- Heidi Lenffer
FEAT. 2-Year Update
Updated: Oct 6, 2021
Hello hello. I’m writing from a brisk morning in the lower Blue Mountains, Darug country, where the local Kookaburra unit are oblivious to the eerie greater Sydney lockdown and cackling away with their feathers at full floof in the dew.
Being July 2021, it’s now two years since we launched our solar investment movement with the artists of Australia and I’m ready to give an in-depth update. Long overdue, perhaps. Actually definitely ha, but hey, like everyone in the beleaguered Arts sector I’ve put my energies exactly where they needed to be.
So the blog's been mothballed through Covid but we've kept the fund ticking over in a semi-hibernation mode - not taking on any new investors, but watching the steady progress of the solar farm build.
(I've also been working on an expansion to the FEAT. universe in the meantime, which I’m excited to be getting closer to being able to share with you. But that's a future post.)
This update will come in 2 parts:
Part 1 is an overview of where we’ve come in two years with our flagship project, the Brigalow Solar Farm build. (Plot spoiler: IT'S DONE)
Part 2 will come later in the year once we're ready to announce the what the new and improved version of FEAT. will look like in a post-pandemic (fingers crossed) world.
Let's get stuck in.
The life of Brigalow Solar Farm – Timeline from birth, a protracted adolescence, to running full bolt.
Some times hope is solar-farm-shaped. Sometimes, with the right partners in place, you can help build huge renewables structures that will become allies for a better world - quietly, diligently, harvesting solar rays to power our country without harming it.
The road to completion was often more of a traffic jam than a free-flowing freeway, but, we got there. As of May 2021, Brigalow Solar Farm was completed and is running at full bolt!
When the Covid borders relax, we're hoping to mark this milestone properly with a walk through and some champers. In the meantime I've pulled together a snapshot of this 2-year journey for all our investors and chief believers who've been patiently willing us over the finish line.
April 2019 - Boots on the ground
Let me zoom back to February 2019 to a different chilly morning, this time in rural south-west Queensland, Western Wakka Wakka country. My FEAT. co-conspirator (and real life bro) Ulrich and I found ourselves standing in a very special field shortly after sunrise.
We were about 24 months into the research and dev of what was soon to become Future Energy Artists, and we'd recently secured a partnership with Future Super and Impact Investment Group.
This deal meant that artists all over Australia would be able to help finance the construction of Brigalow Solar Farm. Amazing. We were pretty amped to have our boots on the ground.
This was a field so ravaged by drought that snakes now lived in deep cracks in the ground. A field which used to grow sorghum wheat but was no longer fertile (last 6 crops had failed).
A field about to embark on a very different kind of farming. Brigalow was to be one of many new solar farms powering up around the world as foot soldiers in the clean energy revolution.
I made small dust explosions kicking the earth with steel-capped boots and tried to process the long and non-linear journey of brainstorms, artist chats, calls with scientists, emails, partnership convos, and Attenborough docos that brought me to that patch of dirt in this moment.
Our videographer Pat asked me on camera how I was feeling and my mind went blank and I uttered something entirely inadequate as my eyes welled up at both the enormity of the task ahead and the formidable passion of the community driving it.
Ul and I would be one of hundreds of artists and athletes investing their hard-won earnings into this solar farm, and putting skin the game to transform our energy system into a regenerative powerhouse. I didn’t have the words for it at the time but I was feeling electric.
May 2019 - A government curveball and a Supreme Court victory
One month later, the QLD State government suddenly threw down a new 'safety code' revision that meant that only licensed electricians were permitted to mount, fix or remove solar panels at solar farms. Sounds reasonable? Not quite.
This was sold as an attempt to improve the safety of construction workers at solar farms, but as renewables industry leaders pointed out, plugging in a toaster posed more danger of electrocution than mounting unconnected solar panels.
This curveball would have added an extra $2.6 million in costs and untold delays for the Brigalow project, whose managers were looking at having to source a new labour force of qualified electricians, potentially from multiple states due to workforce shortages in QLD.
Cutting a very stressful sub-plot short, the team mounted a successful challenge in the Supreme Court and the revision was overturned, despite the Government appealing the decision. Cue exhale.
FEAT. HQ were busy prepping for our launch and had zero role in this victory, but we took our collective hats off to the mammoth efforts of the Brigalow owners, Impact Investment Group, and project managers, Maryrorough Solar in securing the win.
June 2019 - FEAT. launch day baby
World Environment Day 2019 was kick-off day and over the next 6 months our artists together with Future Super brought in $7 million of investment into the Brigalow project and two other solar farms in Chinchilla QLD and Swan Hill VIC.
Just look at some of the beautiful faces who got behind us.
November 2019: Panels up
5 months later and the first panels started going up. This part was surprisingly the fastest part of the project, and the visual progress was deeply satisfying.
March 2020: Entering Covid life
Nine months after launch, vibes were high and the FEAT. team were barreling along. We had just taken on an awesome intern (shout out to Ally Moulis), Brigalow had started exporting test loads of electricity to the grid, and we were ramping up to release an investment app that would open up our projects to music fans as well as artists. This app had been in development for the last year and we had all the energy of a team about to level up.
Then the March 13 Covid tipping point happened, and the live entertainment industry shut down overnight. 255,000 gigs were cancelled in the space of a few days and our collective Arts industry networks haemorrhaged earnings to the tune of $280 Million.
Future Super made the prudent decision to place the Fund in a holding pattern, close it to new investors, and put an indefinite pause on the app roll out as we navigated the uncertainty of the Covid fall out.
Brigalow Solar farm was not affected by this decision as the project had reached financial close a while back. Luckily by the time Covid hit, all the panels were installed and the project managers had entered the next phase of 'electrical testing'. Easily the least charismatic stage of the project, electrical testing mainly involves jumping through the regulator's hoops to incrementally export more and more energy to the grid without causing hiccups.
Over the next few months of sky-rocketing global Covid numbers, our team dispersed by necessity toward paid work options, and I entered JobKeeper land to keep things ticking over and to work out our options for moving forward.
June 2020: FEAT. 1 Year anniversary - Brigalow solar farm passed its rego
Deep into the first Covid lockdown, Brigalow Solar Farm quietly passed its registration and entered what was known as the final 'commissioning stage of R2 testing'. Pretty tech-y to explain, but it effectively meant that the team had to demonstrate that the solar farm was behaving in reality the way they said it will behave in the modelling.
This stage of the process was S U P E R S L O W because it required a huge amount of collaboration with Ergon Energy - who own the poles and wires around Brigalow - and the Australian Energy Market Operator. A bottomless well of patience and tenacity was demanded of our partners Impact Investment Group to get through this stage - in particular kudos to Venetia Roberts, the Brigalow Development Manager, who carried the lion's share of this workload.
Video: Interview with Venetia Roberts, Brigalow Development Manager
I caught up on Zoom with Venetia in June 2020 for an update on how it was all progressing and we spent a surprising amount of time talking about lizards.
In particular, about the Condamine Earless Dragon, who were local to the region and used to roam about in healthy numbers. A key rehabilitation component of the Brigalow build involved bush regeneration work in order to start coaxing these little guys back.
The above video snippet was cut from a call we hosted with all FEAT. investors who also had a chance to hear from Future Super's Chief Investment Officer, Dan East. I thought it worth including the chat in full, for anyone who wants to go deep on the journey.
Video: FEAT investor update from June 2020
May 2021: 'Practical completion' (!!)
Fast forward through another frustrating 9 months of Covid Normal and Brigalow Solar Farm reached the major milestone of 'practical completion'. This means the solar farm was finally generating electricity at full capacity, had passed the network operator and regulator’s tests, and was largely done, pending some minor works. This major milestone pretty much coincided with the 2 year anniversary of FEAT but we decided to delay all party plans until Covid has relaxed.
Which brings us up to today, where currently 12 million Australians across NSW, QLD and WA are back under lock-down due to the Delta variant.
If that's you, and you're looking for something to feel good about, let me hand you this tasty morsel on a plate:
Thanks to the support of hundreds of Australians from different walks of life, there is now a big, beautiful new solar farm in rural Queensland pumping out 35 MW of clean energy every day for the next 30+ years. This is enough clean energy to power 11,000+ homes without any of the usual toxic emissions and massive amounts of fresh water that coal and gas-fired power stations consume.
Brigalow solar farm is just one of the many machine allies we are relying on to power the next era of human life, and globally, we'll need to build another 40-50 terawatts of clean power machines. That's an almost unfathomable amount of shiny new infrastructure, but it is fun to try and imagine. And even better to crack on with building.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us in some way over the last two years, either by investing directly, sharing our posts, or chatting about our project with your mates. Special thanks of course to the unrelenting efforts of Impact Investment Group, Future Super, and my team members at FEAT HQ, Ulrich Lenffer, Sean Walker, and Melody Forghani who have helped bring this all to life.
This ends Part 1 of the Update - stay tuned for Part 2, coming later this year.