I gave a Western Australian audience a whirlwind tour of community energy last week. My talk below was actually much shorter, but these are all the things I wanted to say.
Most importantly, I wanted to be sensitive to the feelings of a coal mining and coal power station based town, Collie. The Shire is trying hard to start a conversation about alternative economic activities, but the reality is a town that powers 50% of the SW of WA has relied on its centralised dollop of energy to produce wealth and in the renewable future, the energy wealth will be spread around more. I suspect the 10-15 year life of the coal assets would be much shorter if the renewables juggernaut has its way. Time will tell if anyone in the community or government has the courage to prepare for this possibility.
Western Australia is a strange market. The government has attempted to introduce competition but many constraints, corporate power (govt. is the shareholder) and government decisions are slowing down the investment in renewable energy.
My biggest takeaway was that consumers want to be part of the energy future. Horizon, Western power and Synergy all acknowledge this, as do the state and local governments. It causes both friction and hope.
You can find my powerpoint here. Please enjoy the speech below.
What a lot is changing in our energy system at the moment.
Its ‘game on’ for renewable energy. Prices are falling, every time the cost-effectiveness of projects change, new opportunities emerge.
It’s ‘game on’ for distributed energy too. We are staring with so many rooftop solar system and if you think of solar and batteries as the technologies of this decade and they both work well at a small scale, distributed amongst the energy consumers.
And I think its ‘game on’ for communities as well because most of us are not feeling comfortable about the shape our energy transition is taking. And for me, community involvement is the defining feature of community energy.
Let me do a quick poll – who here would say that things are moving too fast? not fast enough? And finally – who is worried about where we might end up?
I’ve been looking at community energy around the world – here is where I went on my Churchill Fellowship. I wanted to know whether all these great towns and cities – some achieving 100% renewable energy, some battling their local politicians and energy corporations for more renewable energy. I wanted to know if they were knitted in to the system, if their changes were part of the larger energy transition.
And I’ve been looking at the emergence of community energy here as well. Australia now has over 100 community energy groups and 70 community energy projects in most parts of the country.
together we are going to take a journey through some of the stories these communities tell.
Because stories are a theme. Every community has them. Every place has an energy story to tell. Next time you come to somewhere for the first time, ask yourself why the place is there… and look around for the signs that it has been shaped by its energy story. I traveled to many regional towns whose wealth and prosperity had been premised on agriculture – in an era when energy resources were distributed. At the beginning of the 20th century Australia might have been the most urbanised country on earth – our centralised cities and big dollops of centralised energy go hand in hand. But this renewable revolution represents something quite novel for our regional towns, distributed energy can give our places new stories.
And each story is unique. The resources we access, the challenges we face – they all differ from place to place. Importantly, how we go about solving them differs hugely as well and I don’t know if its a good or bad thing that many of our communities in the sector seem to be starting from scratch. I like to think of it as a sign that we are in the entrepreneurial phase and there is plenty of innovation because there needs to be.
So, of course, at the heart of these unique stories we find heroes, champions, community leaders
Let me introduce you to Lisa, Matt, Margaret, Chris and Alison. They would all hasten to add that they are only part of the story. They would credit all of the people who have worked hard with them.
People like these guys are the gold behind community energy – they’ve stepped up to make good things happen and it is their stories that inspire others. If you are looking for heroes in your story – think about these descriptions
The far seeing people. Some people can sense the future much sooner than those around them.
The people with lousy timing, in many ways the early adopters of solar should have waited, things would have been much cheaper – but where would we be now if they hadn’t been out there advocating for solar 20 years ago?
The guards of the drawer, because the difference between communities that made great strides and those that had plans but hadn’t acted on them was the action plans and targets were allowed to be parked in the bottom drawer. The guards of the drawer stopped this.
And Chris Weir from Bendigo sustainability group likes to talk about his Ninja team. He says the best groups have a small group of hardworkers at the heart and they cover four main skill sets – project management, finance, technical and comms.
Chris and his group have been active for a decade and they’ve just become a community energy hub with some funding from the state government – Chris really hopes this will give them some dedicated capacity to ramp up their activities.
I thought I would start with a story of a community for whom the energy transition was moving too fast. When Lisa Lumsden tells this story she says, “but first I must go back to the beginning” because outsiders don’t understand what it is like to live in a town where the work generated by two coal fired power stations and a coal mine have dominated the town for over 50 years. And the relationship was not all one way, Port Augusta’s fierce mayor, Joy Balusch had fought for years to hold the power stations to account and improve the pollution coming into town. So when Lisa sat down at a town meeting to hear about solar thermal in 2011, it was with an open mind. The town knew that the power stations and mine would close in 2017 unless major investment could be justified and here was a proposal that created baseload power to replace a coal fired power station and it created jobs – because making mirrors could be an industry where much of the value stayed in South Australia.
Lisa slowly got drawn into the campaign. She had the hard conversations with people about the eventual loss of the power stations and the need for the town to take the future into its own hands. She remained perpetually surprised by the amount of support they got from around the country for the work of Repower Port Augusta. For a long time there seemed to be little political support. They had managed to get interest from all around the world and solar thermal suppliers from Spain, from the USA were visiting Port Augusta and checking it out, but little help from state or federal government. The power stations closed suddenly, a year early and no transition plan was in place. In early 2016, these were dark days. All their hopes seemed to hinge on a single opportunity for Government to include solar thermal in its own contract for buying electricity.
And finally, with an election in sight, an infamous blackout behind it, rallies and billboard advertising in Adelaide, the state government announced what many thought would never happen. Port Augusta will get its solar thermal power station, and at a reasonable price – 7.8c/kWh. The Premier at the time went to Port Augusta to acknowledge that this was a community victory. The local member for Port Augusta is our new Energy minister.
Now, if you look at the region of Port Augusta there is an absolute hub of activity. They will have employment for years if all the proposed projects come to fruition. None of it is community owned energy but the leadership shown by the town ticks my box for changing the outcomes. How much of this would have occurred anyway? Well there is no doubt that the infrastructure from the old coal fired power stations is the main reason the developers are here but Repower Port Augusta gave this town the profile it needed across the globe and without that movement, the welcome mat would not have been laid out for developers.
For Margaret and Matt – the energy transition is not happening fast enough.
In 2012, Margaret was one of those not-from-port-augusta folks who did the 200km walk for solar from port augusta to adelaide to demand a faster transition. And with time on their hands, they talked about how to make it easy for everyone to make a practical contribution to reducing emissions. This is the birth of Citizens Own Renewable Energy Network Australia, CORENA – an organisation that puts solar on the roofs of community buildings by offering technical support and interest free loans.
When you look at the community energy sector, many groups have yet to build their first project. Some have one or two. But two organisations have Over 20. CORENA and clearsky solar. CORENA is a donation model. They have built up a fund of over $150,000 in donations. Because loans get repaid and the money can be lent over and over, they have now lent over 287,000 to solar and energy efficiency projects. Clearsky is an investment model. They find the project and call for investors, with returns typically offered in the range of 5-8%. Their investments sell out quickly, sometimes in less than 24hrs – and one of the things that pleases them is that they are making solar appealing to people from all backgrounds and all political persuasions.
Both of these models are speeding change with community funds and technical support.
Matt was one of CORENAs earliest customers. He helped get solar panels funded for Beechworth’s Montessori School but his real passion was in Yackandandah. The local petrol station in Yack is community owned. When the petrol station threatened to close in 2002, there were plenty who didn’t want to drive 40minutes just to fill up a tank. Matt convinced the Yackandanadah community development company to put solar panels on the roof of the petrol station and from that core group that rescued the petrol station came a conversation about their energy future. Soon they had a goal to be totally renewable by 2022 and TRY was born.
They’ve engaged the whole town. The local hospital also received a CORENA loan. It and the local water treatment plant both have solar panels and they’ve been running energy audits throughout town and awarding Golden Yaks to their best performers.
And their hard work has been rewarded with growing support from councils, governments and energy companies. They are currently in the midst of a minigrid roll out with their distributor – Ausnet services. They have been putting solar and batteries throughout a newish suburb with some control over the batteries, for energy reliability purposes, handed back to Ausnet. Finding a way for the energy company and the community to benefit is a Nirvana and that leads us to….
My final story and my favourite. We’ve seen that the drivers that get communities passionate can be quite different, from the energy transition going too fast, to it going too slow. And we’ve seen that the strongest community leadership often forms in response to a crisis. But my last story is about the importance of listening – because when you listen to what your community needs, you get the richest response.
Meet Alison. Alison comes from the Northern Rivers region of NSW, a region that was appalled by fracking and successfully shut it out of the region. Alison, like many others, felt that while it was important to oppose fossil fuel development, it was also important to be part of the solution – so a group of them all trooped off to the first Community Energy Congress in 2014 and came home all inspired, ready to build a big community owned solar power station. But the more they investigated what this project would look like, the more people told them, we can build the power station but what we really need is a friendly retailer.
You probably need rocks in your head to even contemplate building a brand new energy company in the competitive, ‘big boys’ landscape of energy retailers, but these are competent, determined people, not afraid of a few headaches along the way so creating Australia’s first community energy retailer is what they set out to do.
And here are some of the things I love about ENOVA
– they are a company, not an NGO. But to make sure they remain democratically controlled, the most votes anyone can have is 3 – even though some shareholders own much more than 3 shares
– they told their shareholders during the original share offer (where they raised $3m) that everyone would get half the normal dividends and half would be reserved for a not-for-profit, Enova Community which would help everyone in the community reduce their energy costs with energy advice and other helpful energy services.
– they worked out that if their region spends $300m in electricity charges, they could help keep $80m in the region. For a start all the retail charges convert into local jobs because ENOVA has located its entire business operations in the Northern Rivers. And by buying locally generated energy, by helping customers keep their energy use and energy charges low, all these elements contribute to a locally owned and operated system that genuinely services its community.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want? An energy system in service to its customers, towns and regions.
That is what Enova’s story is about. It is what you get when a community is concerned that the energy transition isn’t quite going in the right direction and they stand up to correct it.
So I hope the stories I’ve told help you understand what community energy can be for you. I hope you are already thinking about the unique assets and challenges your community has and pinpointing a few potential community leaders. Unless your community is completely complacent about the changes going on in our energy system – there are plenty of concerns to kick start a conversation about what the energy future looks like.
And everyone who is paying attention will notice that I slipped in a 7th theme there – public good! What I mean by that is there are opportunities in this energy transition to deliver benefits that a market struggles to provide and governments aren’t paying enough attention to. There are public benefits, for example ways we could share our rooftop solar or our emergency battery capacity? Ways we could help lower the bills on our community buildings, ways we could look after the most vulnerable members of our society, many of whom risk falling into energy poverty. We can already see in the examples of Yackandandah and Enova that community groups are choosing to unlock these benefits and I believe the best model for unlocking these benefits is Government funding and community delivery.
So as we watch our energy transition play out and as we watch significant financial and political resources lurch our systems toward change, we have to ask the question – can communities’ and their limited resources even influence this?
I believe they can and I believe community energy plays an essential role in nudging our energy system toward better outcomes.