How I started this thing: Sydney Renewable Power Company

Sydney Renewable Power Company's Andy Cavanagh-Downs shares how volunteer power and a City grant led to the largest city-based solar project in Australia.

How I started this thing is a series of stories from people who’ve received City of Sydney grants. They share their journey in their own words, along with handy tips on navigating the grant process.

An idea is born

Our project kicked off when we found out about the massive redevelopment of the International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. During the tender phase, we approached Lend Lease with our overarching vision: that it would be the perfect location for a renewable power project. The roof would be ideal for solar panels. Our plan was to install 520kW solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of the ICC. We decided that it would be an incredible opportunity for local individuals to invest in the project.

Thankfully, Lend Lease really embraced the idea. It ticked the boxes for all its community and sustainability initiatives. So when it was successful in winning the tender, we set to work to make our concept a reality. It was then that we properly formed Sydney Renewable Power Company. The volunteer board includes people from all walks of life and with a diverse range of skill-sets, from banking and legal to marketing and engineering.

Community power

It was years in the making. We began in 2012, the panels were installed in mid-2016 and by December 2016 the first power was generated. So sitting here today, things look very different to how they did when we started. When we began the project, the outlook for renewable energy was not bright. These projects by nature have a long lead-time and there’s an absence of private capital to fund these sorts of things, which is exactly why we wanted to get a community group involved.

From the outset we sourced volunteer expertise from so many fields. It’s a great thing seeing people using their skills to contribute to something outside of their day job. So many people care about the environment, regardless of their backgrounds. Whenever we had an issue to address, we very quickly found someone who could assist. As we were running everything purely with volunteer labour, there were out of pocket expenses in terms of administration, compliance, creating collateral, and getting us off the ground.

The grant

That’s where the City of Sydney grant came in. Aside from the financial support, its involvement really enabled us to communicate with the general population and raise awareness around our project. There are so many people in Sydney who rent, live in apartments or don’t have their own rooftops, so they can’t use solar energy. These people didn’t have an easy way to invest in solar themselves, so this was ideal for them. We did a public share offer, open for anyone to invest. The City of Sydney was so supportive of the project throughout. That faith in your vision can really bolster you and keep you going even when things get tough.

Advice to grant applicants

You have to have a clear idea of what you want to do before you even look at any grant programs. There’s no point in doing anything unless your desire and passion clearly supersede anything in terms of what the grant can support.

Know exactly what you’re trying to achieve and then see if the program fits with its ability to support your outcome. The grant itself is not free. You have to work to obtain it in the first place, and then to fulfill its requirements in terms of reporting back. Of course it is absolutely fantastic in assisting you to achieve your outcome. But ultimately it does require effort and there is no point in trying to bend your outcome to fit the program. Don’t just chase the money.

Into the future

In the years that have passed since we began the project, rooftop solar has taken off. It’s great to see developments being made so that there’s less need for volunteer groups to address either the set-up or the financing of these issues. What we’re trying to do now is share what we’ve learnt with other initiatives. We’ve provided a lot of support to schools wanting to install solar panels. There have been other projects where we could directly transfer some of the legal documentation and lessons from our financial modelling. So it’s fantastic to be able to pass on this information to other community solar projects. Everything went so smoothly with the uptake of the project that it showed everyone involved just how easy this could be, from the developers to the residents who were investing in it.

Solar is so easy to integrate into any kind of development. It’s simple, and the results speak for themselves. I really hope that this project, and the work that we will continue to do encourages more people within the City of Sydney area to consider getting involved in solar energy. By driving the allocation of capital into a community-owned solar project such as this one, we believe we can make real change. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to know that we’ve created the largest urban solar installation in Australia. We’re out there showing the rest of the country what’s possible.

In 2015, Sydney Renewable Power Company received an Innovation Grant valued at $40,000 from the City’s Grants and Sponsorship program. The project demonstrates the potential of large-scale solar projects in our community and creates an innovative financing model for similar by using community investment.

If you have a great idea that would benefit the local community, our grants and sponsorships may be able to help. Applications for environmental performance grants in innovation, ratings and assessment and building operationsare open until 19 November.

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