When Ash asked his property manager to pass on a request to the landlord to install solar panels at his Sydney rental, he knew it was a shot in the dark and probably going to fail.
Why would the landlord pay for the panels if Ash, a tenant he’d never met, would reap the lower power bills?
“It wasn’t the most enticing offer,” Ash said.
“The property manager said thanks for the idea, but the landlord is not ready for it.”
Australia has an exceptionally high uptake of rooftop solar, but for millions of households, installing panels is not an option, even when they can afford them.
They’re either renting, living in an apartment, or their roof is too shaded.
All up, a whopping one-third of all households are unable to directly participate in the switch to renewables — meaning they’re locked out of saving money through cheaper power bills.
The most vulnerable, low-income electricity users fall into this category.
One proposed solution to this is community solar energy gardens, where households can invest in a “plot” in a solar array elsewhere, and then get credits on their electricity bill.
The latest national Energy Consumer Sentiment Survey, commissioned by Energy Consumers’ Australia (ECA), suggests the idea is growing in popularity, with almost three-quarters of family households interested in buying power from a local community solar garden.
But despite the idea being around for some time, and popular in the US, Australia has only one tiny solar garden.
So what are solar gardens, and why has the idea been slow to catch on?
How do solar gardens work?
Australia’s first and only 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.
The NCCH pays Enova Energy, a local community-owned retailer, for any electricity it uses from the array.
The money generated by that purchase is converted to electricity bill credits and divided between 24 “solar gardeners”, who are a mix of local community groups and NCCH social housing tenants.
“We’ve provided $1,000 in bill credits to four community organisations in the 2021 financial year and tenants have been provided around $4,500 in credits on energy bills,” said Felicity Stening, Enova’s managing director.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to provide credits onto people’s bills that comes from solar generated on someone else’s roof.”
A second, much larger solar garden planned to be built in the Riverina region of NSW is taking a different approach.
The Haystacks Solar Garden will be a collection of 330 3kW plots totalling 1MW.
Customers, who can be anywhere in NSW, will pay about $4,200 to own a plot and receive credits on their electricity bills.
The project is in the final stages of getting financial approvals and grid connections completed, says Kristy Walters from the Community Power Agency, which is a partner in the project.
“We’re hoping to go ahead and start construction next year,” she said.
Australians ‘thinking about solar in new ways’
Though solar gardens have been slow to catch on compared to privately-owned rooftop panels, there’s evidence of growing public interest in community-owned energy generation and storage.
Most people responding to the Energy Consumer Sentiment Survey said it was unfair renters and those living in apartments could not access solar.
A sizeable majority backed the government installing solar and batteries in community housing and incentivising landlords and apartment complex owners to do the same.
Almost half of the households said initiatives such as solar gardens should be supported by government investment.
This points to a change in the way many Australians are thinking about solar and energy in general, ECA chief executive officer Lynne Gallagher said.
Previous surveys have shown that values of independence and self-sufficiency motivate people to get solar panels.
This survey suggests there’s emerging interest in a more community-oriented way of looking at energy — something to share and a way to help neighbours and take part in a common enterprise.
“The rise of rooftop solar in Australia has been a world-leading success. But we know the benefits have not been equally available to all,” said Ms. Gallagher, whose organisation represents residential owners and small businesses.
“We are now seeing an appetite for new models of generating and storing clean energy that are more local, more community based and can be enjoyed by all.”
Extending solar subsidies to renters, apartment-dwellers
Earlier this month, Labor unveiled a climate plan that includes a proposal for dozens of “solar banks” — another name for solar gardens.
Under the plan, a Labor government would invest $100 million to support the creation of 85 solar gardens, which Labor says could allow more than 25,000 households to share in the benefits of solar power.
The funding would subsidise up to 50 percent of the capital cost of a project.
A 2018 feasibility study part-funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) also proposed a capital subsidy of 50 percent to make solar gardens financially viable.
This would work out to about $2,400-$4,200 per household, the report said.
Its lead author, Jay Rutovitz from the University of Technology Sydney, pointed out that households have been enjoying generous government subsidies for years, in the form of solar panel rebates.
Subsidising solar gardens would extend this welfare to a further third of households.
“There’s also a strong equity argument for making solar available to people for whom it’s not been available to,” Ms. Rutovitz said.
Should community energy pay full network costs?
But Ms. Rutovitz, who is the research director with the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, added that subsidies did not go far enough and it was necessary to reform the electricity system.
She proposed that energy customers who got their power from a nearby community-owned solar array should not have to pay as much for transmission as an energy customer who got their power from further away and relied on costly long-distance transmission.
“We need to have some kind of local network tariff for community solar and community batteries as well,” Ms. Rutovitz said.
Network charges, aka the cost of delivering power, make up a large proportion of a standard electricity bill.
In the US, solar gardens don’t have to pay this cost, and there are now 3.4 gigawatts of installed community solar across 41 states.
“In Australia, we gave subsidies to put solar on the roof, while in the US they said that for anyone that sets up a solar farm, the consumer is not to be charged network charges,” Ms. Rutovitz said.
“It’s a different way of structuring the subsidies and it’s had perverse effects in both places. They got massive amounts of centralised solar farms and very little rooftop.”
Enova Energy’s Ms. Stening said government funding was needed to “get these projects off the ground”.
The Haystacks project is supported by a grant from the NSW government.
Ms. Walters from the Community Power Agency said the financial rewards of solar gardens would never be as good as having a rooftop solar system, but they were better than no solar savings at all.
Ash, who’s still renting in Sydney and remains locked out of access to solar, has signed up for the Haystacks project.
He hopes to soon buy a plot in the array.
“This is a no-brainer,” he said.
“Renters and tenants get a really shit experience. I don’t have any power in this whole landlord gameplay.
“But this is a tangible thing I can invest in.”
Article originally published by ABC News MSN
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