A SOLAR FARM that could power up to 15,000 homes will be built on the site of one of the state's largest coal-fired power stations, under plans lodged with the state government.
Delta Electricity has flagged its intention to build the 45 megawatt farm on a disused parcel of land at the Vales Point power station, on the southern shores of Lake Macquarie.
The proposal, worth in excess of $30 million, has stunned some of the power station's long-term critics and been met with tentative support from local and state politicians.
Environmentalists heralded it as a major turning point in the region's transition towards renewable energy.
"It's another big signal that old coal-fired power stations and the utility owners are changing for the better," Executive Director of the Total Environment Centre Jeff Angel said. "I'm sure residents of Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast will feel good about their region entering the 21st century renewable energy era."
Under the proposal, 170,000 solar panels would be installed on rehabilitated areas of an ash dam that forms part of the broader power station site.
Construction of the solar farm would begin next year and around 100 jobs would be created during the 18-month build. Once operational, the farm would require five permanent employees.
Delta Electricity company secretary Steve Gurney described it as an "exciting" project in terms of its scale and the potential for expansion down the track.
However he rubbished suggestions the company was turning its back on coal-fired power.
"If you shut down coal tomorrow, I can guarantee the lights will go out. There is still a role for coal for the foreseeable future," Mr Gurney said.
"You hear people saying you've got to get rid of coal or go solar or go wind. The reality is you're going to need a mix of all of the above. This is about having two energy sources, side by side."
But with the solar farm expected to have a lifespan of at least 30 years, it appears inevitable it will outlive the power station, slated for closure in 2029.
The power station was valued at just $1 million when the state government sold it to energy consultant Trevor St Baker and coal baron Brian Flannery in 2015.
Mr Gurney said what happened beyond 2029 would depend on demand, but acknowledged it would be a costly proposition to extend the life of the power station.
"What this means is that we will have power generation happening on the Vales Point footprint well beyond the possible life of the existing power station," he said.
A preliminary environmental assessment said the project would help to bridge any shortfall in energy supply brought about by the closure of the Munmorah power station in 2012.
Delta has met with Lake Macquarie and Central Coast councils over the proposal, which will go on public exhibition later this year.
It anticipates the long-term noise and air quality impacts of the 70-hectare farm would be negligible and any environmental impacts would be “entirely reversible” upon decommissioning.
Swansea MP Yasmin Catley was enthusiastic about the plans, labelling them a “demonstration of the future”.
“While we’re talking about it, they’re actually putting their money where their mouth is,” Ms Catley said.
The sentiment was shared by Lake Macquarie Mayor Kay Fraser, who said the project fit with the future economic direction of the city.
“As Lake Macquarie transitions from a traditional reliance on mining and coal-fired power generation, we will have a greater focus on sustainable industries and new technologies,” she said.
The three largest solar farms in NSW – at Broken Hill, Nyngan and Moree – are all located in the western parts of the state, where sunlight is more intense than on the coast. However according to Mr Gurney, the advantage of the Vales Point farm was its distance to existing transmission lines.
“Our solar yield might be a little bit less but at the same time we’re much closer to the end user,” he said, adding that the project would contribute to achieving state and federal government renewable energy targets.