Solar garden provides renewable energy for communities

A project launched this month as Australia’s “first large-scale solar garden” could be one of many to pop up around the country in the next five years.

A five-hectare paddock on a farm in Grong Grongan hour west of Wagga Wagga, has been earmarked as the site for a 1.5MW “solar garden” that includes “plots” that can be purchased by residents throughout New South Wales.

It’s a concept similar to community gardening, where people who don’t have a back yard can still garden by buying or renting a plot in a communal area.

Haystacks Solar Garden is being built by a not-for-profit organization Community Power Agency (CPA), Pingala Co-opand Komo Energy with support from other organisations, and funded by the NSW Government’s Regional Community Energy Fund.

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Community power projects in Australia at the end of September 2020.

It’s technically not the first solar garden to pop up in Australia. Enova Energy, now in administration, launched a 35kW solar array on the roof of the North Coast Community Housing (NCCH) administrative building in Lismore, northern NSW, in late 2019.

NCCH bought the electricity for onsite use, with the funds going to 23 “solar gardeners”, including their tenants and community groups.

But the larger scale, co-operatively owned Haystacks Solar Garden is one that is likely to set the precedent for a federal election promise by the ALP to deliver 85 solar banks (also known as gardens) and 400 neighborhood batteries under its Powering Australia Plan.

In June, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen renewed the federal government’s commitment to $300 million to deliver community batteries and solar banks across Australia.

Haystacks was in the planning stages long before the ALP campaign. One of the Community Power Agency’s directors, Kristy Walters, says like many other projects in the past few years, Haystacks has had its share of delays.

“COVID-19 wreaked all sorts of havoc on our project,” Walters says. “In February 2020, we had planned what we were going to be doing. We managed a couple of in-person events, but after that, everyone was online.

“There were so many communities in lockdown, there were people sick, supply shortages – it meant we had to rework our model multiple times. It’s not the same project we started out with.”

Renewable energy in Australia leads the world

While Australia leads the world in solar uptake with more than one in four households using solar, and is well known for innovation, the idea of ​​solar gardens is to make renewable energy available to people who can’t otherwise access it – tenants, people in apartments and people whose homes are not suitable .

Haystacks Solar Garden officially launched its project on September 1 this year, offering 333 solar plots in the 1.5MW farm, with estimates that those who buy a plot will save about $505 on their electricity bill each year. The completed project is expected to reduce emissions in NSW by 3100 tonnes a year.

“It’s an exciting model to be pioneering for Australia that other countries have been enjoying for years,” says Haystacks Solar Garden project manager Kim Mallee. “With the Albanese government committing to fund 85 solar gardens around the country we’ll see many more households given the chance to access solar.”

Mallee says the Community Power Agency has been pioneering the solar garden model since 2018. A CPA/University of Technology Sydney research project funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) found the model was both viable and desirable.

“From the previous two years’ experience developing Haystacks Solar Garden, we know that to roll out an effective solar banks/garden program of the size Labor are proposing will require tailored expertise, support and co-ordination – such that could be provided via a Community Power Hubs and Network model,” the CPA’s blog states.

But, it says, the commitment means the government is off to a good start. Visit here to learn more more about Haystacks Solar Garden.