$5.1 billion in the pipeline of region's solar boom
TOOWOOMBA and the Darling Downs are on the cusp of the next building boom - and it will be powered by the sun.
Across the Toowoomba and Western Downs local government regions, there are 14 approved solar plants, worth an estimated $5.1 billion.
While some projects are still awaiting a final investment decision, the 14 approved solar farms have the potential to create a combined 4300 construction jobs over the next eight years, generating a whopping 4505MW of power in total.
That's enough electricity generated from the sun to power 1.7 million homes.
While there have been two solar plant approvals in the Toowoomba region since January 2016, the Western Downs has powered ahead, approving 10 facilities in the same period.
To date, two of those 14 solar farms have begun construction - APA Group's Darling Downs Solar Farm near Kogan, and Canadian Solar's Oakey Solar Farm Stage 1.
Of the estimated $3.74 billion worth of solar projects in the pipeline across the Western Downs, Western Downs Regional Council mayor Paul McVeigh said about half that figure would be spent locally.
"That local spend will be split between people labouring, road constructions, electricians. That's very good news," he said.
While there are only two projects currently under way, Cr McVeigh said construction jobs would likely create a rolling effect on employment over the next five years as other proponents began works, and he said now was the time to get skilled-up.
But with the Western Downs sitting on an unemployment rate of 4.1% - significantly lower than the state average of 6.4% - Cr McVeigh said the responsibility of filling those thousands of construction jobs over the coming years would fall to regions surrounding the Western Downs - including Toowoomba.
"We're encouraging businesses to gear up for what's coming at us," Cr McVeigh said.
"One of the challenges is we've got such a low unemployment rate and we've got all these jobs coming at us. It's not a bad situation to have. We'll have to be importing labour into this region I think."
It's a dramatic turnaround for the Western Downs, which was feeling the pinch from the coal seam gas industry's post-construction bust just two short years ago.
Ironically, it's the electricity infrastructure that was put in place during the gas boom that has allowed the region to so efficiently pivot from one energy industry to another.
Combine the infrastructure - high-voltage wires, power stations, substations - with an abundance of sunshine, flat terrain, the falling cost of solar technology, and WDRC's fast-tracking of solar project approvals, and you've got the perfect mix to encourage renewable energy investment.
Throw in the Federal Government's Renewable Energy Target, which incentivises renewable energy development through the creation of carbon credits and which ends in 2020, and it's easy to see why investors have chosen the Western Downs to build their solar projects.
The scale of proposed energy development across the Western Downs and Toowoomba local government regions is immense - and it's raised concerns among some that the energy grid will be unable to cope with the oncoming wave of investment.
But a spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Water Supply said it was "unlikely" that any large-scale renewable projects would not proceed in Queensland due to network capacity constraints.
The spokesperson noted that network businesses such as Powerlink, Ergon and Energex consider connection applications as part of the approval processes for all generation projects, "and consider the impact on network infrastructure as part of this process".
"To further assist in the adoption of renewable energy into the network the Queensland Government has also established the Queensland Energy Security Taskforce," the spokesperson said.
"The taskforce's role is to provide advice to the government on short-term and long-term strategies to maintain energy system security, affordability and reliability for households and businesses while encouraging the transition to a higher level of renewable energy."