The possible revival of the world's first solar power station tops the list of projects to receive government funding as NSW looks to match Victoria's success in promoting community-owned wind and solar projects.
White Cliffs Sporting Club, in the state's remote north-west, will receive $50,000 to investigate whether the town's array of 14 parabolic mirrors can be restored – 34 years after the government of Neville Wran funded the original plant with about $3 million in today's dollars and nine years after it was decommissioned.
All up, nine community groups will receive a total of $411,000, mostly to provide scoping studies or to identify obstacles to local renewable energy projects.
“One of the biggest barriers facing groups setting up a community-owned renewable energy project is a lack of capacity for planning and feasibility studies,” said Environment Minister Robyn Parker ahead of Thursday's launch.
The funds mean recipients can develop project ideas that “will help to make their communities more environmentally sustainable and energy self-sufficient”, she said.
The funding, though, comes within weeks of the cabinet's decision on whether to formally accept tough guidelines on new wind farms that renewable energy advocates say will be among the toughest in the world.
While welcoming the community grants, several of the recipients queried their value if the broader regulatory conditions remained hostile to new wind farms.
“The grant is really fantastic,” said Ashley Bland, a board member of the Central NSW Renewable Energy Cooperative, which will receive $60,000 to promote clean energy.
The cooperative, though, has been waiting two years for the approval of the Flyers Creek Wind Farm, so that it can mobilise local support to buy one of the farm's 44 proposed wind turbines for about $5 million.
“The difficulty is inspiring people to put their cash on the table without approval,” Mr Bland said. “We can't kick off our fund raising.”
Victoria pioneered community-owned wind farms with the development of Hepburn Wind Farm, north-west of Melbourne. The two-turbine plant, however, cost about $13.5 million to develop, with the Victorian government chipping in $1.75 million.
“About $1 million dollars was spent on legal and design work and securing all of the approvals,” Martin May, a former treasurer of the Hepburn project, said. “That's just to get to the permit stage.”
In White Cliffs, the government's seed money may only end up funding a tourist attraction, with the plant gathering dust since its decommissioning in 2004.
“Realistically, it's really only its heritage value,” said Dick Wagner, a local organiser. “We're grasping at straws if we ever think we'll be able to get it up and running.”
That's a view shared by Keith Lovegrove, a former ANU scientist who worked on the White Cliffs solar plant.
“They probably could run it but it would probably cost them more to run it than it would make in energy,” Dr Lovegrove said.
The energy consultant said he recently visited White Cliffs and would recommend the plant as an historic site. The town's other highlights include its opal mines and an opalised fossil plesiosaur that may one day get a gallery.
“It's sort of a Mad Max kind of place,” Dr Lovegrove said. “Strange home-made houses and junk everywhere, burnt-out trucks and cars with no doors – it's brilliant!”