A community energy movement in Southern Adelaide

19679147_10158873127345007_4692568216392955829_o.jpgI love talking to local groups about community energy. At Marion tonight the Common Thread crowd were full of questions and discussion. And the home made soup made for a very inviting atmosphere.

I gave a presentation  but when asked which organisation should take the lead on community energy and which projects to start with, I opted not to answer. After all, one of the main conclusions of my Churchill Fellowship was that each place has its own unique energy solutions and each community needs to do the work of developing the package of changes that will best work for it.

For the record, it is clear that wind and solar dominate our renewable energy mix (contrast that with a similar climate of NZ and their answers are often geothermal and hydro). But our energy use is also part of the packaging that we need to think about. I imagine a future with plenty of decentralised supply through rooftop solar and plenty of flexible load to soak up the energy whenever it is in surplus.

As always, some interesting ideas emerged tonight. New Renewal SA developments around Morphetville could be prime targets for modelling different forms of energy supply and communal energy use/optimisation. When asked if Council could bulk purchase energy on behalf of residents, I wondered if the regulator would allow it – although there are plenty of models out there where retailers are trying to capture customer loyalty. The more interesting and long term question is probably about groups of residents optimising their load profile and being rewarded for it – both by the wholesale/retail market and by the network operator.

So my thanks to my wonderful audience. For those interested in getting started straight away, please consider CORENA for funding solar and energy efficiency projects on the buildings of all your worthy community organisations. We are always looking for projects and you can find the EOI form here.

The Document here captures many of the ideas we discussed. Please add your own.

I’ve created a Facebook group – Community Energy Action South Australia in the hope that we can support each other in getting started. I know of a number of projects humming along in development, many from those who attended the Community Energy Congress. I am keen to deliver workshops that could bring the learnings from the Congress to South Australia and help groups work through the financial and legal models that are suitable for their situation.

Mark Henley has challenged me to get two projects up and running in the next few years so we have something real to point to. The Group will help us share ideas, inspiration and support for each other’s projects. Please join if you’re interested.

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Firing up Port Adelaide Enfield with solar

torrens islandIt was so great to speak at the Port Adelaide Enfield Environment Forum last week. I gave a presentation and they got me thinking about how to crack open the opportunities  in the area.

I was deeply impressed that a small group represent so many activities around the area – History, National Trust, friends of Torrens Island and marine conservation, to name a few. And when it came time to share updates from each group, I was reminded of the Bristol Energy Network meeting I attended on my Churchill Fellowship – another great group in a great city making great progress.

We had a wide-ranging discussion about community energy projects that might suit the Port. It has much new development at the moment – Renewal SA has a major project around Port Adelaide at the moment and another in Kilburn. Step 1 – get introduced to developers.

There have already been some successful Bulk Buy projects and it would be good to see something targeted at folk on low incomes.

I took the opportunity to promote CORENA of course. We should be looking at energy efficiency and solar opportunities for every community building we find.

CORENA have also been exploring Tenant/landlord schemes (given that split incentives is one of the great market failures) and keeping track of Adelaide City Council’s journey with their solar saver scheme.

We talked about under-utilised land and whether solar could be a 5-10 year solution until land becomes used. Personally I prefer to start with opportunities where there is a load to buy the electricity.

And the main theme of the night was finding those partners with some community momentum – existing groups? the 170 households who organised their bulk buy in Semaphore? the owners of roofspace and community housing organisations – plenty to start with there. If you have ideas, please add them to the Document here.

Inspired by this start – I’ve created a Facebook group – Community Energy Action South Australia. I know of a number of projects humming along in development, many from those who attended the Community Energy Congress. And Mark Henley has challenged me to get two projects up and running in the next few years so we have something real to point to. The Group will help us share ideas, inspiration and support for each other’s projects. Please join if you’re interested.

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Alternative currencies leverage new value – lets build one for SA

bristol-pound3.jpgI’m slow to the game on this one. Alternative currencies have been experimented with for many years. Many communities are looking for local value to be the first stop for shoppers. Michael Schuman is not convinced and left it out of his book although he conceded that the Bristol Pound, supported well by local government and in widespread use across Bristol, was a good example of local currency.

My interest is in the hidden economy of unpaid labour. As you can see from my recent post on value there are many ways that value becomes paid but much of the time volunteerism is a hidden value to social progress. Kate Raworth puts it well in donut economics – we simply aren’t visualising the whole economy unless we recognise how much work is unpaid. Volunteering, for example, has been valued at $200bn to the Australian economy.

But more than that. My interest is in some of the entrepreneurial activities that some people value – particularly causes and the work of activists and changemakers. Yes, the mighty dollar is going to drive rapid change because it can shift resources and capital overnight and in enormous lumps BUT there is a social dimension too. If we can shift people en mass we can also drive change because many people = power.

If I translate that last sentence to my world of energy transition: The corporates, backed by Government, can spend $100millions overnight on renewables and market fixes (Lyon group just announced a solar array in the Riverland that is over 10% of our peak load in SA) BUT if communities demand that the same amount of power is built locally on the rooftops in their communities, we will ultimately have a cheaper and more resilient energy system and the Lyon investment will be undermined by this social movement.

So I am on the hunt for an alternative currency. It must create recognition of unpaid labour, much of which is a labour of love and therefore can include high and low value activities. I think it would be nice for the basis of the currency to be time. Intrinsic motivation can be undermined by attempting to compare it to dollars. To paraphrase Marx – each to their ability and to every ability for its effort. Marx believed that everybody’s time was valuable and it was society’s obligation to allow everyone’s abilities to grow to maximum capacity, flourish and be well used.

I do plenty of cause related effort, some of which is experimental and may or may not be worthile. I know others who believe in my cause are putting their hard earned cash into more practical efforts, much of what I do will only ever be unpaid labour.

So as I understood blockchain over time I was interested in a number of aspects.

  • The currency can be decentralised, self organising and with a publicly accessible data interface.
  • The full transaction record is included in each chain – each block of the chain could include feel good information about the valuable effort that has been made, who has made it and why.

Imagine if politicians could understand people’s care factor about different issues as measured by the number of hours spent and valued in transactions. Imagine if they could be guided by the data to contribute back to the community in the best way. Like the maxim, “put your money where your mouth is”, this system could identified where people are putting their precious hours.

I mocked one up so you too can experiment with this concept:

sample blockchain

There is a whole suite of detailed design parameters that need to be thought through but I’d be keen to hear what you think of the initial idea. I’m hoping to put something like this into the Government’s Share challenge.


hoping to include a bunch of timebanking and timetrading platforms here – I’ve been doing my research…

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Ways to value work

I was challenged this week to put my work onto a commercial basis. “If you can’t define where the salary will come from, you will come to resent all the volunteer work you are doing”.

I pushed back, “maybe the model is a startup one, the reward will come in due course but I need to work hard and for free at the moment”. [I have looked into a business model canvas for my work and I knew as I said it that I didn’t even have a rigorous business model, so I was bluffing about this being my model].

Which made me think about other models.

Social entrepreneurship sits with a foot in two camps. The social sector has a tradition of delivering services that Government and donors value. The sector is being encouraged to look at alternative ‘business streams’ of revenue. One recent article complained that most social entrepreneurs ended up looking at the government grant system, while another (albeit American) celebrated the high profit social business – a phenomenon Michael Porter calls shared value. Lets not confuse these – the profitable model delivers market value in a socially positive way and their virtuous approach begets more customers. I suspect the struggling-to-profit model is producing value that is harder to put a $$ figure on.

Writing a book is somewhat entrepreneurial, in that it involves risk of time spent and uncertain reward. But the product is not innovative and the reward is not based on success through stunning growth. The model can be simply a promise. If the final years-of-work-product is valuable enough, you are promised in income from it in due course.

Enspiral is a freelance community built around an abundance of high paying work so that everyone can comfortably earn enough and unlock a substantial amount of discretionary unpaid time, ‘more people working on stuff that matters’

The Open Source community explore ways to support those who give more to the community – donations, big corporate funders, employers being asked to recognise time spent on open source etc. So to an extent it appears a “sponsor” based arrangement where smaller contributors essentially sponsor projects through their discretionary time.

And there is probably a good reason I have been daydreaming about Universal Basic Income. Many of those volunteers who provide the backbone for community organisations (like mine, CORENA) are retirees. Essentially, you can unlock plenty of good work from peeps if you take away the need to earn money.

I would love to see stronger systems to value discretionary effort. Community credits perhaps? At its heart, I am motivated to work hard and to give above-and-beyond when it is something I care about. The peer-to-peer community and the commoners are actively having these discussions. If we contribute to the creation of value, how can we ensure the value continues to benefit the community rather than being extracted? How much reward should entrepreneurs get for the risk they take in the commons environment? How do volunteer contributions and $$ earned work smoothly together? Does trading value undermine the joys of giving value and is this a negative or positive impact?

So we have some models emerging:

  • Salaries – traditional and established organisations and businesses
  • Risk / Reward – be it a traditional business model where you can get a bank loan, a startup innovation where you need venture capital and be it your own time and effort at risk (creative work) or in need of significant capital.
  • Patron – individuals or family members fund you because they value you or your work
  • Crowdfunding – you sell ideas, the promise of future products or the goodness of an idea to many people – little risk for each.

(At this stage we are starting to move away from marketable value into the world of services that are valuable but can’t always be cashed in. We could see them as public goods or common/community goods and at a mini level, families negotiate these all the times in a form of a gift economy where we all benefit from caring for each other but some members of the family do more of the work, for the benefit of the whole.)

  • Philanthropy/charity – someone made money elsewhere and gives back. The foundations are more likely to make strategic infrastructure investments while individuals support direct services with money and time contributions.
  • Open Source -people donate time because they can afford to. The whole is better than the sum of its individual parts, some people start getting paid to continue spending time but the open principle ensure all the product remains in the Commons (imperfectly because many benefit commercially from this commons too).
  • Enspiral hybrid model – similar to above but the earn/donate balance is explicit and controlled by the individual (supported by the Enspiral community)

But what if the work you are doing is genuinely delivering a public or common good?

  • The charity models above
  • Government and NGO delivery
  • Government grants – government policy determines its value. Social, environment and arts sectors struggle to come out from underneath this support structure.
  • Social bonds – a great attempt to convince government to recognise future costs and therefore fund current activities that reduce those costs (eg preventing incarceration)
  • Universal Basic Income – would allow individuals to work on those things that are valuable to them, with everything from very low to very high value work delivered.

Can you think of other ways we could provide an income stream to develop public and community value?

What do you think works in the not-easy-to-fund space of driving social change?

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Governance and organisational structure

For a long time now I’ve been interested in self-organising ways of getting things done. Clay Shirky provides the metaphor of exploring the desert. The existing institution doesn’t need to explore the desert unless it is in crisis mode. The startup will race out and find the first oasis it can but after that it has little motivation to risk anything by exploring further. A self organising community will slowly but surely map the whole desert as each individual risks a little discretionary effort and shares learning with the whole community.

The key challenge, of course, is building the community that wants to self organise along with me – and if I’m lucky enough to capture that enthusiasm, that I provide operational clarity and tools to empower all.

To that end, I have been exploring governance models, this blog captures the insights I have found most useful.

[I had hoped to gather insights during my Churchill Fellowship but community energy organisations are largely a blend of traditional institutional forms (NGO’s, member based associations and cooperatives) that have adopted some digital tools like Facebook and GoogleDocs. That’s not the cutting edge governance I was searching for but it is a reminder that traditional forms have developed some robust ways of operating.]

I think the Constellation Model, Swarmwise and the creative coalitions model from Crisis Action (described here) all provide valuable lessons.

constellation modelThe Constellation Model coordinates diverse stakeholders to achieve an agreed aim. It recognises that different organisations will want to work on different parts of the challenge. It advocates for an independent secretariat to ensure that the responsibility remains shared across the partners. It resources all the activities flexibly and the core leadership through MOU/partnership arrangements. Most importantly, it refrains from building anything permanent into its structure, as institutional permanence tends to become self protecting rather than focused on finishing the task at hand and winding up.

swarmsSwarmwise is about the people movement that got the Pirate Party elected to European Parliament. It advocates for management of group sizes to achieve working groups of about 7 people and informal groups limited to 150, with a middle size of 30 when a number of working groups are collaborating. It operates with very loose control (you provide the vision, the swarm does the talking) and introduces the three-pirate rule. If three pirates agree on an action, then they can act in the name of the organisation. Acting without permission is acting with accountability – all pirates are empowered to ‘own’ this organisation. The organisation did have guiding values and structure for the flow of resources (but again, not really controlled). The principle of supporting pirates to do good work and good PR in the name of the organisation led to everyone being given the freedom to get on and do what they think would be most effective. Transparency is essential with this model of governance because it provides the dimension of accountability to each other.

coalitionsCreative Coalitions provide an opt-in model, recognising that ideas are best when they are collaboratively created but decisions are best when they are decisive and clear. I like the “decide like a dictator” mode because in consensus mode there is an unfortunate desire for most of us to join the talkfest regardless of how committed our personal resources are in creating the action. The self organising power I highlighted at the beginning of this piece is all about giving stronger decision making power to those who are providing the action resource. You can see that the dictatorship in this context is not the all powerful dictatorship we fear because the resources to act depend on the decision being a good one and generating partners who ‘opt-in’. Likewise with the pirates – the more people supporting an action, the more resources it will have. The other takeaway from the Crisis Action is the importance of being clear and explicit about your model for change. How an action will lead to change is an important part of the culture and beliefs that create and sustain a movement. As Caroline reminded me the other day, storytelling and narrative is an essential component and needs to be used early in every journey.

Finally, I’ll touch on some tips from Enspiral, the NZ golden child of experimental, sharing economy, organisational structure. They use the magic group numbers of 30 (inner sanctum) and 150 (broader network). They have developed Loomio – a decision making tool that can cope with anything on the spectrum from consensus to dictatorship-informed-by-rich-discussion. The culture then develops to guide people as to when to participate in decision making – will your input help the organisation get a better result? Does participation help you grow as an individual? They also have a co-budgeting process to give everyone back control over the common resources that they are accumulating, in the proportion that each person has contributed.

Conclusion? There are no right answers, but you can see from the collection of resources above that people are exploiting some common features of group behaviour in order to unlock powerful and nimble collaborative efforts. Indy Johar is worth a read on this subject – he suggests 10 starting points:

  1. An authentic invitation to a shared challenge
  2. A love for the outcome, not the attribution
  3. Open whiteboarding, open planning
  4. Invest in collective capacity and shared learning
  5. Many-to-many accountability
  6. Mission goals
  7. Brand the mission, not your organisation
  8. Open data
  9. New models of financing
  10. New organisational infrastructures

As an aside, I have just read Together, the rituals and pleasures of cooperation by Richard Sennett and I must blog about it. It doesn’t dwell on organisational form but it has been an unusual journey for me through the thinking of philosophers and sociologists of the last 300 years. The resources above all touch on relationships and rich conversations, which the forms described are all trying to achieve. Sennett provides insights into the rituals and informal interactions that are needed to give rise to essential dialogic conversations – not dialectic debates aimed at being right but open-ended interactions where the participants learn, follow their own thoughts and benefit from the serendipity of whatever comes up.

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Good Luck Dr. Finkel

community energy benefitsAustralia needs an excellent energy review by the Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel, more so now than ever. It is an unenviable task, and in his Adelaide briefing Dr. Finkel showed he already has his head around the issues and he is ready to recommend viable technical solutions. An immediate fix framed by a long term vision – great stuff!

Submissions to the Finkel review closed on Friday, mine made a few points, backed up by my recent Churchill Fellowship and last week’s Community Energy Congress:

  1. Decentralised Future
    The best energy system will have substantial neighbourhood / local scale generation and control. A smart, efficient network of decentralised grids was shown by Amory Lovins in the 70’s to be the most cost-effective if one looks at the system-wide economies. This is what we should be aiming for.
  2. Paradigm shift for ownership, control and beneficiaries
    Our energy transition provides a unique opportunity to challenge the current paradigm. While the system claims to deliver value to customers and long term benefits to the Australian public, it has repeatedly failed on measures of fairness and climate change outcomes. It is clear that changes to the ownership of the system, the control of the system and the immediate beneficiaries could deliver these needs far more effectively. This is what the community energy sector is currently proving.
  3. Climate change demands we reach 100% renewables by 2030…
    …and technology could sprint us there tomorrow.  The climate change imperative is more pressing than official reports and the preliminary Finkel report states. Remember that the world has agreed to limit warming to 2°C and agrees that 1.5°C would be better. Remember also that the sum of commitments doesn’t get us there yet. Australian government projections rely on the international community to sell us surplus credits while ignoring the sun shining strongly in our own backyard. The technology could give us 100% renewable electricity in the next 5 years if we wanted and I believe we could do it affordably by 2030. We need our electricity systems to race to a target of 80% renewables because the transitions of heat and transport rely on us getting this sector moving first.
  4. International Insights
    My international experience showed that other countries are benefiting from stable policy environments, a culture of support around community involvement in the energy system and a specialised NGO sector often with 20 years presence in their communities. Energy markets are often more innovative and experimental because the energy transition is built into the regulatory culture. Australia has done well in its 15+ year support for rooftop solar but is yet to unlock the mid-scale and local opportunities. There is no suitable structure in place for regulatory and system innovation.
  5. Community Energy will play a significant role
    The community energy sector in Australia is emerging at pace. There are now over 90 groups around Australia, many of whom convened in Melbourne this week. There is much to be learned about why communities are mobilising in this space and the ways that support from all tiers of government can unlock community effort and benefits. This is a sector that warrants significant funding and policy attention.
  6. Address the barriers to local scale energy solutions
    The energy corporations and individual sites are not incentivised to build local scale energy solutions. At the neighbourhood scale, a project carries the overhead of collective decision making and multiple stakeholders. Compounding this are the barriers to entry in the market for a modestly scaled project and a number of market failures which sees financial value and local benefits underpaid in the NEM.
  7. Resource the process of planning our energy transition
    Finally, the process by which we arrive at good solutions to the current energy market crisis needs a rethink. A single report such as this one will only start the conversation. Or worse, make no progress at all in the hostile, childish buffoonery that is our political environment on this issue. Lets recognise that it is worth resourcing a deliberate process of designing, experimenting, listening and doing for at least the next three years. We need to crack open good solutions, get stronger agreement amongst stakeholders and consistently improve the financial, technical and regulatory systems in the NEM. No single entity or Government can lead this process. Creating a neutral space with an independent secretariat and shared understanding of the ability of good process to deliver good changes is the key to success in how our energy transition planning and delivery proceeds.

You can view my full submission, complete with recommendations here.

Posted in Climate change policy, Community energy, Energy Efficiency, Policy Ideas | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Nine inspiring MESSAGES from the 2017 Community Energy Congress

C4CE congressLast week over 600 people attended the 2017 Community Energy Congress in Melbourne. There was a wave of positive energy as delegates from the 90+ community energy groups all around Australia shared insights and worked toward greater levels of local renewable energy and community self-sufficiency.

Attendees were given insights from international speakers. Soren Hermansen spoke about his community’s journey to 100% renewable energy. Candace Vahlsing talked about the national community solar partnership under the Obama administration which supported towns and cities across America to provide access to solar energy to those without appropriate roof space. Indigenous leaders from Canada spoke passionately about moving communities away from welfare dependence and back toward pride and self determination. Chief Gordon Planes & Melina Laboucan-Massimo spent much of the congress working with first nations delegates from across Australia, culminating in the announcement of the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance.

I was inspired, here are my nine key take-aways:

  1. This is a growing sector. There are many more groups and success stories than 2.5 years ago at the inaugural Congress. (90 groups Australia-wide as mapped here  bit.ly/CEGroups).  Many groups are yet to install their first projects but numerous success stories have emerged and the next measure in this space promises to show a genuine explosion of activity.
  2. Communities soon turn their attention to positive projects. Many stories of community energy have their genesis in communities who have been brought together to fight mining and fracking. Before long, these groups take the desire to do something positive and turn it into local action.
  3. Renewable energy offers self sufficiency and greater local control. Many regional communities are on the fringe of the electricity network or off-grid and tolerate poor energy security and high energy costs.  Aboriginal communities are often the worst hit with astoundingly high costs to provide for basic needs. Locally owned community energy promises new opportunities, a revision of local economics and self determination for towns.
  4. Communities care about everyone in the community including those on low income. Many groups want to ensure that savings from renewable energy are enjoyed by those in the community that can least afford the capital outlay of rooftop solar. In a small regional town, any savings made by those on low-income is likely to recirculate in the local economy and can be a gain for local jobs and small businesses.
  5. Energy services are needed everywhere. There is no coincidence that many of the groups have invested in delivering energy efficiency to local residents and businesses. Eg Enova has a not-for-profit arm with energy coaches, Uralla has delivered home energy audits throughout the town as part of its zero-net energy commitment. Energy efficiency (EE) is the most cost-effective source of energy capacity in a region and investment in EE will deliver high levels of local economic value. The sector will continue to advocate for regional energy hubs – independent, community-based advisory services that can support each local area in its own energy and economic transition.
  6. There are so many models of community energy. Different ownership structures, different beneficiaries, different partnerships. Legal, financial and technical approaches that all vary. At first glance this might seem overwhelming but the rich diversity of community energy models signify that a) every community can develop an approach that will work best with its unique needs and b) there are plenty of models to copy or modify in order to suit local needs. Community Power Agency have developed some great resources to get started.

  7. Big renewable energy projects can involve communities positively. The latest projects underpinned by contracts with the ACT Government have part-community ownership stipulated. While communities and corporate project developers are still defining the detail, the sentiment proves that the benefits of major projects should be shared widely.
  8. Communities will rise above political divisions. The squabbling of our politicians at both state and federal levels is completely unhelpful. The energy transition and the community energy sector relies on the incentive structures in the market to promote new renewable energy investments. Nevertheless, local projects continue to adapt to the conditions of the day and create business cases that allow investment to proceed.
  9. There is a wealth of knowledge and a willing, helpful sector ready to share its resources. 600 people, many self-funded to attend, many actively volunteering and working in their communities to make the energy transition work at a local level. Stories of success, lessons learnt and willingly shared. This is a grass roots sector that is set to grow as energy projects in towns and suburbs across Australia fund groups to do good work in their communities.

What next? I predict we will see an expansion of the sector, the explosion of which will depend on government policy settings and energy market settings. It would be nice to believe that the momentum created by the Victorian and NSW governments could be replicated and expanded around Australia. If you are not yet convinced that community energy needs to play a strong role in our energy transition, here’s a diagram that captures the promise of the local energy pathway:

community energy benefits

Posted in Community energy, Energy Efficiency, Policy Ideas, Solar Energy | Tagged , | 3 Comments