Last 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: