Can community-funded solar panels transform our skyline?
WITHIN year and a half, 400 photovoltaic panels could be glinting from a single commercial roof in the City of Yarra – and all of them will be owned by the local community.
The medium-scale solar project would be the first of its kind in Australia. It’s kicking off next Saturday, May 19, at a public meeting in Clifton Hill organised by Yarra Climate Action Now.
Neil Erenstrom, a volunteer with the group, says they’re conducting a pre-feasibility study and have begun to identify possible hosts, such as factories, schools or large retailers.
“We’re looking at installing about 100 kilowatts, which will produce enough energy to power about 40 typical households in Yarra,” he says.
The project won’t power households directly; instead, the co-operative will sell the electricity to the owner of the building, at a price roughly equivalent to the domestic retail rate. Investors from the community will receive dividends for as long as the panels are producing – probably about 25 years.
Mr Erenstrom is a solar photovoltaic engineer. He’s worked in the industry for eight years, but this project would allow him to participate in another way. “I want to see solar electricity everywhere and I think it’s starting to become financially viable. But I’m a renter, so I can’t put solar panels on my own roof,” he says.
The community-solar scheme is targeted at people who, like him, can’t install their own renewable electricity.
In the City of Yarra, nearly half of all residents are tenants – almost double the proportion across the rest of the city. And many more live in apartment buildings, have heritage overlays or roofs that are shaded or poorly oriented for catching the sun.
The group has learnt from the funding and ownership model established by Hepburn Wind, a community-owned wind farm near Daylesford. But because it will operate on an even smaller scale, its administration costs will have to be minimal.
“We’ll need a very efficient, skin-and-bones type operation, with lots of volunteers and probably some grant funding,” Mr Erenstrom says.
For the time being, the project will make the best financial sense on buildings where the panels’ output is “behind the meter and below the load” – that is, it will be used to offset normal usage.
But as time goes on, the business case is only going to get better. “The price of panels fell by about 40 per cent in 2011 and could do the same again this year,” he says.
Several other community groups have got the same idea. By the bay, Locals Into Victoria’s Environment (LIVE) has met with the Port Phillip council with a view to funding hundreds of panels for the new roof on the South Melbourne Market.
“We’d be like a stall holder, except we wouldn’t be selling fruit and vegetables – we’d be selling clean, renewable electricity to people in the market,” says David Robinson, from the group.
It’s very early days, but they’re hoping to secure financing to install the panels and on-sell them to local investors. If it’s successful, Mr Robinson says they’ll make the template available for any community to follow.
“We don’t plan on stopping at just this one roof in Port Phillip,” he says. “We have lots of big-box buildings with roofs that have nothing on them other than tin.”