What are community solar gardens?

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Generating solar power within the home can bring many great benefits; both to energy bills and usage. However, these benefits are often limited to homeowners, with renters lucking out when it comes to solar.

In fact, nearly three-fifths (55%) of Aussie households strongly or somewhat agree that it is unfair that people who rent are less likely to have access to rooftop solar or battery storage, according to Energy Consumers Australia latest sentiment survey. But it seems there may be a solution on the horizon – community solar gardens. 

These gardens are slowly making their way into the Australian energy space and can serve as a great alternative for those unable to install their own solar system. But just what entails a community solar garden and how exactly do they work? In this guide, Canstar Blue breaks down the process of a community solar garden and shares all you need to know, from the benefits to their common price point. 

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What is a community solar garden?

A community solar garden is a collection of centrally-located, grid-connected solar PV panels that give multiple households and businesses access to the financial benefits of solar. These gardens are often constructed in a sunny spot within the existing electricity grid and are used to generate clean, renewable electricity that can then be fed into the grid.

With a solar garden, consumers can purchase or subscribe to a section of the panels in order to access the financial rewards associated with generating electricity from the sun. Typically, solar gardens are used by those who cannot access solar energy on their own property. 

How does a community solar garden work?

Little girl walking past solar panels with a sunflower in her hand

A community solar garden is normally run by a third-party company which is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the solar panel collection. Consumers can then rent or purchase a selection of the panels within the garden, often referred to as a ‘plot’, to access the benefits of solar power. In turn, the ‘solar gardener’ will be financially rewarded on their energy bill for the electricity that has been generated through the panels within their plot, usually with a bill credit

The key thing to note with a solar garden is that customers will only be receiving the financial benefits of solar. As the solar panels from the garden are connected directly to the grid and not the bill-payers home, they will not receive a direct supply of solar energy to their property through a solar garden. The idea of a garden is to merely replicate the financial rewards and credits that can be achieved through solar energy generation for customers who cannot access solar, usually as a result of renting or high up-front costs.

How do I get my credits from the solar garden put on my energy bill?

In order to receive the credits earnt from your solar plot on your electricity bill, your energy provider will generally need to be in partnership with the solar garden that you have joined. This way they can track the electricity that has been generated through your plot and reward you bill credits accordingly. 

When you join a solar garden, there is usually already an electricity provider that is in partnership with the garden. This could mean that in order to receive your bill credits, you may need to switch energy providers. 

Is there a difference between community solar gardens and social benefit solar gardens?

Yes, there is a slight difference between these two solar garden models. With a community solar garden, it is owned by the community, for the community. This means that it is open to local apartment dwellers, renters and small businesses to invest in and gain in electricity savings over time, without the need to install solar panels on their own roof. Households and businesses under this model will purchase a plot within the garden to help them earn solar credits. 

With a social benefit model, these gardens are typically open to charities and low-income households to help them gain access to solar. These types of gardens are usually available to these groups at no extra cost. Social benefit solar gardens can be funded through donations or community partnerships. 

What are the benefits of joining a community solar garden?

There are a few notable benefits to joining a community solar garden. Some of these include:

Lightbulb in soil with pile of coins and plants next to it

  • Solar energy access without installation: Joining a community solar garden means you can reap the rewards of solar without having to worry about installation. This makes it a great alternative for renters who may not otherwise be able to access solar power. 
  • Lower costs: In some instances, buying a plot of panels within a garden can work out slightly cheaper than installing a solar system on your rooftop
  • Can still access credits even if you move homes: Unlike rooftop solar panels which typically can’t be taken with you when you move, solar gardens and their remote set up mean that even when you move homes, you’ll generally still have access to your solar credits, granted of course, that you can stay with the provider in partnership with your garden. 
  • System maintenance monitored by someone else: Since solar gardens are usually managed by a third-party company, you won’t have to worry about organising maintenance and servicing for your panels. This should all be taken care of by the company in charge of the garden. 

Who can participate in a solar garden?

Solar gardens are generally open to any home or business property that can afford to purchase or rent a plot. However, most participants of a solar garden are usually renters or those who cannot otherwise access solar at their current property.

Are there any community solar gardens in Australia?

There is currently only one active solar garden in Australia – the North Coast Community Housing (NCCH) Solar Garden. However, there are currently developments in place for a second solar garden in New South Wales – Haystacks Solar Garden. 

As part of its ‘Powering Australia’ plan, the Australian Labor party has also proposed that it will commit $100 million to the development of 85 ‘solar banks’. Labor says these banks could support 25,000 households in their access to solar power. 

North Coast Community Housing (NCCH) Solar Garden

The North Coast Community Housing Solar Garden is a 35-kilowatt (kW) garden located in Lismore, NSW. The garden is built on the rooftop of the North Coast Community Housing office and is operated by community energy provider, Enova Energy

Classed as a ‘social-benefit’ solar garden, the NCCH garden allows residents within social housing to access solar power for no extra cost, as these gardens are entirely funded by donations and community partnerships. 

Haystacks Solar Garden

Currently under development, the Haystacks Solar Garden is a community solar garden to be located on a property in Grong Grong in the Riverina region of New South Wales. Enova Energy is also the power provider partner for this solar garden. 

The Haystacks Solar Garden is said to be the first of its kind for Australia, in that it is owned and managed by the community. There will be 333 solar plots available for purchase in this solar garden, each to the size of 3kW. Project partners of this garden include; community renewables group, Pingala, solar developer, Komo Energy and community-led energy projects experts, Community Power Agency. 

This garden will only be open to NSW residents and bill-payers will receive their credits through Enova Energy. 

How much does it cost to join a solar garden?

The cost of joining a solar garden will vary greatly depending on factors such as the size of the garden, how many members can access the garden and whether or not it is a subscription-based or ownership-based model. An ownership-based model may require an initial set-up cost when joining, whereas a subscription-based model may just charge a monthly fee. Generally, however, you can expect the cost to be slightly cheaper than that of installing your own solar system. 

The upcoming Haystacks Solar Garden, for example, uses an ownership-based model, wherein bill-payers purchase and then own the solar panels within their plot. According to the Enova Energy website, the estimated costs for one of the 3kW plots available through the Haystacks Solar Garden is between $4,000 and $4,200. 

Solar Plans & Prices

There are some energy plans marketed towards customers with solar panels that offer a higher feed-in tariff than standard electricity plans. Below are a handful of these deals that are available in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Ausgrid network in Sydney but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 3900kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Citipower network in Melbourne but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Energex network in Brisbane but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4600kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on SA Power network in Adelaide but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Is it worth joining a community solar garden?

Joining a community solar garden will depend entirely on personal circumstances. If you are a renter or live in a home that isn’t suitable for rooftop solar panels, getting involved with a community solar garden can be a great way to access the financial benefits and rewards of solar power generation. 

But, if you’re purely looking for a way to access solar energy at home, then a solar garden may not be the answer for you. Especially if you aren’t looking to or aren’t able to change your electricity provider to one that is in partnership with your chosen solar garden. 

If you decide that a solar garden isn’t the right move for you and you’d much prefer to install your own panel system at your home, be sure to check out our latest report below to see which solar installers Aussies have rated best in the business.

Compare Solar Installers

Image credit: Rene Notenbomer/Shutterstock.com, FotoHelin/Shutterstock.com, Krisana Antharith/Shutterstock.com. 

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