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12 May 2021
By DEAN LAWSON
Wimmera leaders have been quick to identify a ‘ready-made’ investment opportunity amid disappointment of a failed multi-million-dollar horticultural project near Great Western.
They believe the collapse of Nectar Farms in its behind-the-meter project alongside Neoen Australia’s Bulgana Green Power Hub at Joel Joel could ‘open the door’ for other energy-hungry industry.
They have taken an optimistic approach while expressing frustration and disappointment in the revelation.
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Nectar Farms, which has gone into liquidation, had planned to develop a large-scale glasshouse agribusiness at the site.
The concept involved the intense hydroponic farm tapping into and gaining financial benefits of renewable energy generated and stored on site.
Northern Grampians Shire mayor Murray Emerson said he was relieved the Nectar Farms collapse had no effect on the Neoen hub, but expressed bitter disappointment in the failure of the value-adding project.
“It is very disappointing. There has been a lot of time and money injected into this overall and there was a lot of expectation surrounding jobs, housing – everything that involved attracting people to the region,” he said.
“As a council we’ve spent seven years helping guide the company with everything such as planning applications, buying land, you name it. We’ve pretty well assisted them from the start.
“On the other hand, nothing has changed from Neoen’s point of view, which is pretty pleasing, not only from an opportunistic perspective, but also with their community grants program.
“What we know is that there is a very valuable commodity out there called a wind farm, there was an attractive arrangement involving a value-adding business and the government involving directly accessing power.
“We now need to look at that and see if any other business would like to get involved.
“It is a much more advanced landscape regarding renewable energy and opportunities for behind-the-meter projects than it was seven years ago.
“It’s a hell of an opportunity and there is a bit of work to be done. But you never know, when one door closes, another can open.”
In 2017, Neoen Australia, Nectar Farms and the State Government signed a three-way memorandum of understanding, representing a $565-million development.
The deal, the first of its kind in the world, involved Neoen establishing a Bulgana Green Power Hub, now completed, alongside a 30-hectare expansion of a Nectar Farms greenhouse project at Stawell in staged development. It guaranteed Nectar Farms 10 percent of the power hub’s energy, with the remaining 90 percent fed directly to the electricity grid.
Predictions at the time were that as well as creating 600 positions, the project would also support 930 indirect jobs.
Wimmera Development Association executive director Chris Sounness echoed Cr Emerson’s disappointment and also optimism.
“It is always disappointing when a private-sector partner in something like this falls over. But as we often know with these types of visionary projects, sometimes the project initiator provides the base for a second developer,” he said.
“The opportunity for this type of large-scale value-adding project has been well identified and that means many of the uncertainties that might have existed for the starter project don’t necessary exist now.
“The model would have been a world first if it had worked and it still holds weight. From a development perspective this is an idea that is now simply in a holding pattern.
“Sure, this one didn’t happen, but the opportunity remains and the price point would remain very attractive because it’s power generated on site. History shows that where abundant energy is generated, growth is inevitable.
“Our biggest challenge continues to be attracting capital from outside the region.”
Member for Ripon Louise Staley, meanwhile, demanded the State Government provide ‘direct, substantial and immediate’ help to Northern Grampians Shire Council to develop ‘new and broad’ economic opportunities.
“The State Government brokered this deal and also committed money towards the project,” she said.
“Either the money promised was never delivered to Nectar Farms and it was all a hoax or the government has lost taxpayers’ money.
“Either way the government hasn’t come through with the goods.
“I just know that in constantly talking with the council on this topic how much time and energy has been taken up.
“It’s been on a weekly agenda in some way for several years.
“The government has provided false hope and now needs to make good.”
The government, through a ‘spokesperson’ released a statement on its position: “We have worked with Nectar Farms to provide support, however any financial investment in the project was always contingent on the company being able to achieve agreed contractual milestones.
“As this has not eventuated, we have not provided any funding.”
The entire May 5, 2021 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!