European Energy plans to build its Upper Calliope Solar Farm about 50 kilometres south-west of Gladstone in central Queensland.
If approved, the project would be the biggest in the country, spanning 2,700 hectares and producing 2.8 terawatt hours per year — enough to cover 5 per cent of Queensland’s energy needs.
On Wednesday, Rio Tinto confirmed it had signed a power purchase agreement with European Energy to buy all the farm’s electricity supply, 1.1 gigawatts once exported, for the next 25 years.
Rio Tinto would use it to power its Gladstone operations: the Boyne aluminium smelter, Yarwun alumina refinery and the Queensland alumina refinery.
Calliope Cattle Company manager Will Wilson has welcomed the project and said the company would lease his property for the life of the Rio Tinto agreement, with an opportunity to extend.
“All my life I’ve watched a lot of profit go through this area from energy. That’s normally coal or gas, or transmission, and very little of it has landed in agriculture or in land management,” he said.
“That’s what’s been missing … bring it on.”
The project is one of many potential renewable developments planned for the region, some of which have been welcomed by landholders and locals, while others have been heavily protested.
Capricorn Conservation Council spokesperson Sophie George said the organisation had been working closely with landholders in the region as more renewable projects were proposed.
She said though it welcomed big mining companies like Rio Tinto looking to decarbonise, it had concerns for any nature or biodiversity the project could put at risk.
“We expect that there will be extensive community consultation … we really want to know if there are going to be significant impacts to the environment or threatened species,” she said.
“[Then] we can be coming forward with the landholders to say, ‘We need renewables, but this is what you need to do for the land’.”
The ABC understands the land put forward for the Upper Calliope Solar Project is already cleared and used for grazing, and some areas between the solar panels would still be available for grazing use.
Though some landholders like Mr Wilson welcomed the project, the local federal member for Flynn, the LNP’s Colin Boyce, said it had caused “angst” amongst neighbours.
“One of the big issues with communities is that all of a sudden people realise that there is really no way that they can stop these projects,” he said.
In a statement, Rio Tinto said the new agreement would help the company achieve its goal of halving its direct and indirect carbon emissions by 2030.
In 2022, the company made a formal market request for wind and solar power projects that it could use for its Gladstone assets.
It needs at least another three gigawatts of “quality” wind or solar power to operate all three facilities solely on renewable energy.
Pending approvals, European Energy plans to begin construction in 2025-26, and be connected to the grid in 2026-27.
The project will need to be approved by Gladstone Regional Council, and a development application is yet to be lodged.
It is also still subject to grid connection approval.
The company said it had agreements in place with landowners and a cultural heritage management plan was currently under negotiation.