Federal and NSW Governments Invest $206 Million in Energy Efficiency for Social Housing and Solar Banks Program

This week, the Federal and NSW Governments announced a joint allocation of $176 million for energy saving upgrades in social housing properties and $30 million for solar banks (aka solar gardens) – a program designed to improve solar access for low-income renters and apartment residents. This announcement is a welcome commitment to enhance the energy efficiency of some of the least energy-efficient homes in the country but also marks the launch of the Albanese government’s Solar Banks program. 

Announced as a pre-election commitment by Labor in 2021, the solar banks program strives to extend the benefits of solar power to households previously “locked out” of the market, whether due to economic constraints or logistical challenges. The ‘solar bank’ or ‘solar garden’ concept enables everyone to buy or lease a plot in an off-site solar array regardless of where they live. The electricity generated from their plot is sold into the grid, and participants receive credits on their electricity bills through a partnership with an energy retailer. 

The solar banks model is particularly critical for the 30% of Australians who rent or live in apartments and are  excluded from installing rooftop solar. The NSW Government anticipates over 10,000 households will benefit from the Solar Banks program, potentially saving them up to $600 annually on their electricity bills.

Community Power Agency welcomes this announcement, after advocating for this program for over 5 years and most notably, pioneering the first solar banks initiative in Australia – Haystacks Solar Garden, alongside project partners Komo Energy and Pingala. The Haystacks Solar Garden in the New South Wales Riverina provides a positive example of what could be to come in the rollout of the solar banks program.

Kristy Walters, Director of Community Power Agency said,

“community energy projects, such as solar gardens, play a critical role in the transition to renewable energy, not only in terms of megawatt capacity but also in creating social inclusivity, fostering social licence, and stimulating meaningful regional economic development.” 

“It’s wonderful to see State and Federal Governments recognise the barriers to solar access that thousands of Australians face – these programs allow everyone to benefit from solar.”

Updates on the 2024 Community Energy Congress

After careful consideration, Community Power Agency has decided to step back from the organising role for the 2024 Community Energy Congress. However, we are thrilled to announce that the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE) will be taking the lead as the official organiser for the event. C4CE has now partnered with the Smart Energy Council for the Congress and we believe this collaboration will further elevate the event’s impact and reach.

The Congress will now be held in Sydney at the International Convention Centre on the 6-7th of March 2024, with a new theme, “Fast, Fair, and Vital.” We are confident that this change will position the community energy sector as a vital player in the renewable energy transition.

While we are stepping back from the organising responsibilities, we are proud to continue our support for the Congress. We will be joining as sponsors in the new format and are excited to see the event flourish. For those who have been with us on this journey, we want to express our heartfelt gratitude. The Congress has, and continues to be, a testament to the strength and commitment of our community.

We encourage you to pre-register on the Congress website to stay updated and show your continued support. We look forward to seeing you at the Congress, celebrating the progress of community energy and its pivotal role in the clean energy transition. Tickets and a program outline will be released in the coming weeks.

From grassroots to grid: our new report reveals community raised $87m for energy projects

Community groups around Australia are taking on the shift to renewable energy, delivering local energy projects with outstanding socioeconomic and environmental benefits, including raising up to $87m to fund their own projects.  

These are the key findings of our report published today, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Technology Sydney and University of Melbourne. 

Our report makes eight recommendations, including calling on all state and territory governments to unlock 100MW of community energy projects by 2028.

55 groups, roughly half the Australian community energy sector, were surveyed about the largely volunteer-driven projects, which include solar, battery storage, energy efficiency, electric cars, microgrids and wind turbines.

We asked groups about projects they’d been working on in the past 12 months and found: 

  • Groups had raised $86.8 million in funding for community energy infrastructure; 
  • The projects had produced over 19,000 MWh of clean energy – enough for 2,800 homes for a year; and
  • The projects had avoided 13,947 tonnes of CO2-e, which is the equivalent of removing 7,748 cars from the road for a year. 

Since 2015, there has been the establishment of at least 30 new community energy groups and the sector currently has a strong estimated supporter base of 38,000 people. 

Our report found people involved in energy projects were primarily motivated by action on climate change and emissions reductions. This was followed by a desire for local participation in the renewable energy transition and for increased energy reliability and self-sufficiency. 

Kristy Walters, Director of Community Power Agency said:

“It’s remarkable that these energy groups have achieved so much – funding their projects through the community, with minimal government support.

“This is the low hanging fruit of decarbonising our grid. Communities want to be involved in their own energy generation and the projects we have highlighted demonstrate how important this is for community buy-in.”

“Community energy projects are vital to democratising our energy system and in the process they are enabling many other benefits at the local level.” 

Co-author Dr Jonathan Marshall, a researcher from Climate, Society and Environment Research Centre (CSERC) at the University of Technology Sydney said:

“These findings show the growth and interest in community renewable energy, not only as a source of energy, but as a source of local development and resilience. It also illustrates the difficulties that volunteer organisations face, especially when the regulations seem geared for large scale commercial developments.”

Despite their achievements, community energy groups face challenges such as a lack of funding, navigating complex regulatory systems and volunteer burnout. 

The report emphasises the need for targeted government support to overcome these obstacles including:

  • Dedicated and ongoing grant funding for community energy projects and capacity building hubs;
  • The establishment of a Community Energy Collaboration Network to support community energy groups to navigate challenges and share knowledge; and
  • The establishment of community feed-in tariffs for mid-scale community energy projects of 6-7c premium above PPA/wholesale rate for 10 years.

New toolkit to help Australian communities be ‘summer resilient’

As Australian communities head into what is predicted to be the hottest summer on record, a new free resource offers help to plan, respond to, and bounce back from climate-related disasters.

The Energy Ready Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind free resource for Australian communities to help them prepare a plan for if the power goes out and ensure they remain energy resilient.

The toolkit is the result of a year-long process of research and consultation, funded by Energy Consumers Australia’s Grants Program and delivered in partnership with Community Power Agency, the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) and Parallel Lines.

It was important to the Energy Ready team that the process of developing the toolkit involved community members. Our Engagement Coordinator Elianor Gerrard says,

“Communities with lived experience of natural disasters and extended power outages have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to share on what to do or what not to do in crisis situations. They also know how to build local resilience.”

Elianor and our Director Kristy Walters travelled the east coast of Australia, from the Mornington Peninsula to Magnetic Island, consulting with communities to help inform the Toolkit.

CEO of Energy Consumers Australia Brendan French says,

“Consumers tell us that they want to take steps to be more energy resilient but they don’t know what to do, where to turn to, or how to do it. This means they need support to make the right decisions that suit their situation.

Energy Ready equips communities to be more energy resilient in the face of an emergency in ways that meet their unique needs. It’s important that communities take steps now to protect themselves so they can be summer ready.”

We’re pleased our work to facilitate community input into this timely resource ensures that it is grounded in the rich insights of communities.”

Events like the 2019 Mallacoota fires and the 2022 Lismore floods, which led to power outages caused through damage of power lines and infrastructure, can leave people unable to communicate, cook and store food, access money and more.

The Energy Ready toolkit contains the Energy Ready guidebook and materials for a series of activities communities can do to examine the risks they face, identify shared priorities and develop a plan of action that’s tailored to their unique needs and values.

The Energy Ready guidebook explains what energy resilience means for communities and includes advice from communities that have experienced, or are at high risk of experiencing, climate-related disasters. This information was collected at a series of workshops in Mullumbimby and Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, Gympie and Magnetic Island in Queensland, and Bonang and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.

The Energy Ready toolkit is an essential resource for local councils, community groups, and emergency authorities. Once communities work through the activities, they will be better connected, stronger and safer with a robust energy-resilience plan and an inventory of resources in place.

Dr Sarah Niklas, Research Consultant at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, says,


“The Energy Ready toolkit empowers communities to achieve a high degree of energy resilience, helping them prepare for increasingly extreme weather events.

The toolkit can be used to support collaboration and help community members work together to make the best use of their local assets, knowledge, connections, and capacity to achieve a higher state of energy resilience.”

Watch the webinar to find out how you can use the Energy Ready Toolkit to help build energy resilience within your community.

Bird sits on top of solar panel

Can ‘conservoltaics’ help relieve land-use conflict in New England’s renewable energy zone? 

An emerging challenge in the transition to clean energy in regions such as New England, NSW, is land-use conflict, and the new practice of conservoltaics may be one solution. Conservoltaics refers to the process of combining solar energy production and biodiversity conservation and restoration.

Glenn Christie of Succession Ecology is rolling out conservoltaic initiatives (or “ecovoltaics” as he calls it) with great results in South Australia. Christie works with developers to build biodiversity on mid to large-scale solar farms in the red soil country.

“In this arid climate, we focus on native ground cover as a means to improve biodiversity along with efficiency for energy generation,” Christie said.

“Animals such as lizards and birds can thrive in the protected environment beneath the solar panels. Plus, the groundlayer keeps the panels cooler, thereby improving efficiency. Having groundcover  results in less dust, so once again, efficiency is improved and maintenance costs are reduced.” 

It’s a practice that a local collaboration is looking to bring to the New England renewable energy zone (REZ), situated halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on land traditionally managed by First Nations Custodians including Anaiwan, Banbai, Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr. The REZ is part of a NSW government plan to produce 6-8GW of clean energy as aging coal-fired power stations are retired.  

While the shift from fossil fuels to renewables will help mitigate climate change, community members and environmentalists are concerned about the local impact that construction of wind and solar farms may have on wildlife habitats and ecology. 

The concerns follow conservation losses experienced recently in the region due to Black Summer bushfires, drought and other development such as new industrial and housing estates. 

Shared land-use options for agricultural land 

In the New England Renewable Energy Zone (REZ), sites chosen for renewable energy projects are often land that was previously used for agriculture.

This can raise concerns within nearby communities about changes in land-use. People worry that these solar, wind or battery projects will reduce the land available for agriculture, which can have local economic and supply flow-on effects. 

Details are in the caption following the image

Spotted marsh frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) found within a solar farm in Armidale, NSW, Australia. Photographer: Eric Nordberg, 2022.

The practice of agrisolar (or agrivoltaics), in which sheep graze under panels, bees are kept or vegetables tended in interrows between arrays, for example, is beginning to address the potential conflict between land-use for renewable energy and agriculture. Early studies of co-benefits are promising, and in 2021, Clean Energy Council published the Australian Guide to Agrisolar for Large-Scale Solar to collate the early findings of agrisolar research and practice in Australia and internationally.   

Could a similar harmony be found to exist with conservation and renewable energy generation? Is it possible to not just avoid high conservation areas, but also to improve biodiversity on sites where under the prior agricultural land-use and drought it had suffered?

University of New England’s Eric Nordberg and James Cook University’s Lin Schwarzkopf have recently published a research summary of initial findings of the role solar farms can play in improving biodiversity, along with identifying gaps where further research is needed.

“The benefit of renewable energy in reducing carbon emissions is well known. But more work is needed to understand how solar farms can benefit wildlife,” Mr Nordberg said in an article he wrote in February for The Conversation. 

“Research is also lacking on how to locate, configure and manage solar farms to best enhance biodiversity. Collaborations between industry, land managers and researchers are needed so clean energy production and conservation can go hand-in-hand.”

CPA secures FRRR funding to develop a guide to bring better biodiversity on solar farms in the New England

CPA has secured a grant to co-ordinate a Guide to Better Biodiversity on Solar Farms, with support from the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal’s Strengthening Rural Communities Program.

The Guide will include strategies and case-studies to improve conservation planning and implementation on solar farms, with a focus on plant and animal communities that are endemic to the Northern Tablelands and Nandewar bioregions, in which the New England sits. It will draw on the collective experience of ecologists, conservation groups, landowners and solar farm operators.

Dave Carr is Principal Ecologist for Armidale-based consultancy Stringybark Ecological and will be a key collaborator on the Guide. For 30 years he has worked to restore and protect native vegetation, with a focus on the Nandewar and Northern Tablelands bioregions, where the New England REZ is located.  

“Solar farms present a set of opportunities and constraints for managing biodiversity in a fragmented landscape,” Mr Carr wrote in a letter of support for the application CPA made for grant funding to FRRR to produce the Guide. 

“Opportunities include: improvements in the condition and structure of the groundlayer vegetation; enhancement of habitat for fauna that depend on the groundlayer; improvement in extent and condition of riparian zones; and establishment of connectivity for wildlife using boundary plantings.” 

In Europe, a collaboration called the Renewable Grids Initiative (RGI) has been instrumental in improving conservation outcomes through the renewable energy transition overseas.

Under the guidance of RGI, a coalition of Europe’s 29 largest environmental NGOs and grid operators “pledged to work in partnership to ensure that the goals of grid modernisation and environmental protection can be achieved side by side.”

A sign in a grassy field

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Through the Renewable Grids Initiative, conservation outcomes feature in the development of transmission corridors, which double as meadows or habitat  for animals such as deer. Pic: https://renewables-grid.eu/

“It gives us hope to see collaborations such as RGI which bring diverse stakeholders together to plan and achieve better conservation outcomes for renewable energy projects,” said Heidi McElnea, who is coordinating the consultation and production of the Guide for CPA.   

“What we’re lacking right now in the New England is relevant information which can streamline the process for planning solar farms which include improved conservation outcomes,” McElnea said. 

“We’re fortunate in the production of the Guide to be able to draw upon research and experience from elsewhere in Australia and overseas, as well as our diverse groups’ expertise in the New England. It will be exciting to have more sustainable developments underway which provide an opportunity for tracking and improving biodiversity outcomes. The potential is enormous.”

The Guide to Better Biodiversity on Solar Farms will be workshopped with stakeholder groups in late 2023 and available in print and online in early 2024. We thank the FRRR for supporting this important work.

References

Renewables Grid Alliance https://renewables-grid.eu/

The Nature Conservancy, 2023,  Power of Place Report 2023 https://www.nature.org/content/dam/tnc/nature/en/documents/FINAL_TNC_Power_of_Place_National_Executive_Summary_5_2_2023.pdf

Clean Energy Council, 2021, Australian Guide to Agriculture for Large-Scale Solar https://assets.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/documents/resources/reports/agrisolar-guide/Australian-guide-to-agrisolar-for-large-scale-solar.pdf

Nordberg, E.J., Julian Caley, M., Schwarzkopf, L., 2021, Designing solar farms for synergistic commercial and conservation outcomes, Solar Energy, Volume 228, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0038092X21008562?via%3Dihub

Nordberg, E.J. & Schwarzkopf, L. (2023) Developing conservoltaic systems to support biodiversity on solar farms. Austral Ecology, 48, 643– 649. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.13289 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aec.13289

Nordberg, E., 2023, Win-win: how solar farms can double as havens for our wildlife The Conversation

United Nations, 2015, Transforming our World, Agenda for Sustainable Development, accessed https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/publications/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf

Parker, G.E & Greene, L., 2014, Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments BRE National Solar Centre https://www.bre.co.uk/filelibrary/pdf/Brochures/NSC-Biodiversity-Guidance.pdf

Enquist CAF and colleagues, 2017, Foundations of translational ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15(10), pp. 541–550. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1733