environment. 

Even if that speeds up the process and the project is approved, McIntyre will still be waiting a while until the power is on in his paddock. Far North Solar Farm said The Point won't be producing electricity until 2027.