Massive solar farm plan for South Canterbury

A $600 million solar farm planned for the Mackenzie Basin — if approved — will power up to 100,000 homes - and ticks every box, its backers say.

Far North Solar Farms Ltd has applied to build a 420MW solar farm - believed to the biggest in the country - near Lake Benmore and about 8km east of Twizel.

Its director, Richard Homewood, of Auckland, said the farm was in a sunny place, on flat land and a transmission line, which sent power to Christchurch and beyond, ran through the site.

"It is one of the best sites you could pick anywhere," he said.

"A lot of places are sunny but do not have the infrastructure to support it, or are hilly.

"This place has the transmission line to get the power out of the area."

A consent application has been lodged with Mackenzie District Council and Environment Canterbury and was publicly notified this week.

Submissions close on February 1 next year.

The proposal covers 968ha, of which 670ha would be the work site and would involve 736,866 solar panels stationed on 28,341 tables.

The site is classified as Outstanding Natural Landscape under the district council plan.

The company has offered to plant between 500,000 and 750,000 indigenous plants as mitigation and also shelter the panels from view.

"I have been told by Doc [Department of Conservation] this is the largest ecological project of its kind in the MacKenzie Basin ever," Mr Homewood said.

The land was at present used for grazing and had a large irrigation pivot.

"If you were a farmer you would say it is functioning land but as an ecologist it would be degraded," he said.

The land would be on a long-term lease from farmer Douglas McIntyre.

Construction would take between 12 and 18 months.

About 100 workers would be needed for construction and then five employees once the farm was operational.

The cost was about $600 million although that might change.

The cost of panels had halved in the past four months, Mr Homewood said.

Manufacturers had ramped up panel production, expecting higher demand but increased interest rates had led to a dampening in projects coming on track.

Rising interest rates would balance out savings from the cheaper panels, he said.

The site could be seen from different areas in the basin but it was not easily seen and would be sheltered.

The only clear view of the panels was from the Ohau power station C, he said.

The panels were not high and would tilt to follow the sun during the day. The solar farm would be able to send power at the height of the day which would help hydro stations in the area maintain water for higher demand later on.

A solar farm in nearby Tekapo was declined consent by Environment Canterbury because of a loss of ecological values.

Mr Homewood said the company’s planned farm was in a different area and had significant mitigation.

He was encouraged by the change of government and its support of renewable generation.

"People can nit-pick about these developments ... but if you have to get two to three times generation before 2050 then you need renewable solar generation in the Mackenzie."

If it gets the go ahead it would take up to 60% of the remaining capacity in the transmission lines to get power out of the area.

The company has been in existence for about four years and has four solar farms in the North Island under development and another seven sites selected.