ARENA backs "solar gardens" trial, in bid to boost access to PV

A “solar gardens” trial project – based on the concept of sharing the benefits of rooftop solar with those who can’t install it, for either logistical or financial reasons – has won backing from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
ARENA said on Thursday that it was providing $240,000 towards a feasibility study of the viability of setting up solar gardens in five locations around Australia, across three states.
Solar gardens are centralised solar arrays, established so that community members can buy or lease PV panels, and then credit the electricity they generate to their home power bill.
Not unlike community veggie patches, the idea is that they give the one-third of Australians who rent, or live in apartments and low income housing – or in other words, people who don’t have their own roof – access to the benefits of solar.

As we reported here on One Step, the problem of how to unlock solar for renters and residents of apartment buildings and other shared accommodation remains a major barrier to true solar democracy in Australia, where rooftop PV has otherwise been such a success story.
According to data from the 2017 national Census, there are nine council areas in greater Sydney, alone, where more than half of residents are “locked out” of solar. And in North Sydney, almost three-quarters of residents can’t access solar because they are renters or live in apartment buildings.
And while more and more innovative schemes are being rolled out to try to combat this problem – including from SunTenants, Enova, AGL Energy and ShineHub – there is plenty more work to be done.
The $555,000 ARENA-backed Social Access Solar Gardens trials would involve energy retailers, councils, community energy agencies and social welfare organisations, and the NSW government, and would be tested in Blacktown, Shoalhaven and Byron Bay in NSW; Swan Hill in Victoria, and Townsville in Queensland.
The UTS feasibility study, which will be led by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, has the twin goals of considering both consumer demand and feasibility, and identifying barriers to adoption.
The work will be guided by ISF research associate and director of Community Power Agency Nicky Ison, who has been a tireless advocate for solar equality in Australia, and who wrote about the importance of community energy on this website here.
ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said initiatives such as this were an important step in giving Australian consumers more options for reining in their energy bills.
“We’re excited to be supporting the feasibility into a concept that will allow people from all backgrounds and living circumstances to benefit from renewable energy,” he said.
“Solar gardens have been popular in the US, with the fast growing market seeing 200MW of shared solar gardens already in operation.”
NSW energy minister Don Harwin said the state was excited to support the Social Access Solar Gardens trials, to help more consumers save money on their energy bills.
“These trials will help renters, and people in apartments and low-income households who are currently missing out on the benefits of rooftop solar to share in the renewable energy boom currently underway in [NSW],” he said.
The project builds on previous work undertaken by ISF in the ARENA funded project Facilitating Local Network Charges and Virtual Net Metering which explored the theoretical impact of reduced local network charges for partial use of the electricity network, and the conditions required to support local electricity trading.

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