Community Solar Gardens: What You Need to Know

The benefits of going solar are clear: it saves you money on your energy bills and helps reduce emissions from dirty fossil fuels. But for millions of households across Australia, installation of solar panels isn’t an option. Whether they live in a rental property, an apartment or their roof is too shaded, over one-third of Australians are unable to generate their own clean and cheap solar energy.

There is, fortunately, a solution. Community solar gardens allow people to share in the benefits of solar energy, even if they can’t install panels on their own roof. In this article, we will answer some of the most common questions about community solar gardens and their emergence in Australia.

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What are community solar gardens?

A solar garden is a large-scale, grid-connected solar installation that allows multiple households or businesses to share in the financial benefits of solar energy without having to put panels on their own roof.

Solar gardens are built on land near existing electricity grid infrastructure with good sun exposure. The solar garden then generates clean, renewable electricity and feeds it into the utility grid, displacing fossil fuels. Solar gardeners purchase a “plot” in these solar gardens and, depending on how much energy their plot generates, will receive credits that offset the cost of their electricity bill.

Community solar gardens are not a new concept. Community-owned solar energy originated in the U.S. in the small town of Ellensburg, Washington. In 2003, the local municipal utility used grant money and community funds to build a 26 kilowatt array, with the panels leased to utility customers in exchange for a credit on their electricity bill. Since then, multiple initiatives have sprung up across the U.S., with 39 states operating at least one community solar project in 2021.

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How do community solar gardens work?

Not all community solar gardens are set up the same way, but the most common model is for the solar garden to be owned and operated by a third-party company as opposed to your utility company. This company installs, maintains and operates the solar panels on behalf of the community solar gardeners.

A community solar garden can’t feed into your house or business directly; instead, it feeds into the main electricity grid. When you become a solar gardener, you are essentially buying “upstream” from the utility company.

When a solar gardener subscribes to the energy created in the solar garden it offsets the brown power they use at home via virtual net metering (VNM – also known as aggregated net metering). The utility recognises each subscriber as providing clean power to the grid which entitles them to credits on their electricity bill based on how much energy their plot generates.

For example, if a subscriber owns 10% of the panels, then they would be credited 10% of the production in that particular community solar garden. These credits offset the cost of their electricity bill, and in some cases, may cover it entirely.

Are there any community solar gardens in Australia?

The latest national Energy Consumer Sentiment Survey, commissioned by Energy Consumers’ Australia (ECA), revealed that almost three-quarters of family households are interested in buying power from a local community solar garden.  

Despite growing interest in the model, only one solar garden currently exists in Australia – although another big project is currently under development.

North Coast Community Housing (NCCH) Solar Garden

Australia’s first and only active solar garden is a 35kW solar array situated on the roof of the North Coast Community Housing (NCCH) building, a social housing provider in Lismore, NSW.

This particular solar garden, operated by Enova Community Energy, is based on a social benefit model where the financial benefits of the solar energy generated are distributed throughout the community to social housing tenants and local community organisations.

Each of the households who were part of the scheme received a credit of about $580 on their annual power bill last year.

Haystacks Solar Garden

Australia’s second solar farm is currently under development. The Haystacks Solar Garden is a first-of-its kind 1 megawatt solar garden in NSW’s Riverina region that is owned by the community for the community.

Community members who want solar but are unable to install it have banded together in a “solar cooperative” to build a solar array. The project, large enough to supply power to about 333 homes, has partnered with Enova who will purchase the energy generated and provide a credit on cooperative members’ electricity bill.

Labor’s future solar garden proposals

Labor introduced a plan earlier this month to invest $100 million in “solar bank” (solar gardens). The proposal includes 85 solar banks, which Labor says could allow more than 25,000 households to share the benefits of clean energy.

The funding would subsidise up to 50 per cent of the capital cost of a project.

How much does it cost to join a community solar garden?

There are a few different ways that community solar pricing models work and the cost of joining can vary depending on the model.

The two major pricing models adopted in the U.S. are subscription-based and ownership-based. Subscription-based models usually require a one-off sign-up fee and then charge monthly or annual fees for each solar garden plot. Ownership-based models may involve an initial set-up cost, but once the investment is made you receive credits on your electricity bill as if it were your own rooftop solar.

The Haystacks Solar Garden is based on an ownership model. Those who buy plots can expect to pay between $4000 and $4200 for a 3KW virtual plot, a price that is likely to be slightly cheaper than installing a similar-sized unit on their own roof.

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Is joining a community solar garden worth it?

Generally speaking, yes. While the financial rewards of participating in a solar garden may not be as good as owning a rooftop solar system, they are certainly better than no solar savings at all.

The financial benefits of community solar gardens typically outweigh the cost of participating. In the U.S. many community solar providers even offer a savings guarantee.

In addition to savings on your energy bill, community solar gardens offer social and environmental benefits as well. Community members come together to support a project they believe in, and by doing so they’re also supporting renewable energy.

Solar for all

Community solar gardens can play an important role in Australia’s future as we move towards a more decentralised and renewables-based grid and, if responses from the Energy Consumer Sentiment Survey are anything to go by, are only going to grow in popularity.

Cheap, green energy should be accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they can install solar on their own roof or not. Community solar gardens provide a way for people to share the benefits of solar energy and help us move towards a more sustainable future.

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