The Australian Renewable Energy Agency has provided $240,000 for a feasibility study into “solar gardens” – centrally located solar arrays that can be invested in by renters, apartment dwellers and others unable to get solar on their roofs.
The $550,000 Social Access Solar Gardens trial is being undertaken by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF), which is looking at five potential sites around the country – Blacktown in western Sydney, Swan Hill in northwest Victoria, Townsville in North Queensland, and Shoalhaven and Byron Bay in NSW.
The solar gardens concept is popular in the US, with 200 megawatts of capacity already installed, but hasn’t ever been taken up in Australia. Under the model, consumers can purchase or lease solar panels at another site and have the electricity credited to their bills.
The project will also involve energy retailers, councils, community energy agencies, social welfare organisations and the NSW government, looking at consumer demand, feasibility and barriers.
“Almost a third of Australians are unable to put solar on their roofs because they are renting, live in apartments or live in low income housing,” ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht said.
“Solar gardens give consumers the benefits of rooftop solar, even if you don’t have a roof available to put it on. We’re excited to be supporting the feasibility into a concept that will allow people from all backgrounds and living circumstances to benefit from renewable energy.”
NSW energy minister Don Harwin welcomed the project.
“These trials will help renters, and people in apartments and low-income households who are currently missing out on the benefits of rooftop solar to share in the renewable energy boom currently underway in [NSW],” he said.
The trial is based on previous work by ISF, which looked at local network charges and virtual net metering to explore ways to support the trade of local electricity.
In 2016 the Australian Energy Market Commission dismissed proposed changes to rules that would have made the trade of energy locally more economically viable. The move was panned by the property sector and sustainable energy advocates.