Australian community imagines inclusive solar project

Imagine all the people… reaching into their pockets to help their community adopt a solar future. Well, imagine no more because that is exactly what is happening in Tathra, a small town in New South Wales, Australia, where a 50 kW solar installation has been agreed between the Bega Valley Shire Council and local renewable energy association, Clean Energy for Eternity (CEFE).

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed at the weekend for the solar array to be installed at the Tathra Sewage Treatment Plant, where it will provide half of the plant’s energy needs. And in an effort to elicit heightened public interest in the project, the array will be arranged so that it spells out the word "Imagine" that will be visible to air passengers arriving and departing on flights from nearby Merimbula airport.

CEFE and the Bega Shire Council have each invested AUSD$25,000 (USD$23,480) in the project, with the former supported in part by donations raised for the annual Tathra Enduro Mountain Bike Race, organized by the Tathra Mountain Bike Club. A further $5,000 was pledged by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage.

Thus far, more than half of the 38 solar panels planned for the array have been bought by local individuals, businesses and community groups. Panel owners have their names listed on a permanent signage on site for the entire 25-year duration of the installation.

"The project has been close to our hearts for seven to eight years now and it’s great that it has finally begun to come to fruition," said CEFE project manager, Prue Kelly, who added that the support from Bega Shire Council has been "tremendous" and that the solar farm should be up and running by the end of the year.

"Through the development of this community partnership, Council and CEFE are set to form part of the emerging Community Renewable Energy sector, which has been operating internationally for over 20 years but only in the last five years has it kicked off in Australia," said Bega Valley Shire Council’s environmental manager, Daniel Murphy. "Through the project model proposed, a proportion of the financial savings generated by the solar panels will be used to assist the community install renewable energy on community buildings in the Shire."

From community level right up to utility scale, solar deployment in Australia has accelerated with great speed over the past 18 months. Earlier this year U.S. solar company First Solar broke ground on a 102 MW PV project, also in New South Wales, while NPD Solarbuzz earlier revealed that the country now boasts more than 3 GW of installed PV capacity nationwide.

However, despite public support for solar and evident interest from overseas, there have been worrying rumblings recently that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is preparing to devastate Australia’s Renewable Energy Target Program, prompting the Australian solar council to launch a "Save Solar" campaign.