Australia’s first solar garden takes the renewables boom to the community

Farmer Gemma Purcell doesn’t have to worry about the next drought affecting her newest ‘crop’. 

All it needs is sunshine.

In a paddock of her farm, a community garden of sorts has sprouted.

But instead of producing grain and livestock, her land now helps generate enough electricity to power about 700 homes.

The first hint of the Haystacks Solar Farm near Grong Grong, about five-and-a-half hour’s drive from Sydney, is a subtle glint of sunshine as it bounces off the PV panels.

A plot on Gemma Purcell’s land the “size of a Bunnings car park” now hosts several rows of solar panels with the capacity to generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity.

But it’s not its size or the technology of her solar farm that makes it special.

A sign for the town of Grong Grong, calling it a small, caring community of 150 people
Community spirit is alive and well in Grong Grong, a small town on the Newell Highway east of Narrandera.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

As an Australian first, the Haystacks solar farm offers a share in the power of the sun to those otherwise excluded from the solar boom.

Solar inequality

In a country infamous for its political ‘climate wars’, rooftop solar is a national success story – a bipartisan winner. 

Australia has the world’s highest rates of rooftop solar per capita, with around one in every three homes generating their own power, driving a monumental transition in Australia’s electricity grid.  

Solar players benefit from cheaper electricity bills and the knowledge they are helping to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But not everyone can enjoy these benefits.

With a third of Australians renting, home ownership is one of the biggest barriers for people to participate in solar.

Most landlords haven’t invested in solar panels because they don’t get the benefit of lower power bills. Another reason is landlords remain unconvinced that tenants would want to pay more for a property with solar.

As a result, 90 per cent of renters don’t have access to solar, a Macquarie University study shows.

Haystacks director Kristy Walters says the project is attractive to those keen to be part of the solar juggernaut, who for various reasons can’t host their own solar panels.

A woman's portrait photo. She is smiling
Haystacks director Kristy Walters believes in tackling climate challenges on a community level.(ABC News: Jo Lauder)

“One of the key one is renters, or people living in apartments … but also people that have a shady roof, or it might be heritage listed, or it has shale or something that isn’t suitable for installing rooftop solar on it,” she says.

Harvesting the sun’s energy

More than 170 people have now become ‘solar gardeners’, having purchased a ‘plot’ on the privately owned farm in Grong Grong. The solar farm started producing energy this month.

Each ‘plot’ cost $4,200, which buys approximately three kilowatts of solar panels in the array.

The ‘solar gardeners’, who mostly live in cities hours away, are getting returns of $505, possibly higher, locked in for the next decade, depending on the electricity market.

The returns are credited directly to their electricity bills.

As well as buying their solar plot, each of them is also a member of the cooperative that oversees the project.

“We specifically chose a co-op, because we really liked the democratic values that are baked into that model, where everyone who becomes a member has a vote in any major decision,” Walters said.

Haystacks might be a small fish in the pond of renewables developments, but has its own benefits.

Like large-scale projects, it’s situated in an ideal location for sunshine, and uses the same single-axis tracking panels that rotate to follow the sun’s journey across the sky each day.

Whereas major solar farms require expensive transmission infrastructure upgrades to take the power from the panels to people’s homes, Haystacks can plug into the existing grid with only minor adjustments.

Lines of solar panels on a paddock
The panels at the farm plug into the existing grid.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

“It connects to the poles and wires and the distribution line that we see in all of our streets, so it’s a lot more accessible,” Walters said.

The energy equivalent to a shared garden, Haystack lets its owners ‘grow’ power away from the place they live.

“If you live in a tiny apartment and you want to grow some tomatoes but you don’t have anywhere to grow them, you would rent a plot in the community garden, ” Walters says.

“If you want to generate solar energy, but you don’t have a rooftop to do that on, you purchase a plot and you get solar energy from that.”

Furrows in solar schemes

Community solar gardens are no perfect replacement for rooftop solar and lack some of the financial benefits.

Households with rooftop solar avoid some of the network fees by using the electricity before it goes into the grid, according to Dr Bjorn Sturmberg, an energy research fellow at the Australian National University.

“Your electricity bill has network charges on it, and those are calculated on a per unit basis. So the more electricity you use, the more you pay towards the upkeep of the poles and wires in your area,” he explained.

Rooftop solar also reduces demand when there is pressure on the grid, such as during heatwaves, whereas solar garden owners continue to draw electricity from the grid.

A red-brick home in a manicured garden with rooftop solar
Solar users not only save on electricity costs but also on additional network costs. (ABC News: Jess Davis)
Apartment towers in Rivervale, Perth
Most people living in apartment blocks are excluded from the benefits of solar energy.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

“It’s important to be clear that initiatives like the solar gardens are not as financially rewarding as rooftop solar, and that they’re never going to be,” Dr Sturmberg said.

While some experts see community renewable projects as an empowering way for communities to share in the financial windfalls from the energy transition, others say they merely highlight the frustrating gaps in policy and the lack of mandated energy efficiency standards for rentals.

“Community energy is a pretty broad term to describe how different collections of citizens acting to try and generally to try and speed up the energy transition, and often many cases, also to try and make that transition a bit fairer,” Dr Sturmberg said.

A birds-eye view of a solar filed with solar panels in a countryside
Small-scale projects like the Grong Grong farm are harder to fit into the energy system.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

But the energy system is favoured toward large-scale projects, according to Dr Sturmberg.

“The energy system is kind of becoming bifurcated into really large generators, such as huge wind farms and solar farms that produce hundreds of megawatts of power … and then rooftop solar,” he explained.

“It’s very difficult to kind of be in that middle ground between those two. In the case of this community solar garden, it’s fantastic to see it actually come to fruition.”

But, in the absence of either carrots or sticks to coerce landlords into providing efficient homes with rooftop solar, some renters are forging ahead with community schemes to invest in renewable energy.

Sowing seeds for a cleaner future

Justine Lloyd had rented the same Randwick apartment for 17 years, a dark brick art deco block of six, typical of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

A lifelong renter, she knew it was unlikely her landlord would agree to put solar on their apartment block roof.

A woman looking out of the window of a dark brick house
Being a solar energy producer had always been out of reach for renter Justine Lloyd … until now.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

“The landlord doesn’t want to do any repairs, let alone improvements, so we knew straight away when we moved in that we couldn’t have solar,” she said.

Ms Lloyd jumped at the opportunity to become a “solar gardener” and invest in the co-op model, where as a member she would have a say in decisions regarding the project.

“I feel principles behind the solar garden are really great, because you’re actually sharing the infrastructure. No one person has to set it up and be responsible for it,” she said.

The benefits of being a ‘solar gardener’ really hit home when Ms Lloyd recently got her notice that she had to move from the place she called home for almost two decades.

“I don’t have to pick up my solar panels and take them with me every time I move,” she said.

“As a renter, my housing is probably short-term. You just never know where you’re going to be living next year.”

Justine recognises this isn’t the same as having solar on your roof, but she sees it as an opportunity to invest in renewable energy.

“The power’s going in the grid and doesn’t necessarily come exactly to my house but it is by taking away the need for building more coal fired power stations or more fossil fuel investment,” she said.

“I get to be part of that climate and energy solution.”

It was the same driver for fellow ‘solar gardener’ Haryana Dhillon, who rents a city terrace house with a skylight and attic window, making the roof space too small for solar.

Haryana feels good knowing the power she uses is being generated by a renewable source.

“So climate change was a really big factor, wanting to do whatever we could to minimise the impact of climate change,” she explained.

“It was the potential that this was actually something that was feasible and could be a demonstration for other people around the country.

“And the more that other people and the government and politicians see that, I think, the more likely they are to take it more seriously.”

Bjorn Sturmberg from ANU and other energy experts believe there’s an ultimate fix to these issues.

A portrait of a man, smiling
Bjorn Sturmberg says there is only one way to solve energy inequality – accelerate the green transition.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

“The best thing we can do is to accelerate the transition of the whole national electricity grid to be more renewables, [that’s] therefore cleaner and cheaper.

“Once that’s the case, there’ll be less of an imbalance between those who rent than those who own properties and have solar.”

He also thinks governments should focus on the demand side of electricity: that is, how it’s used in Australian homes.

“It is absolutely inescapable, and of utmost importance that we also help rental properties, apartments and social housing have more efficient and electrified homes,” he said.

A new crop

Farmer Gemma Purcell is the perfect embodiment of the power of community energy to bring people together.

Her resentment at the lack of climate action drove her to plant the first seeds for the solar farm about eight years ago, after meeting experts at a community renewables event.

“I was becoming eternally grumpy and frustrated with the inertia at government level in terms of climate action, emissions reduction, and the energy transition,” she explained, surrounded by the red dirt and gleaming metal of the panels.  

Having the solar farm in the mix also helped her future-proofing her operations.

“It’s an income stream as well, which just hedges your risks through times of drought or difficulty. Goodness knows it just gets tougher and tougher,” she commented. 

“Taking action is a bit of a survival tactic in a way.” 

She said she hadn’t faced any opposition to the project from the local community, which had minimal impact on its surroundings.

“People are happy to see some medium-scale infrastructure. We have big wheat silos in the landscape, things that are of a scale of this,” she said.

Paving the way with the first community model for renewable energy wasn’t easy, she admitted, but she hoped others would soon follow her example.

“Most farmers are in favour of renewable energy, they’re across it, they understand it, and farmers are very high tech operators,” she said.

A drone image of the solar arrays at a solar farm in the countryside
Gemma Purcell hopes the Haystacks farm can serve as a template for future developments like it.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)
a close up of a solar panel on a rural property
The arrays on the farm can produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)
A vertical view of a solar panel on a rural property
Solar farmers are guaranteed an annual return of at least $505.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)
Rows of solar panels on a rural property
The farm is jointly owned by the members of the co-op.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

The solar farm has also helped Gemma Purcell future-proof her business.

“It’s exciting because it is a proof of concept, it’s replicable.

“Hopefully, the what part of the community energy side of it is that the entire process is templated, which means now that the next one should be much simpler.”

The federal government committed $100 million in funding for solar banks, a shared solar system to help households that can’t install their own.

Haystacks director Kristy Walters is hopeful this funding will see more projects like the farm near Grong Grong blossom.

“It’s really popular in the United States and in Europe, and countries like Germany. But this is the first time it’s come to Australia,” she said.

Despite its imperfections, it seems like community energy and projects like this are here to stay, with all the plots at the solar farm sold out, and the desire to participate in the energy transition still motivating many Australians.

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