Following this excellent Guardian article by Matt Charles-Jones, I thought it worth summarising the best examples of community energy in Australia.
A core group of people need to be credited with the foresight to build a backbone organisation for community energy – The Coalition 4 Community Energy, C4CE. This gives the sector insights into what each of us is up to and measurements on our collective impact.
You can quickly see a concentration of projects in Victoria and NSW. To some extent this is caused by state politics. In NSW regions have been awarded over $1m, typically as $50,000 grants, to deliver community energy projects. In Victoria, lobbying by local sustainability groups has resulted in strategic government investment in Community Energy. And speaking of politics – with a federal election looming, C4CE members have been instrumental in developing the Home Grown Power Plan as a proposal for all politicians to chew on in the lead up to July 2.
No summary of noteworthy projects can go past Australia’s first community owned wind farm in Hepburn Springs and the Embark wiki that was set up to ensure that the learning in Hepburn was used to help other groups.
Others have followed the shareholder model – although not necessarily with the community benefit commitment (Hepburn wind plows $30,000 per year back into community projects). Repower ShoalHaven put their grant money into a solar system on the local club, a great way to engage a community through the facility at the heart of social activities. Clearsky Solar do not link their investments to local investors but it is worth noting the 20 investors per trust model that avoids more complex financial regulations. Each project is snapped up in less than 24hrs with reasonable returns of around 8%.
And in those three projects you can clearly see the issue some people have with the tag “community energy” when applied to shareholder models. You do need to work harder to ensure a project benefits everyone in the community – not just the investors, trust or coop members.
In NSW, one region decided to invest its grant money in a business case for moving to Zero Net Energy. Towns bid for the honor of being the Z-Net town and Uralla was chosen. The resulting blueprint is available for any town or region to use. The project was led by Moreland Energy Foundation and supported by Starfish initiatives – (both excellent organisations with objectives rooted in delivering community benefits).
NSW is also the home of Australia’s first community owned energy retailer – Enova. They have recently fundraised $3m through a share offer to invest in the necessary billing systems and regulatory capacity to play with the big boys on the Australian market. What makes them ‘community’ is that no shareholder can have more than three votes regardless of no. of shares owned. Enova will also invest a portion of profits back into community projects.
In Victoria, some towns have adopted ambitious targets. Totally Renewable Yackandandah is driven by an active group of citizens and has been awarding Golden Yacks to the best energy performers in town. Newstead, like Yackandandah, already had a history of trouble shooting infrastructure problems as a community. It was successful in getting $200,000 from the Victorian Government and has developed an MOU with its local electricity network provider to work together on the 100% challenge, improving the local supply at the same time. Tyalgum has come together as a community and workshopped the process of going off the grid altogether.
Finally, a post about community energy wouldn’t be complete without a plug for my favourite organisation – CORENA, Citizens Owned Renewable Energy Network Australia. CORENA has members and donors all over Australia who have gradually built up a revolving fund. To date the fund has delivered 11 projects on community buildings in most Australian states and territories. CORENA looks at all opportunities to reduce greenhouse emissions and often funds both energy efficiency and solar to best serve the community organisation. As repayments from savings and further donations flow into the fund, new community energy projects are built.
In this process, we must not forget the communities at the heart of our traditional energy system (and therefore our economy). These are larger communities, reliant on coal and going 100% renewables is not a simple option. Importantly, they are starting the energy transition conversation. Last week South Australia turned off its coal fired power station for the last time, having close its coal mine about 6 months earlier. The positive conversation we can have about the future there is largely thanks to the Repower Port Augusta campaign. We can’t underestimate the importance of working with the community to shape the town’s narrative, and doing the underpinning analysis to support hopes for a solar thermal power plant.
I am currently looking at community energy models in some of the leading jurisdictions around the globe and tomorrow I will be in Fort Collins, Colorado. This is a town that owns its own electricity system, is 50% owner in a coal fired power station and mine and is actively having the conversation about zero emissions. You can download the slides for the presentation I am giving in FortCollins here.