Australia launches first project to enable apartment dwellers to join nation’s solar panel frenzy

Australia, which has a dry and sunny climate, has the world’s highest per-capita take-up of solar panels.

Jonathan Pearlman

Jonathan Pearlman

The Straits Times


Emma Dortins and her son, August, 9, outside their Sydney home, whose roof could not accommodate solar panels. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EMMA DORTINS/THE STRAITS TIMES

October 25, 2023

SYDNEY – For years, Ms Emma Dortins, who lives in an inner-city suburb of Sydney, wanted to join the millions of other households across Australia which have solar panels on the roof of their home.

Australia, which has a dry and sunny climate, has the world’s highest per-capita take-up of solar panels. About 3.3 million households have solar panels, producing about 8 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

The difficulty for Ms Dortins, a 45-year-old civil servant who lives with her husband and nine-year-old son, was that their house, which was built more than 120 years ago, has an old roof that would not be able to handle the weight of solar panels.

But Ms Dortins has taken part in a new project that will allow her to finally join Australia’s solar transformation – a “solar garden” being built on farmland in New South Wales (NSW) which allows residents of densely populated cities to own panels even if they cannot have them on their rooftop.

The project, called Haystacks Solar Garden, is the first such project in Australia, enabling people who rent or live in apartments to access solar power.

“We were keen to get into solar more quickly than we could otherwise,” Ms Dortins told The Straits Times.

“It’s a way to do it without having solar on your own roof. And you don’t have to worry about maintenance, or whether there may be some solar panels that aren’t working well.”

The Haystacks Solar Garden, which has 3,078 panels, is being built at Grong Grong, about 450km from Ms Dortins’ home in Sydney.

It has 330 “plots”, which cost A$4,200 (S$3,600) each to own for a 10-year period.

All the plots – each due to generate about 4,200 kilowatt-hour of electricity per year – have been sold, though the project is not due to start operating until late in 2023 or in January 2024.

The solar garden is connected to the main electricity grid and has a deal with an energy firm, which effectively pays the owners of the plots for the electricity they produce.

The owners are expected to receive about A$505 a year off their electricity bills for the next decade.

The chairwoman of the Haystacks scheme, Ms Kristy Walters, said the plots were bought by “all kinds of people”.

Those who buy the plot must live in states across eastern and southern Australia, where the energy retailer involved in the scheme operates.

“The buyers included people who have wanted to have solar panels for ages and finally do,” she said. “Some adults have bought plots for their kids living in apartments in cities.”

The project, based on similar schemes in the United States and Europe, is particularly targeted at those who are unable to access solar energy at their home.

About 35 per cent of Australia’s 26.8 million residents live in rental accommodation or in apartments.

Ms Walters said the Haystacks scheme was expected to pave the way for further community-based solar projects across the country.

The scheme received grants from the federal and NSW governments, and partnered a Sydney local council to help promote it.

“Renters and people in apartments really struggle to be part of the renewable transition because they can’t easily install solar panels on their homes,” Ms Walters said.

Australia, a major exporter of fossil fuels, has committed to become a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050.

As a vast nation with a relatively small population, the country has pinned its hopes of cutting emissions by boosting supplies of renewable energy, particularly from solar and wind.

But the federal government appears to be struggling to meet its target of generating 82 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

Renewables generated 32 per cent of Australia’s electricity in 2022, up from 19 per cent in 2021, while fossil fuels generated 68 per cent.

Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen insisted in September that the government’s targets will be met.

“It’s not going to happen easily or overnight, but we are going to achieve it,” he told ABC Radio.

Solar power is the fastest growing source of electricity in the country, with households and large-scale solar farms together generating about 14 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

Wind power is the second-highest source of renewable energy, generating 11 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

Residents can often receive government subsidies worth thousands of dollars to install solar panels, and can usually receive payments from their energy provider for excess power that they feed back into the grid.

Solar garden schemes may help to further boost the supply of solar power and encourage construction of large-scale solar farms in regional areas. Still, many residents would like to own their own panels above their heads.

Ms Dortins said she is excited about owning a plot in the Haystacks solar garden for the next 10 years.

She added: “Then, in 10 years, we might invest in rebuilding our roof.”

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