Community solar project breaks ground in Australia’s bush capital

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The volunteers behind Canberra’s first and Australia’s largest community owned solar farm, Majura, have been working through the feasibility, siting and funding of this renewable generator for more than eight years. On Friday they saw the first sods turned, marking the start of construction on a long-held dream.

“We’re immensely proud of reaching this milestone,” said Nick Fejer, Chairman of SolarShare, the renewable-energy investment fund for which the 1MW Majura farm is its first project.

“SolarShare is for anyone who wants to be part of the shift to a renewable energy economy. This includes people who previously had no access to the solar power market such as renters or those without a roof suitable for the solar panels,” he said, noting also that our climate and communities are changing, and everyone has an important role to play in creating a sustainable energy ecosystem.

ACT Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, Shane Rattenbury, kicked off the sod-turning event, saying, “Putting solar power in the control of our community allows more Canberrans than ever to reap the rewards of solar energy.”

Community renewable energy planted in ACT wine country

The farm is located on three hectares in the Majura Valley on the outskirts of Canberra, which it leases from its neighbour Mount Majura Vineyard, and is co-owned by some 400 investors.

The first round of seed funding, used to progress the project to development and approvals, was raised in 2016/17 from 20 investors who committed a collective $125,000 to a vision that might not have found traction.

Participating ACT residents have subsequently contributed between a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $10,000 to the project , and in mid-2019 renewable energy developer CWP Renewables provided an $800,000 loan to cover the shortfall required for the project to go ahead.

The Majura Community Solar Farm is on the Majura Valley tourist trail, situated across the road from its landlord, Mount Majura Vineyard.

Image: SolarShare

Mature industry partners support the groundswell

CWP Renewables CEO Jason Willoughby said at the sod turning that his company feels privileged to assist SolarShare through project financing: “We were able to fill a gap that was difficult for commercial banks to fund but was possible for CWP because of our industry expertise and commitment to the ACT,” he explained.

The Majura Valley Community Solar Farm will be built by Epho Commercial Solar, a company powering the sustainable aspirations of many: this month saw it install 100 solar systems in 100 days for supermarket chain Aldi; and in May it commissioned its first Bright Thinker’s Power Station which allows flexible power supply to the grid and to tenants of commercial properties that lease their large rooftop spaces to Epho for the purpose of installing and maintaining substantial solar systems.

“Epho had been supporting our efforts for a couple of years,” said Lawrence McIntosh, SolarShare Founder and Principal Executive Officer at the Majura ground-breaking ceremony, “so the Epho team was the most compelling choice in terms of costs, results and risks for the execution phase of our solar farm.”

McIntosh envisages the project will be completed in early 2021, when it will at last begin exporting its annual 1.8 GWh of electricity, enough to power 260 Canberran homes, to the grid for a guaranteed feed-in tariff (FiT) of 19.56 cents per kilowatt hour generated.

A territory committed to enabling participation in reducing emissions

The 20-year offtake agreement is part of the ACT Government’s Community Solar initiative, which was designed to deliver the economies of scale and benefits of solar ownership to small communities that do not have access to rooftop generation. 

It was available to projects of no more than 1 MW in scale, which thereby determined the size of Majura. 

The project is expected to deliver around $400,000 projected annual income, which will be allocated to community participants in proportion to their individual investment in the project, allowing them to offset their own electricity with renewably earned funds.

It all started when …

When pv magazine talked to McIntosh mid last year at the point of securing the loan from CWP Renewables, he recalled that the Majura project began in 2011:

“A good friend of mine sent an email to six of us and said, ‘There are some great community energy projects happening in Victoria [wind farm in Daylesford]. We should do solar in Canberra.’ We were a little bit naive in how much effort we thought that would take.”

The core group of volunteers has been committed to the principles of the solar farm and buoyed by community interest, which swelled from a hundred or so, to around 1,500 enquiries by the time the second community investor funding round was launched.

 He said, “I think it’s an idea that really catches people’s attention as another way of dealing with energy in our economy, partaking in the economy of energy generation, and influencing how energy choices impact our community and our environment.”

In terms of carbon abatement, the Majura community solar farm will replace the need for 1,800 tonnes of emissions from fossil fuel generation each year, a small but tangible contribution to the ACT’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2045.

That goal, said McIntosh, “requires participation at so many levels of society, and we think it’s important that no matter what the scale, people can act, they can be part of achieving those targets.”

SolarShare’s website refers to the “bush capital vision” of Canberra, and McIntosh was eloquent in expanding on that ethos. He said in June, “We’re particularly lucky in the ACT that when Australia’s energy infrastructure was being set up, the impactful energy-generation technologies — the Liddell power stations of the world — were most effectively located elsewhere. No-one’s ever going to develop a big fossil-fuel generator in Canberra, but I think if Canberra wants to preserve its support of the bush and the environment, it needs to make sure that its energy generation isn’t causing another area of Australia to not have that same opportunity to be a really beautiful natural environment. Canberra needs to be responsible for how it generates and uses its energy, and to make sure that whether that’s inside or outside the territory, that it has a low impact on the environment.”

 

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