Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council has granted Development Approval for a 12-megawatt solar farm on the southern outskirts of Cootamundra which is predicted to provide a major boost for the town both in greatly reduced power costs and increased employment. The builder and operator of the farm, Lotus Energy Co-operative, will be rolling out a succession of what it terms ‘optimised community grids’ throughout Australia in the next few years. Cootamundra will be the first of these and therefore is being treated as the showpiece installation.
An optimised community grid is designed to generate all the electricity needs of a community within a town or city but is connected to the main or primary grid in order to ensure continuity of supply as well as contributing to the most efficient operation of both the community and main grids. Optimising the interactions between multiple sources of generation and consumption as well as coordination between community and main grids is technically very challenging. Lotus Energy is the culmination of 28 years of experience in solar energy both in Australia and internationally.
The 12-megawatt Cootamundra solar farm will produce enough electricity to supply 2,500 houses, effectively every house in the town. The farm’s output will be supplemented by excess power sourced from solar arrays roof-mounted on homes and business premises throughout the town. The additional power will be available to supply existing local industrial and commercial businesses as well as new businesses attracted to Cootamundra.
Because virtually all power will be generated locally, the community grid does not have to cover the heavy costs associated with transmitting electricity over hundreds of kilometres. As a result, every consumer linked to the Cootamundra community grid will achieve substantial savings over their current electricity charges. In addition, the feed-in prices offered to those supplying their excess power to the community grid will be very much greater than what is presently available. Provision of 36,000 solar panels together with banks of batteries and ancillary equipment is a major undertaking. It will require a significant number of workers both in the construction phase and throughout its decades of operation. Lotus Energy is committed to hiring and training as many workers locally as possible.
Lotus Energy has been deliberately set up as a co-operative in which local people are encouraged to become members. There will be regular distributions of profits to members of the co-operative. A major advantage of the co-operative structure is that each member has a single vote regardless of how much they have contributed. This protects against any attempt to gain majority control in order to strip assets belonging to members and engage in price gouging practices to force up electricity charges.
One of the key features of the optimised community grid model is its focus on negotiating long-term Power Purchase Agreements with consumers so that they have certainty over power charges in future years. This can operate as a powerful attractor for businesses in making investment and location decisions. Significantly cheaper electricity in Cootamundra will raise disposable incomes, creating increased turnover for local businesses and thus their need for additional staff. This can have a multiplier effect which will inject further activity into the town’s economy. Cootamundra has the opportunity to use its ‘first mover’ status in relation to the optimised community grid to its advantage.
Despite the ever-increasing gridlock and dysfunctionality of both Sydney and Melbourne, governments appear to have put decentralisation in the too-hard basket. However, if country towns have access to electricity at significantly cheaper prices than is charged in the big cities, they can exploit their other advantages to attract new businesses and new residents. These advantages include lack of congestion, greatly shortened commuting times, lower property prices and rents, abundant space, lack of pollution, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of community.