People power is having a positive effect on a community-funded solar farm at Majura that has the potential to flick the switch on renewable energy.
The SolarShare Canberra project began as an idea 10 years ago and has since attracted more than 500 investors to become the largest community-owned solar farm in Australia.
The first sod was turned on 28 August, 2020, and while the little-solar-farm-that-could wasn’t allowed to have the community attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will soon generate electricity to homes in Canberra by January 2021.
After obtaining a grant from Canberra not-for-profit organisation See Change, the project has since received environmental, heritage and ACT Government approvals.
Along the way, investors contributed $2.36 million into the $2.8 million project, with the final funding coming from an $800,000 loan from developer CWP Renewables.
SolarShare board members Michelle McCann and Wendy Meredith tell Region Media the project is a perfect example of people power as all investors have equal rights in the decision-making process and all profits are returned to the community as a dividend.
“The project really started with Lawrence McIntosh and a few friends around a kitchen table in 2011,” says Michelle, who has worked in solar energy since 1996 and has twice held a world record for producing high-efficiency solar cells.
“There are all these people out there who can’t put PV [photovoltaic panels] on their roofs, or people who have shaded roofs, or are waiting for the technology to improve. During the course of that discussion, that group of people realised they could be the ones to do it.”
Wendy, who has a background in commercial and corporate law, says investors can expect to receive a five per cent return, with mostly ‘mum and dad’ investors putting forward $500 to as much as $100,000.
“There’s no big shareholder behind the project and each member of the community has one vote regardless of how much you put in,” says Wendy.
“We’re really glad it’s stayed that way,” says Michelle.
The SolarShare community of Canberra-only residents believe their farm can become a proof-of-concept for more community energy projects in other parts of Australia.
They say their project will power at least 250 homes in Canberra and will contribute more than $400,000 each year back to investors and service providers. The solar farm will also put more than 2.2GWh of energy into the grid, while offsetting more than 1800 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
Wendy says the sense of community around the project is driving the desire for change, while also tapping into initiatives of the ACT Government and major political parties which see renewable energy as a key platform ahead of the 2020 ACT election campaign.
“This is something purely positive that we can do and people are really enthusiastic to the point of wanting to see it happen straight away,” says Michelle.
“It’s all been word of mouth to get it to this point, but we’re really excited to see it finally happening.”
After a tender process, Epho and CWP Renewables were chosen to build the solar farm and install the panels, which will rotate to track the sun and take advantage of the latest technology.
Wendy says the past 18 months have seen lots of energy put into the project, and the solar farm community will look to invest in similar projects now they have a structure in place and know all the rules and regulations.
“Solar is growing massively now, but a lot of it is owned by international companies so things such as this that allow the community to invest in their future energy supply are unique and quite lovely,” says Michelle.
The three-hectare solar farm will generate 1.3-megawatt and is being built next to the commercially-owned 2.3MW Majura solar farm on vacant land leased from Mount Majura Vineyard.
“It has been a very handy location for many of our meetings,” says Wendy. “So there’s definitely a mutually beneficial arrangement in place.”