Community Energy for Goulburn (CE4G) directors were excited to raise more than half a million dollars - a quarter of the sum needed - for their proposed solar farm at their first investor information meeting at the Goulburn Workers' Club on Wednesday. Five years of hard work have paid off since CE4G began.
The solar farm will be the biggest community-owned one in NSW, and the first in Australia with battery backup. Built on 2.5 hectares off Bridge Street, it is expected to start operating next July. The farm will generate 1.8 megawatts (MW), and pump 1.2 MW into the grid - enough to power 450 homes.
"It's obvious that people are looking for safe ethical investment opportunities," CE4G president Peter Fraser said. "With the closing of coal-fired power stations just around the corner, the supply of electricity will have to be met with renewables, and the solar farm will be well positioned to meet that demand."
"Last night is the culmination of a massive amount of work, which is why we're so thrilled at the result," vice-president Ed Suttle said. "We all entered the meeting hoping - but if we'd been asked at 6.30, will you settle for half a million? the answer would have been a huge grinning 'Yes!'. Having said that, we still need to raise another $1.5 million. That was a stunning start, but there's still a way to go."
CE4G will hold a webinar on Wednesday, October 28, and a public meeting on November 4. Registration for both is at www.goulburnsolarfarm.com.au.
More than 150 people attended Wednesday night's event - the city's first public meeting since COVID-19 began. Some people bought $400 worth of shares (the minimum share price, approximately the cost of a solar panel, fully wired-up), Mr Suttle said; more than one heavy investor bought $50,000 worth of shares.
"That shows enormous confidence in the scheme from the community," Mr Suttle said. "Those of us who have worked on this for four or five years are staggeringly proud that we can at last go to the community and say the thing is viable. It's 'investment-safe'; it's going to happen - invest! ..."
Mr Suttle said that he and his wife were not alone in purchasing shares for their children and grand-children.
Conservative cash flow estimates, Mr Suttle said, indicate a return on investment of between 4 to 7 per cent each year for the first decade. At the same time, enough money will be put into a sinking fund to raise $850,000 after 10 years to purchase new panels to increase the farm's output if technologies change.
"At the moment, it would appear - with all the normal disclaimers - to be a very lucrative investment," Mr Suttle said. "We've now got the weight of responsibility to make it happen, and ensure that it's profitable, so that everyone gets the dividends we've promised."
A co-op will run the project; each investor will have a single vote, regardless of how many shares they own. This, CE4G states, will ensure all investors - no matter what their investment - have an equal say in how the project is built and managed. Nearly all the shares will be owned by regional investors; that means profits will go back to them, and stay within the community, rather than going off to a major company, Mr Suttle explained.
Up to 20 per cent of the profits can be put aside each year for charitable purposes, Mr Suttle said. CE4G has negotiated below-commercial rate level lease payments for the land, which increases the profitability. Shareholders can donate part or all of their dividend on a tax-deductible manner to a community fund run by Anglicare to help Goulburn residents who struggle to pay for electricity.
"It really is a community effort," Mr Suttle said. "It [brings in] money to those who can afford to buy shares, but it also benefits those who in their wildest dreams would never even think of buying a share in anything."
CE4G was founded in 2015 after members of the Goulburn Group attended a seminar about community energy in Canberra. At that forum, the then-Department of Environment and Heritage announced there was grant money available for local communities to conduct a feasibility study about the viability of a community-owned renewable energy farm.
A senior manager from Divall's Haulage was one of those present; he realised that his company owned a suitable site on derelict land. Within three weeks, the group submitted the application for the study; six months later, they received the grant; and a further six months later, the solar farm was deemed viable.
A $2.1 million grant from the NSW government under the Regional Community Energy program allowed CE4G to purchase a battery that can store 400 MW. This will capture low-cost electricity in the middle of the day that can be sold into the grid at peak prices in the evening.
Between now and February, Mr Suttle said, CE4G will finalise design work, including the details of the connection to the grid. Big machinery will be on site within a month; in March, racking will be dug into the ground, panels will be attached, wiring put in, batteries will arrive, and the solar farm should be ready to switch on in July.
Opal O'Neill, president of the local Pejar Aboriginal Land Council, told Wednesday's audience: "When you look back on helping create this amazing piece of work, you will feel a sure sense of pride because you will know you have helped Goulburn take an amazing leap into the world of the future with renewable clean energy. I know that there is nothing more meaningful to a community than making it greater for everyone."
From November 20, CE4G will open investments to wider NSW and the ACT. Mr Suttle said there was pent-up demand; people in Canberra, Bowral, Sydney, and Melbourne, even Perth and Queensland, wanted to invest.
"But this is a community-owned solar farm," Mr Suttle said. "We dearly hope that the vast majority of investment, if not all, comes from the immediate Goulburn region."