The one megawatt “Haystack” solar garden will be built in the Riverina town of Grong Grong. Image by Mattinbgn

Community solar group Pingala has teamed up with the Community Power Agency and Komo Energy on Australia’s first major offsite solar garden project. And there could be more if we can overcome the financial hurdles such as lumping solar co-operatives in with corporate investment schemes.

Common in the US and parts of Europe, solar gardens are yet to take off in Australia. But this might be about to change with Australia’s first major offsite solar garden in the NSW Riverina region and expected to be up and running by early next year.

The cooperative behind the project has only been operating for a few weeks but Nigel Hancock, project manager on the one megawatt “Haystack” solar garden in the Riverina town of Grong Grong, said that the response so far has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

Hancock is from community energy co-op Pingala, which has teamed up with the Community Power Agency and Komo Energy on the solar garden project that will cover around 3-4 hectares of farmland (the farmers will be paid an annual fee to host the solar garden on their land).

The idea is to preference energy for locals first as members before throwing the invitation wider to the rest of NSW.

Backed by the NSW government through the Regional Community Energy Fund, the mid-sized solar array is intended to make solar more accessible to more than 300 households that are unable to access rooftop solar for whatever reason.

With almost a third of all people in Australia locked out of the rooftop solar market, there’s clearly demand for community solar initiatives like solar gardens that allow tenants, apartment dwellers and low income households access to the sun’s energy.

Much like signing up for a plot in a community garden to grow vegetables, people “buy” a plot on a solar farm owned by a cooperative and reap the benefits of the power generated as discounts on their power bills.

Exactly how much plot owners can expect to save through the Haystack project is still being finalised.

Sounds simple but challenging to implement in reality

It’s a deceptively simple idea that’s in fact tricky to implement in Australia’s energy marketplace. While a 2018 study by the Institute for Sustainable Futures and the Community Power Agency found that there are no legal or regulatory barriers, Hancock says it’s “not smooth sailing by any means but it’s the aim of this project to pave the way for future Solar Gardens”.

Compared to the US, where the solar garden model has facilitated some of the largest solar installations, Australia’s regulatory environment is not well set up for solar gardens.

For solar gardens to become easier and faster to set up, he says there will need to be some regulatory changes, such as not lumping  community solar cooperatives in with corporate investment schemes.

The 2018 study into Social Access Solar Gardens found financial barriers to be the biggest hurdle for solar gardens, with the report recommending subsidies and incentives like those used to attract rooftop solar customers to be extended to these sort of schemes.

The financially viability of solar gardens also comes down to scale, with a larger number of members able to secure a better deal with the retailer. The other benefit of the model is that provided members agree to stay with the participating retailer, they can move house and still keep their plot.

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