31 August 2023

Why investors can’t get enough of Goulburn’s community solar

| John Thistleton
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Ed Suttle with a group of investors on a tour of the site of Goulburn’s community solar farm

Ed Suttle with a group of investors on a tour of the site of Goulburn’s community solar farm. As word spreads via national media, people from all over Australia want to get involved. Photo: Peter Fraser.

Investors it seems can’t get enough of Goulburn’s sunshine.

From a 70-year-old Queensland pensioner wanting to help underprivileged children to communities keen to help themselves, and investors, they all have been captivated by Goulburn’s community solar project.

More than 30 emails flooded in from everywhere around Australia after viewers of ABC’s Landline watched the story in early August of Goulburn people building their own solar farm for their community.

Landline began with Bannister sheep farmer and investor in the project Dimity Taylor saying: “We actually get to be owning this project and driving this project from our community and being the change we want to see happen.”

That message reinforced with the committee’s track record resonated. The Queensland pensioner, who suffers from heart/lung disease, wants shares for underaged children, and to take responsibility for the investment until they are old enough to take ownership of them. “Whether or not I am eligible to join your enterprise, I sincerely applaud your efforts to pursue sustainable energy production through a local community initiative,” the viewer wrote after watching Landline.

Community Energy 4 Goulburn (CE4G) president Peter Fraser said people sending emails either wanted to know how to invest in the 1.4-megawatt solar farm or begin their own community project.

READ ALSO Goulburn should make most of solar farms: Professor Blakers

The groundswell of support stunned the committee when it first launched its fundraising in late 2021, and they were caught by surprise again in the aftermath of the Landline program.

“It shows a lot of people out there who are interested in renewables and want to take part in it and be part of a community group that does this sort of thing,” Peter said.

“People saw the story, went to the website, filled in something straight away to say, ‘Yes, I’m interested’,” Peter said.

Yet fundraising was not the motivation for initiating a media story about Divall’s Earthmoving beginning site preparations for the 2.5-hectare farm. Nevertheless, another group of investors from all over the country is now keenly waiting to get on board.

“We have decided to give all our current investors first dibs on any more investment opportunities,” Peter said. “Before we let anyone else in we want to go back to our own investors and say we have had all this extra interest.”

On the eve of signing contracts with the solar farm’s builder, Peter says the prospect of more funding is fortuitous. “It so happens we are looking for a bit of extra money because of cost increases, driven by inflation and falling value of the Australian dollar.”

The reaction to Landline mirrors community enthusiasm for the pioneering solar farm in October, 2021, when CE4G launched fundraising with a $1.96 million target.

Peter Fraser is beginning to see the rewards of hard work in establishing a community solar farm in Goulburn

Peter Fraser is beginning to see the rewards of hard work in establishing a community solar farm in Goulburn. Photo: Mhairi Fraser.

After an hour of listening to the technical details, financial risks and investment rewards an audience of about 100 people responded with financial pledges beyond the committee’s wildest expectations.

“Within in an hour we raised $500,000 from local people,” Ed Suttle, another CE4G member said. “A week later we did exactly the same presentation online and within an hour raised another $750,000.

“We did another one online two weeks later and got another $250,000, which took our total to $1.5 million, the remaining $460,000 dribbled in over the next two to three months,” he said.

“That first meeting was scary because we thought we have done all this work, if we don’t raise $1.96 million – we could borrow – but really wanted to raise it. My worst fear was raising no more than $100,000.”

READ ALSO From the city with a song and a quest for the community

Six years of preparations preceded the launch. Ed said the first step was to knock on the door of anyone with a view of the Bridge Street site, whether businesses or households, and explain face-to-face what they were proposing and ask if people had any objections. No-one objected.

Now the project is gaining momentum. The committee wants bigger batteries to make the farm more financially viable, and has raised an additional $600,000, taking the overall total to more than $2.6 million. With State Government funding the overall project is worth almost $5 million.

Along its journey CE4G is creating a knowledge document which will become the template for other community solar farms wanting to emulate Goulburn’s success. This will save volunteers endless hours of answering questions from people now inspired to join collectively in the clean energy revolution.

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