FIVE years ago, a few people gathered at the State Coal Mine cafe for a coffee and a chat about putting on a few kilowatts of rooftop solar panels.
Yesterday that initial chat became a reality when Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio performed the ceremonial switching on of the system.
In the five intervening years, however, the little system had blown out to a mini solar farm of 92 kWh of solar panels and 41 kWh of battery storage that will power the whole of the energy-hungry State Coal Mine tourist attraction.
Parks Victoria (which operates the State Coal Mine) will pay the energy co-op for the power it uses, and the proceeds will be used to fund other community energy projects throughout Bass Coast and South Gippsland.
At yesterday’s launch, Ms D’Ambrosio said the project had provided a template for other community energy projects around Victoria and Australia.
Of the $400,000-plus cost, $242,000 came from the State Government’s New Energy Jobs Fund. $60,000 from the Bass Coast Community Fund and the balance from the two councils.
EICO chair Moragh McKay said the project had been four years in the making. It started as the usual rooftop solar proposal but somewhere along the way it became much bigger.
Part of the reason was logistical. Most of the buildings on the site, now an outdoor museum, have heritage value, so they decided to site the solar array on land. Once they’d decided that, there seemed no reason not to go bigger.
When they designed the project, it was regarded as a big system, she said. By the time they were finished, it was regarded as a small system, so rapidly had the solar industry and technology changed.
“At times it’s felt like a long journey with so many pieces to juggle. It was a perfect project for us to cut our teeth on and take on bigger projects. It has strengthened our relationship with our partners. We are putting it in the hands of the community and keeping the money in our local economy. This is the first of what we hope will be a portfolio of projects.
Ms McKay expressed particularly gratitude to John Coulter, the project manager, who saw it through from start to finish. “John kept a calm head and a steady hand throughout. We kept waiting for him to crack and he never did.”
As John Coulter remarked during a very funny speech, everyone loved the idea of using solar power to run a coal mine. “The past and the future. Old energy, new energy. How good would that be?”
He said the hardest part of the project was meeting the bureaucratic requirements involved in working with a government agency.
“The energy co-op was involved in the blink of an eye. Then we met with Parks Victoria. ‘Hey we’re a little community group with a great idea. What do you think?’ There was a slight pause, about as long as it takes to say ‘due diligence’ …
“Sometimes our time frames would differ. ‘You mean we can’t squeeze this three month process into a week?’ Or better still, a weekend. Oh, and by the way, we thought 300 panels might be better than 50 and now we need a bigger site.”
Joking aside, he said they received tremendous support from Parks Victoria, Heritage Victoria, the council, the Bass Coast Community Foundation and local businesses and individuals.
“Whether it was pro bono legal advice, site drawings, a fee discount here or a speedy response there, things kept moving. Can you believe we got a concrete delivery for the shed two days before Christmas?”
Once a factory-sized shed would have been required to house that much battery storage. The one that Ms D’Ambrosio entered to trip the switch was not much more than a single garage size, with ample room to double the battery storage in the future.
The mine is a big energy user because it pumps constantly to empty water out of the mine shafts. The energy co-op is now negotiating a couple of electricity retailers who specialise in community energy projects to buy any excess power.