Australia’s first “solar garden” bears fruit for NSW community housing tenants

Australia’s first “solar garden,” a 35kW communal solar PV array in Lismore, New South Wales, has been completed and is delivering energy savings to 19 social housing tenants, four community organisations and North Coast Community Housing.

Enova Community Energy said on Thursday that the PV system had been installed on the rooftop of North Coast Community Housing to generate cheap solar power for “solar gardeners,” or households that could not access it themselves.

Enova, the local community owned retailer which has also pioneered the systems and processes used to distribute the benefits of the solar garden – in this case, in the form of energy bill credits – says the completion of the Lismore project is a key milestone on the path to building resilient communities.

It is also a precursor to the company’s plans to deliver a commercial, community-owned solar garden, which solar gardeners could buy into, in the coming six months.

“Creating the first behind the meter solar garden in this country truly marks a turning point,” Enova CEO Felicity Stening said in a statement. “This is taking local, distributed renewable energy rightback to where it belongs: with the people in communities.”

In the case of the NCCH project, the garden used a social model, fully funded by project partners, to demonstrate how solar gardens can be used to extend the benefits of renewable energy to low-income households.

“Hosting this solar garden generates real and immediate impacts,” said North Coast Community Housing CEO John McKenna in comments on Thursday.

“Financial relief for tenants and funds that NCCH would otherwise have spent on electricity bills, recirculated back into our work.”

Enova says it expects around $160,000 to flow back through the community from the solar garden, rather than being spent on electricity bills.

And it hopes to deliver plenty more projects like it, in partnership with other community housing organisations throughout Australia.

“This project provides the proof of concept that will inform our future solar gardens,” Stening said. “We’ll be working in partnership with community housing organisations throughout the country to deliver more solar gardens, strengthen communities and provide solar access to those locked out.”

As reported on One Step, Australian households that are “locked out” of the residential solar market number in the millions, and are not limited to low-income families.

According to national Census data from 2017, nine council areas in greater Sydney, alone, had more than half of residents “locked out” of solar. And in North Sydney, almost three-quarters of residents couldn’t access solar because they were renters or lived in apartment buildings.

More recent estimates from Community Power Agency – the main advocacy group for solar gardens in Australia – say that on average more than one-third of all Australian households are locked out of the rooftop solar market.

And while progress is being made by companies like Enova, and via innovative technologies such as that created by Allume Energy, solar gardens are late to bloom in Australia.

“Solar gardens are popular overseas, particularly in the USA where over 20 states have passed laws to encourage their development,” said CPA director Elizabeth Noble on Thursday.

“Enova are true pioneers in this space. The social dimension and potential of solar gardens very much marks the development of community-led solar gardens in Australia.”

Still, it has taken a lot of hard work.

“Overcoming regulatory and system barriers has been a huge aspect of this project and I’m thrilled to announce that we’ve done it,” said Enova chair Alison Crook on Thursday.

“Enova Community Energy has paved the way for solar gardens in Australia to take off, for the first time.”

The solar array was installed by Byron Bay-based Juno Energy, using LG 350 watt Neon 2 modules with a SolarEdge 27.6kW inverter and power optimisation to maximise production in the hot and sometimes cloudy conditions in the region.

“Juno Energy expects this is just the first of many Community Solar Gardens across Australia and has enjoyed the process of working with Enova, NCCH, and the installation team,” said Juno director Patrick Halliday.

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