Mid-Scale Solar can ease pressure on the NEM

The establishment of small to mid-scale solar arrays on farmland throughout Australia represents multiple opportunities to re-shape how and where we all source our energy. To date the supply of renewables into the National Energy Market has been largely bookended at one end by large scale arrays quickly establishing along the grid, and at the other end by the Australian home owner’s appetite for roof top PV.  Somewhere between these two extremes, along our long stringy grid, there surely is a sweet spot of opportunity for communities, regional manufacturers, local government and people locked out of the roof top solar market? 

Mid scale solar arrays require very little land. Replicated, they will become very cost efficient to establish and will provide muscle, flexibility and security in our transition to a decentralised renewable energy market. For regional Australia midscale solar provides lower entry points for local investment, opportunities for local power purchase agreements and power offtakes, and the ensuing attraction of midscale industry and employment.

The Haystacks Solar Garden which will be built on our farm at Grong Grong in South Western NSW, has  a very small footprint  in terms of mixed grazing and cropping. Its 1-megawatt  will occupy just three to four hectares of land, but generate enough electricity to supply the daytime energy needs of up to 300 homes. Its smaller scale also means that it can be connected to the main grid via the distribution network; the everyday poles and wires we see in our neighbourhoods and along our main roads.

The concept of a solar garden is new in Australia, and is being developed by Pingala, a citizen led co-operative focused on developing people-centred and socially just energy solutions. At its core the concept is very simple and based along the lines of a community garden, in that cooperative members have the opportunity to purchase plots (panels) in the solar garden and have the energy that is generated from the plot credited to their power bill. It is ideal for people in rental accommodation, apartments or homes that are not suitable for rooftop solar.

As farmers we think constantly about climate change, what practice changes we can make to help mitigate it, what impact it is having on the land, water and life we have in our care, what it means for how we grow food, what the cost of it will be for our environment, for our kids. It is our clear and present danger. For us, to host a solar garden that generates clean renewable energy alongside our crops and animals makes complete sense.

A gold rush is a good time to think slow.

As a mum, farmer  and citizen nerd I am interested in all things renewable in our region, especially projects that are generating clean power AND jobs, and paying something back into the local economy. I’m also interested in productive and environmentally sensitive land use. These two worlds are colliding in our region with the steady march of large scale renewable energy projects, and their hunger for large tracts of land in and around the national electricity grid.

So, it was good to meet with the team from the RES Group this week, who are developing the Avondale solar farm at Sandigo and understand how their business works and how they work with community. RES is the renewable energy arm of the McAlpine engineering group out of the UK. They have been developing primarily large scale wind projects in Australia, and now are moving toward large scale solar. These projects are coming on line in response to demand in the corporate market (think Telstra / Coca Cola) to source clean renewable energy. Because the policy environment on renewables in Australia has been shaky at best these corporates are entering into direct Power Purchase Agreements with groups like RES, who will build the system and supply the clean energy over a given period of time – say 25 years.

RES is currently working to ensure that the neighbouring community and shires are fully informed on the project and understand its parameters.

These large scale projects come with their challenges. There is the question of the change over in land use from the production of food to the production of energy – and how that will be accepted in the community. Large scale wind and solar can be an aesthetic challenge – yes they are big, and yes they are right in your eye – how do people feel about that. The job generation is there with dozens of direct jobs on the project ‘build’, and then the multiplier effect that a project of this scale has in the community – think accommodation, food supply, food service, fuel purchasing, cafes, kids in local schools etc as well as short term contracts such as plant and equipment hire, truck drivers, fencing contractors.

At a national scale it is good to see more large scale renewables going into the energy market mix (might save Snowy 2.0 from pumping coal uphill….).  At a community level we need to consider carefully the risks and benefits right here of these developments, what they mean over the long term, how we feel about the change over / multiple land use, ways we can work with developers to maximise the long term outcomes for the community.

Renewable energy is a good thing. Job creation and investment are good things. Robust planning frameworks and a community who puts the time into thinking through all of the issues and opportunites over the longer term are also a very good thing.

Remember from your history lessons the Chinese business model on the Australian gold fields?  In the main, they did not dig for gold, they grew and sold food, imported picks, shovels, tents, pots and pans and sold them to the diggers.  They found the opportunity without the risk.


So today I’m in Daylesford at a regional community renewable energy conference. The professional part of me is happy and excited to be here to reconnect with clever people from clever communities who are rolling forward with big ideas in community owned renewables.

The social beast in me is so happy to be in a little town, no bigger than #narrandera WITH 

  • cafes open all day on weekend
  • Local food in small stores
  • An EV charger outside the town hall
  • Small artesian studios in odd corners in laneways
  • Fantastic approachable range of accommodation
  • A WINE bar with food at night

As a result of all of the above and no doubt more the local economy is booming. I’d love to have time to post a case study but now I have to listen to my peers on getting our towns onto a path of sustainability and locally owned community energy.