AS plans move ahead to build four fields of solar panels in the ACT, one of them Australia’s largest, there’s another with a more egalitarian spirit not far behind.
Launched in May, SolarShare plans to build a solar farm that will operate as a co-operative, rather than a company, so its member-shareholders will contribute to the cost of building its photovoltaic arrays and receive returns from the power they generate for years to come.
“Since then we’ve received about 200 registrations of interest from people who are keen to invest in excess of $670,000 in a community-owned solar farm, so we’ve received a fairly strong indication there that people support this idea, which is really great,” says project leader Lawrence McIntosh.
McIntosh is a renewable energy consultant who plays a central role in The Canberra Clean Energy Connection, a local, non-profit group that supports the ACT Government’s vision of Canberra becoming “the solar capital of Australia”.
He’s showing “CityNews” a bank of solar panels that were installed in 2011 at Lions Youth Haven, a picturesque farm near Kambah Pool used by several youth services that also made a good location for the SolarShare launch.
Far smaller than what is planned for SolarShare, the array is jointly owned by Lions Youth Haven, Tandem Respite and Galilee, who own 16.2 kilowatts (kW) worth of panels between them while McIntosh owns the remaining 5.04kW worth through a business named TJ Solen.
“This sort of proves the idea that ownership can be held jointly over a solar farm, which is important, especially because some people otherwise don’t have access to a property where they can put in solar; they might be renters or just not have a suitable roof,” he says.
It is better value to share in a bigger project than to set up a smaller individual one, and Lawrence got to set up his miniature power station without owning the land to put it on.
Two key steps for the larger SolarShare project are to arrange a contractor to build it and a good location, deals that both hinge on exactly how big the solar farm will be, which itself depends on how much money is thrown in.
“So, the way we get through that chicken-and-egg problem is by first taking the registrations of interest from people in the community, to understand what size facility we’ll be able to build,” says McIntosh.
“Following that, we can start to negotiate arrangements with the right kind of site and solar farm contractor to build it and when that’s set, we can then actually take investments from people and build it.”
If all those who have “expressed interest” in joining the SolarShare co-operative actually decide to go ahead with it, McIntosh estimates the group could build a solar farm to generate in excess of 200kW, over 10 times the size of the Lions Youth Haven array.
Of course, the potential member-shareholders have no obligation to actually buy in when they receive an offer; that will depend on the diligence and transparency shown by McIntosh and the rest of the SolarShare team, which includes a newly appointed interim board of governance and around 15 volunteers.
“Best case scenario, we’re working with a site and a developer and if that progresses as we believe it will, we might be signing some kind of arrangement with them as early as November,” says McIntosh, “but there are still other options that we need to progress because it’s important to have as many irons in the fire as possible.”
That SolarShare is likely to be one of, if not the first working “community solar farm” in Australia is further motivation to get everything spot-on.
“It’s important we pace ourselves and get the detail really right; we need to set up something that provides a good model for any other community in Canberra, or other parts of Australia, who want to do the same thing,” says McIntosh, who feels that few of us give much thought to the coal mines and coal-fired power stations that provide our electricity, or the pollution they cause.
“Solar is a really simple business model: energy is sold and income comes in, which is returned to the owners,” he says. “It’s so simple that it gives people a really good connection to what’s happening; they can come and see it and they can be part of a group of people in a community who are really taking part in a transition to a more sustainable future.”