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Why community-owned renewables should lead Australia’s Covid-19 recovery plans

By Sophie Vorrath for One Step off the Grid
A plan that envisions the development of thousands of community-owned renewable power stations dotted throughout Australia – balancing the grid and energizing regional economies – is being prepared for delivery to the Morrison government next month.

The plan had its launch last with month with the publication of a comprehensive discussion paper co-authored by the federal member for the Victorian seat of Indi, Independent Helen Haines, and a group of 15 energy advocates from across the regional electorate.

The launch kicked off an eight-week community co-design process, including a call for submissions from all around the country, at the end of which Haines’ expert panel will put together a policy proposal to be presented to the federal energy minister.

The process hit the half-way mark this week – just as yet another major report, this time produced by EY on behalf of the WWF, spelled out the huge economic and job advantages that would flow from a renewables powered Covid-19 recovery.

The WWF/EY report says an accelerated uptake of wind, solar, batteries, and electric vehicles could deliver more than 100,000 new jobs, give rise to a modern manufacturing industry in Australia, and leverage five times the amount of private sector investment off a modest level of government support.

For Haines, the Unlocking Community Energy policy proposal is about ensuring that regional Australia gets its fair share of the spoils from the coming boom in renewable energy.

“Community energy is where everyday people develop, build or benefit from an energy project like a solar installation, a wind farm or a large battery,” Haines said in a statement at the time of the discussion paper’s launch.

“It’s about building more renewables in regional Australia and making sure everyday people benefit.”

Indi, in Victoria’s northeast, is leading by doing, having built a network of 13 local groups developing community-owned renewable energy.

Among the most well known and most successful is Totally Renewable Yackandandah, or TRY, which has been the driving force behind the town’s bid to reach 100 percent renewables by 2022.

So far, TRY has established three microgrids, a virtual power plant, and notched up a rooftop solar penetration exceeding 55 percent through solar bulk-buy rounds. It has also gained the support of the local grid operator, AusNet.

Inspired not just by the Covid-19 pandemic, but by the devastating summer of bushfires that directly affected her electorate, Haines believes empowering regional communities to own and develop their own renewable energy infrastructure will have multi-layered long-standing benefits.

And according to the discussion paper published on Haines’ website, these benefits would include the development of up to 10,000 locally-owned renewable power stations, generating clean electricity where it is needed on the grid, bringing jobs, income, and skills to regional towns.

As the paper notes, estimates have suggested that for every 1000 households, a community will spend $2 million on electricity each year. “In a traditional, centralized electricity grid, the bulk of that flows to commercial energy operators,” the paper says. But in a decentralized grid, where communities own their own generation assets, the money stays in the community.

“This is an idea and a movement whose time is right,” Haines told One Step Off The Grid over the phone.

“We’ve had a decade of climate wars, of people holding tight to their corner. This is a way that people can come out of their corner – a value proposition that gives everyday people the opportunity to share in what could be a really bright future.

“There are around 100 community energy groups across the nation, and I’m hoping to hear from all of them, ultimately. I’m making a call out and asking them to join with me and contribute to this discussion paper,” Haines said.

“And once the consultation period is complete, we can take a well-constructed policy framework through to the government. It’s going to be very practical and doable.”

Haines says she is confident of getting a decent hearing from federal energy minister, Angus Taylor, who she told One Step was the first member of the Coalition government she spoke to after her election in May 2019.

“(Taylor) won’t be surprised to see me back in August with something really robust that he could say yes to; another way, that’s not fossil fuel, that’s not big business, for everyday people to be a part of the action.”

As it happens, Taylor – who, it is safe to say, is not renowned for his support of renewables – just last week announced the first round of recipients of the Morrison government’s $50.4 million Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund, ranging across 17 projects and five states and territories.

Among the grant winners was the aforementioned TRY, which was awarded just under $350,000 towards a technical feasibility study weighing the possibilities for energy storage to soak up the town’s daytime solar generation, including a 1-2MW battery system or 4-6MW pumped hydro.

“Microgrid technology is becoming increasingly cost-effective, creating the opportunity for a reliable, low cost, off-grid supply to our regional communities and industries,” Taylor said in a statement accompanying the list of winners.

“This funding will enable many communities to realize the potential of innovative technologies or distributed energy resources, like solar and batteries, or reduce their reliance on costly diesel generation.

“Lower cost energy is crucial to creating jobs in regional communities.”

Of course, the sort of plans Haines and her team of experts have so far sketched out for community renewables will need a good deal more than grant funding to become a reality.

The discussion paper names 10 key barriers, in fact – including capital raising, planning, and social feasibility – that currently stand in the way. The biggest barrier, Haines says, remains to secure a grid connection for solar and wind energy projects.

“For each of those barriers we’re looking to find policy levers,” she told One Step. “We want to work with the (federal) government to try to remedy these barriers.”

On that score, Haines says she’s starting from a position of optimism.

“There’s no greater moment than now. For me, it’s about repositioning the debate to a positive one. I think it’s a very strong proposition.

“We’ve got a workforce here who are in need of a new future. I think community energy can offer that.”

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