Two major renewable energy projects promised by Byron Council are now facing an uncertain future, after an unsuccessful bid for federal funding left the Council struggling to pay for both of them.
The Byron Shire Bioenergy Facility and the Dingo Lane Solar Farm in Myocum have both been given development approval, following years of preparatory work undertaken at considerable cost to ratepayers.
But with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) rejecting a grant application for the bioenergy facility at the final hurdle last month, Council is facing a significant funding shortfall.
‘We can probably do one of these projects but not both,’ Byron Mayor Michael Lyon told ABC radio last week.
‘What we’ll be looking at is either getting further funding, or potentially selling the [solar farm] project, so getting a private company in to proceed with it.’
The bioenergy facility and the solar farm projects are key planks in Byron Council’s plan to achieve net zero emissions in the shire by 2025.
But paying for them was always going to be a challenge, given Council’s limited finances, with the bioenergy facility costing $20-25m and the solar farm valued at around $12m.
Council staff have previously indicated that Council would have to borrow money to pay for the solar farm, and that this would significantly increase its debt levels.
‘What’s disappointing is that we were really confident after the first round of ARENA funding that the bioenergy facility would be funded by that renewable energy agency,’ Cr Lyon said.
‘In the end the board have decided not to fund it, so the Council is left having to decide between the two in terms of which we can fund.’
FOI on ARENA decision
A freedom of information (GIPA) request from resident John Lazarus has revealed that the ARENA board rejected Byron Council’s funding application primarily because they were told that a private group was already developing the particular type of cutting-edge bioenergy technology that Council was planning to use.
Thus, Council’s project would not ‘materially advance the commercialisation pathway’ for this technology, known as ‘dry anaerobic digestion’.
This information, contained in minutes from an ARENA board meeting which were obtained under freedom of information, would seem to undermine Council’s claims that the bioenergy facility was an ‘Australian first’.
It also raises questions about the level of planning undertaken in preparing the grant application and, indeed, the project as a whole.
However, questions are now also being asked about the veracity of the information provided to the ARENA board that formed the basis of their decision.
An extensive online search reveals no evidence of any dry anaerobic digestion technology being progressed at a commercial scale in Australia.
Furthermore, when asked for the name of the private company or consortium referred to, ARENA’s media team declined to respond.
Council’s senior project manager for the Bioenergy Facility, John Hart, says that ARENA has never told him, nor any other staff member, about the existence of a private company using the same technology, despite Byron Council successfully progressing through multiple rounds of the grant assessment process.
Council only discovered ARENA’s justification for refusing the grant application via the information obtained under freedom of information.
‘Council and its advisors have no knowledge of what developer or projects the ARENA management staff may have been referring to in statements to the closed meeting of the Board,’ Mr Hart said.
Closed ARENA board meeting
He denied that Council had not done its homework in relation to the grant application process.
‘It is misleading and disingenuous to suggest that Council should have considered matters about which it had no knowledge,’ he said.
He also denied that committing to build both the bioenergy facility and the Dingo Lane Solar Farm when Council was relying on a grant application demonstrated poor judgment or irresponsible financial management.
‘On the contrary, it is a sign of responsible government to pursue innovation and sustainability while seeking to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and expand the generation of certified green power in the Shire,’ he said.
He said that the bioenergy facility and the Dingo Lane Solar Farm had ‘multiple, and different, options for financing and commercial delivery, which Council would continue to explore in the best interests of ratepayers’.