I visited 24 smaller communities and won’t list them all here. The following examples provide excellent variety for the type of community models that we can consider across Australian communities.
One of my challenges is how this applies to a city scale and I visited 16 cities and experienced/researched some of the energy transition activities in each. Australia was the most urbanised country on earth in the early 1900’s. Our hinterland has always been smaller towns supporting larger sprawling cities, unlike the agrarian economies that have shaped the USA, Japanese and European countrysides.
Most of our renewable energy resources are in the countryside and the towns I visited often see the resource as a key to economic stability. People care about the place and people where they live and many of the community energy projects are carried out or supported by residents who simply want to improve their part of the world.
Not that they contain the view to local impacts. Samso is the centre of Denmark geographically and proud to point it out. When thinking about scale – with 100 x Isle of Eigg you get the typical British market town like Wadebridge, with 100 x Wadebridge you get a modest city and 100 cities you can cover the population of the UK. So the message is that scaling the good work of each community will lead to the larger impacts we need.
Burlington is proud to be the home of Bernie Sanders. Vermonters consider themselves progressive and different. Burlington is a University town and the green mountains give the place an attractive outdoorsy feel. This town of around 60,000 made its decision to build a biomass plant and invest in a local hydro generator over a decade ago. Major investments and developments often involve the community due to the land use issues or the capital that needs to be borrowed. The electricity company is wholly owned by the local Government and the Council appoints the board and endorses the appointments of senior executives. Burlington has been looking at climate action and sustainability planning for over a decade and this shows in the step by step approach that has been used to achieve 100% renewable energy today. I was impressed by the apparent citizen engagement in local political processes and in the follow through that US Local Governments appear to have over the longer term and regardless of changes in political leadership.
This community is so small (100ish) it can almost feel like a large family – with all the dysfunction that entails. You have to do what you can with the capacity of the people you have access to. Energy has not been the main focus of the community but buying the island has engaged everyone so moving from individual energy systems (often small hydro and diesel) to a common system became possible.
The community won funding under The Big Green Challenge and now has a number of hydro systems interlinked across the island and three simple wind turbines which can be winched down to service them. Located at the control shed is a large battery system, a solar array and a flywheel research project. The system managed around 74% renewable energy until the solar system was added. It now operates at around 84% and achieved 93% renewable energy last year.
The biggest lesson from Eigg is the ability to keep it simple and this was embedded in the original system design. Households prepay for electricity and have a few days emergency supply if they fail to get to the shop in time. There is a limit per household to ensure that the system can provide the maximum power on the island. Anyone exceeding the limit trips their own circuit and has to get Eddie out to reset them. When the island is relying on diesel a red light at the shop indicates to all to conserve energy. They are gradually installing heaters with frequency switches in community buildings to use up some of the surplus hydro energy in winter rather than spilling the excess water. Economic opportunities remain a challenge for the island. They have recently invested in a few accommodation pods but need to be careful not to undermine other privately offered accommodation. Is there an opportunity to turn their natural energy resources into something more? Some creative thinking is definitely required.
Samso won a competition to become the first 100% renewable energy island in Denmark but the competition didn’t come with any money. This has forced them to rise to the challenge with existing resources and existing technologies. It makes the island showcase much more relevant in convincing communities everywhere that they can do it too.
Soren Hermansen has been with the project since the beginning. His style has been a key to drawing dis-interested parties into the conversation, winning over the local plumber, the local farmer and the banks. He has gone from being the only hand on deck, climbing up wind turbines to investigate middle-of-the-night issues, to the person at the heart of a vibrant energy landscape. The local farmer allowed half the wind turbines to be community owned, the banks offered a standard deal which made the money easy for every shareholder to borrow. The sceptics in the community have gradually become advocates and there has even been an economic development opportunity around training services for solar hot water. The Energy Academy operates like a consultancy with both engineering and community development dimensions.
Among visitors to the island was a group of students from Maine, a region with islands and similar economic development challenges. The students get to understand the deep transformation of the community through interviews with residents and by tracking the story of Samso’s transformation.
Danish planning for wind turbines has slowed and much has gone offshore over the past decade. In the 90’s farmers were clubbing together to jointly own a single turbine. Many small (50kW ish) turbines are still dotted about. The initial attempts at tidying up the countryside and identifying the best places for larger wind farms led to winners and losers in communities as one farmers land was classified suitable and its neighbour’s not. There is plenty of wind power and the system is constrained at times (limited access to the German loads) so the turbines need to turn off.
By contrast, in Hvide Sande, they built three turbines that would benefit the whole community. The business model would see profits from the turbines allocated to fund the new harbor. This was the key to gaining widespread community acceptance. The main protests against the turbines were aesthetic and environmental. The local economy is boosted by holiday makers in summer. The turbines sit on the main beach. The turbines have been designed to be removable in future to partly deal with these concerns and in the end there was only a single persistent No vote in the entire community.
I visited the CHP and district heating plant. (Combined, heat and power or co-generation) to better understand the whole energy system for the village and it is clear that community governance of energy is considered normal and manageable for any place this size (approx. 3,000 people with peak holiday makers in summer). The CHP operators are looking at taking over one of the three turbines to improve the economics and operating parameters of both the turbine and the plant. Wind energy can be used to heat water cheaply at times of constraint as a positive alternative to simply shutting down the turbine.
Each place I visited and useful links is described in the Appendix. The following comments highlight some notable towns and comparisons.
Findhorn and Vauban are more intentional as communities and as such attract like-minded people. This means they can push the boundaries further but their solutions won’t appeal to everyone.
Totnes is the leader in the transition town movement and I noticed towns in Scotland and Germany also working under this model.
Wadebridge is achieving similar ends without the same pervasive commitment to all sustainability dimensions but rather a focus on energy and community benefits. Projects have been driven by WREN, a group that has delivered energy activities in town for over 5 years and built ongoing institutions to manage the renewable energy projects it has championed.
Feldheim is a village (around 3,000 popn) in not with a wind farm. In 1995 they started modestly to engage with renewable energy and first few wind turbines. The local area now has 42 turbines and 81MW, the vast majority of which is fed into the grid. There was some early opposition and skepticism but slowly the locals have adopted a village identity as a renewable energy leader.
Fujisawa is a Panasonic development and has a very new corporate feel. Many Japanese approaches are accused of being technocratic and this is no different. In the public realm is a community shelter and emergency cooking facilities, all built into the everyday space of the local park.