A NSW community renewable energy group has won a $50,000 state government grant to investigate the feasibility of building what would be Australia’s largest community-owned solar project – a 1MW solar farm in the southern tablelands city of Goulburn.
One of 19 recipients to share in a $846,000 round of funding from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage – a program aimed at driving the state’s development of community energy projects – The Goulburn Group (TGG) announced it had won the grant to investigate the economic and social feasibility of financing and developing the 1MW project locally.
It plans to sell the power to either local businesses or to a green energy retailer, who would then sell it back to the community at an affordable price.
“This way, the money earned from producing the energy stays in this community and benefits the Goulburn region rather than a big power company generating its energy outside the region,” says TGG community energy spokesman, Peter Fraser.
In an interview with RenewEconomy on Tuesday, Fraser said the group was “not fazed” by the economic feasibility of the ambitious project – considering the strong show of financial support it had already received from “undisclosed local private companies” – but was conscious of potential social hurdles.
“As we see it, this project faces two main challenges,” Fraser said. “Number one is the national energy market (NEM), and working out whether we will need a PPA (power purchase agreement) and making sure we have customers to buy the power.”
The second major hurdle, he said, would be negotiating with the community: attracting local investment and customers, and gaining acceptance of the proposed site for the solar farm.
Fraser said TGG already had a couple of potential sites in mind for the project – one of which they had already completed some of the environmental due diligence for.
An on the technology for the solar farm, Fraser says TGG has already had advice from “one of the large Australian-owned renewable energy companies.”
At this stage, TGG’s plan is to go ahead with the feasibility studies, looking at all the different aspects of a project of this size.
It will then submit the results to the Office of Environment and Heritage, and put a recommendation to community, to see if there is enough interest to set up a funding mechanism.
“We would expect that if the community expresses a strong interest, we would get going on the project in 6 months. And with the expertise we have behind the project already, we could build it pretty quickly.”
Fraser said one company in particular was driving the financial side of project – a company he wouldn’t name, but said had skin in the renewable energy game.
Fraser said the project also had the support of the Goulburn council, despite it being “pretty conservative” on renewables.
“The key issue with community energy is to build solid relationships with business, the community, and the Council. It’s only when everyone is on board can this sort of thing work,” he said.
But after a “lively” and well attended community forum last year, Fraser is confident that the community of Goulburn will get behind the project.
“The local council is very aware that renewables can bring revenue into the community,” he said. “And there are enough people in this community that are not put off by the federal government’s position (on renewables).
“What’s happening in this region, and all around Australia, is that people are completely jack of it,” Fraser said.
“Their attitude is that , if they’re not going to do it, we’re going to do something.”
Fraser adds that a federal government decision on the renewable energy target – when it finally comes – will be a driver of community renewables growth as well.
“What we’d like is for (the RET) to be left as it is, but we’re not too confident that will happen,” he said. At the very least, it has to be above the 35,000GWh mark for the industry to have a chance, he added.