Community group uses C&I solar profits to provide job opportunities


The New South Wales (NSW) Illawarra region, centred around the steel city of Wollongong, has a long history as a coal and industrial heartland but it is rapidly transforming into a hub for renewable energy and sustainable innovation, opening up job opportunities in the clean energy sector.

The NSW government has identified the Illawarra as one of five renewable energy zones (REZs) planned for the state, tipping the initiative will unlock $43 billion in potential investment in clean energy in the region and create more than 8,000 jobs.

In addition, Port Kembla has been tapped as one of two green hydrogen hubs planned for the state.

The growing number of local clean energy initiatives in the region are opening up job opportunities but Yael Stone, founder of not-for-profit community group Hi Neighbour, said not enough is being done to help workers transition as renewable energy development reshapes the employment landscape.

“It’s hard to talk about,” she said. “We’re actually seeing mine closures and people losing their jobs, and sadly there are no plans in place by those employers to transition workers in a meaningful or thoughtful way.”

“That’s why we are doing what we are doing, because nobody else is doing it.”

A community-based group, Hi Neighbour aims to help local workers transition into the renewable energy sector.

Emailed to DC on 15.3.2024 by Bella

Launched in April 2023, Hi Neighbour loans Illawarra businesses money to cover the capital expenditure cost of installing a major C&I rooftop solar system. The loan is repaid with an agreed interest rate and the interest generated from the loan is directed towards a scholarship fund that is used to provide training opportunities in the clean energy sector for local workers.

“People are really excited by what we’re doing because sadly not many other people are doing it,” Stone said.

“We want to be a bridge to the future and there’s not many people practically saying ‘this is how you do it and we are willing to support you in that journey’.”

Stone said the group has already financed two rooftops installs in the past year, rolling out a 99.9 kW PV system at leather belt manufacturer Buckaroo’s Bellambi facility and another 99.9 kW system at Thomas Creative’s graphic design studio in Wollongong.

Hi Neighbour said the group’s initial $20,000 scholarship round has been earmarked to help 10 local electricians to upskill in the installation of solar and battery energy storage systems.

“We have a unique way of raising funds which is engaging in large-scale solar, so we are talking industrial rooftops,” Stone said.

“It may not be in the traditional loan model that we have been doing, but we’re going to be diversifying that funding approach so that we can actually be flipping huge rooftops to create a lot of solar energy.”

Stone said the group is now looking at going even deeper into the C&I rooftop solar space and funding even bigger installations.

And if the group’s dream is fully realised, those workers who have benefited from the scholarships will one day be helping to deliver the projects that Hi Neighbour pays for.

“We want to do the full circle,” Stone said.

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