Australia's first community solar garden becomes a reality

The Haystacks Solar Garden in the Riverina will allow hundreds of people locked out of rooftop solar to access the benefits of solar.

Rooftop solar installations are on the rise and costs of panels are plummeting as more and more Australians reap the financial rewards of clean energy. 

However, up to 30% of the population can’t get panels on the roof: those who rent, reside in apartments, have a shaded home, or face logistical hurdles preventing the installation of rooftop solar.

Envision a scenario where, similar to a community garden, you could purchase a plot of solar energy and enjoy the benefits on your electricity bills. Imagine solar that moves with you, requiring no on-site installation. It would free renters from concerns about lost investments when they relocate.

This vision is mere weeks away from becoming reality with the inception of Australia’s first community solar garden — Haystacks Solar Garden. Also known as a 'solar bank', the concept empowers anyone to buy or lease a plot in an off-site solar array, regardless of their residence. 

The electricity generated from these plots is fed into the grid and participants receive credits on their electricity bills through a partnership with an energy retailer. 

The NSW and Federal Governments have recently announced $30 million in funding for solar banks in NSW. As someone who has been involved with this model since day one in Australia, let me tell you why this is so exciting.

I am part of the small team that pioneered Haystacks Solar Garden, located in the NSW Riverina, along with project partners Komo Energy, Pingala, and Grong Grong farmer Gemma Purcell. 

The seed of this idea was planted over friendly blue-sky dreaming conversations in 2016, when my colleague Tom met Gemma at a renewables event. After finding out that Gemma not only supported local climate action, but also had a paddock that was ripe for solar panels, we knew we were on to something.

Fast forward to 2020 where our team had just secured a grant via the NSW Regional Community Energy Fund - our seed of an idea had legs. From then on, our small team has ridden the highs and lows of innovating this Australian first: explaining the model, that is quite popular overseas, in countless community information sessions, enduring supply chain delays and the component price fluctuations as a result of COVID-19, and subsequently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all was finding out that a little known legacy tax regulation from the Abbott Government era meant unforeseen, mammoth taxes on our grant. 

If you’d asked me at the start of 2022 if I thought we could pull this off, I wouldn’t have made any promises. But as of late 2023, the Haystacks Solar Garden completed construction and is set to connect to the grid in the coming weeks. Even better, we have a blueprint for future projects.

We set Haystacks Solar Garden up to operate as a cooperative, ensuring that the members have a say in decisions and can benefit from this initiative through active participation, engagement, and investment. 

After 15 years in the environment sector, I’ve seen the positive impacts community participation and ownership can have on the success of a project. However, even I was happily surprised to see the innovative ways people were extending the benefits of solar. 

For example, one woman in the Northern Rivers bought three solar garden plots to gift to people in the area affected by the recent floods, helping reduce their electricity costs while they recover. Others purchased multiple plots to give to their children who moved to expensive capital cities.

At a time where the renewable energy sector is grappling with social acceptance, there’s never been more of a need for community energy projects like Haystacks Solar Garden that are community-focused at the core. 

People in regional and rural Australia don’t want things done to them; they want to be part of the decision making process. It’s time to move towards policy design and project roll-outs that happen in collaboration with regional communities. 

Initiatives like solar gardens not only contribute to the megawatt capacity but also foster social inclusivity, build social licence, and stimulate regional economic development. Importantly, they provide an opportunity for the almost ⅓ of Australians who have previously been unable to benefit from solar energy in their home.

Gemma Purcell once said to me: "In the regions we grow the grains for your cereal, we raise the beef for your steak, why not also produce the energy so you can cook it”. 

I look forward to more solar banks connecting city and regional folks via their energy.

Author
Kristy Walters
Director, Community Power Agency
February 11, 2024
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