There has been considerable rhetoric surrounding energy policy in Australia. Not only has the Federal Government steered away from both its Clean Energy Target1 and National Energy Guarantee,2 but Australians are also paying too much for their electricity3 (which on some occasions has proved unreliable),4 while greenhouse gas emissions remain stubbornly high,5 threatening to further impact Australia’s climate.6 While roughly 1.76 million households have already reaped the benefits of offsetting power bills with tools such as rooftop solar,7 a movement has emerged in Australia that hopes to give more power back to the people: community energy projects.
Local energy projects help individuals and communities get involved in energy initiatives by bringing them together to develop, deliver and benefit from sustainable energy – whether through renewable energy installations and storage, or energy reduction projects such as energy efficiency and demand management.8 Some of the benefits of these projects include end-users having access to more affordable low-emissions power, keeping financial benefits within local communities and reducing transmission losses.9 To date, community projects have helped underpin the energy transition in countries such as Denmark, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany – where 47% of installed capacity is owned by citizens and communities (as at June 2015)10 – while the Australian community energy sector is still relatively young. Nonetheless, there are a number of exciting community-focused projects already established or in the pipeline – some of which have been initiated in partnership with private developers, independent power producers and organisations.
One example is the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE), which was founded to facilitate collaboration between energy projects, support groups and stakeholders in renewable and mainstream energy.11 In doing so, C4CE works towards guiding and supporting the development of the community energy sector to benefit Australian communities.12 To date, C4CE has supported projects such as Australia’s first floating solar panels in Lismore and Repower Shoalhaven’s community/investor-owned rooftop solar systems, which have a combined capacity of 220 kW (as at March 2018).13 Meanwhile, the Victorian Government has adopted a self-proclaimed “radical initiative” to make more community energy projects a reality.14 Building on C4CE advocacy, Sustainability Victoria has initiated three pilot Community Power Hubs to bring communities together in the state’s major regional centres (so far in the Latrobe Valley, Bendigo and Ballarat) by providing them with access to skills and expertise so they can help develop (and measure the feasibility of) locally owned, cost-effective renewable energy projects.15 Meanwhile, other Australian community energy projects include the international award-winning Hepburn Wind in Victoria, Denmark Community Wind in Western Australia and Darebin Solar Savers in Melbourne.16
While solar-focused projects have been popular with communities due largely to the ease of scaling and tailoring the natural resource (with other organisations such as Embark even offering communities guides to aid them in understanding and implementing models of community solar),17 other groups have begun working on alternate initiatives, such as community bioenergy projects across Cowra and northern New South Wales, the Zero Net Energy Town project in Uralla and the 100% Renewable Yackandandah project in Victoria.18 In fact, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has also recognised the potential of this emerging movement by outlining a range of initiatives necessary for growing and maximising the potential benefits of this energy transition to Australian communities.19, 20
Indeed, as the community energy sector continues to grow, it appears there may be more opportunities for renewable energy to cultivate positive social impact in the lives of Australians. In particular, while community solar is only part of the solution, when combined with rooftop and utility-scale solar, there is a clearer path towards a renewable future for Australia – one that New Energy Solar remains dedicated to furthering as the business also continues to grow.
Tom was the inaugural CEO of New Energy Solar, having launched the business in December 2015 in his then-role as Chief Operating Officer of Walsh & Company. Based in the US, he currently serves as Executive Director for the New Energy Solar team.