Tasmanian Government proposes first Renewable Energy Zone, setting a precedent for early community involvement

The Tasmanian Minister for Energy and Renewables has proposed a Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) in North West Tasmania. Having declared the North West region as the first area to be investigated for a Renewable Energy Zone in the state in 2022, the Tasmanian Government embarked on a detailed analysis of the region throughout 2023. 

Unlike any other state jurisdiction in Australia, Tasmania prioritised a community engagement program during their scoping and investigation phase conducting a social feasibility study through their innovative “Mapping Important Places” platform. This Australian first, asked locals to identify places important to them and places that could potentially host renewable energy projects, which was then considered in the planning of the REZ. This means that the first ‘lines on a map’ are already informed by local communities.

Community Power Agency is proud to have worked with Renewables, Climate and Future Industries Tasmania in developing the Guidelines for Community Engagement, Benefit Sharing and Local Procurement for renewables in Tasmania and commend their community centred approach to REZ planning.

Our Director, Kim Mallee, who co-authored the Guidelines says “It’s great to see a State Government putting community first in the REZ planning process and prioritising the social elements of doing renewables well. Of all the States, Tasmania understands the importance and value of maintaining social licence, and it’s clear they have designed their REZ planning process with this in mind.”

With the government this week announcing a proposed REZ area for the North West along with the latest round of community engagement  to accompany it,  we are excited to see the Tasmanian community and renewables industry contribute their thoughts on how to do renewables well.  Community Power Agency would encourage anyone with an interest in the North West or renewables in Tasmania to contribute to the three focus areas of REZ design currently being consulted:

  1. Proposed REZ area
  2. Community benefit sharing 
  3. Market offering and access scheme

New guide shows how solar farms can improve biodiversity

Our new guide developed in New England sets out how new solar farm projects can improve biodiversity on the same sites.

The Building Better Biodiversity on Solar Farms Guide presents innovative strategies and tools to restore nature and integrate regenerative farming techniques while producing solar energy. The guide has been developed in collaboration with ecologists, wildlife experts, researchers, farmers, Cultural Knowledge Holders, Landcare groups and renewable energy developers.

“Planning a renewable energy development offers a chance to consider shared land use,” says co-author Heidi McElnea, Regional Coordinator at Community Power Agency. 

“We know from projects being developed in Asia, Europe, the US and now emerging in Australia, that conservation and agriculture don’t need to come off second best to renewable energy. 

“It’s also a chance to engage and employ local First Nations ranger groups, and tap into a long history of holistic land management while supporting that important re-connection to Country,” Ms McElnea said. 

While the guide is tailored to the unique ecosystem of the New England Tableland bioregion in northern NSW, its principles are relevant across the broad Australian landscape. 

The guide emphasises that well-designed solar farms can achieve a net gain in biodiversity, without compromising solar generation capacity. 

Group of local landcare members gather along a fence line in a paddock to view tree planting.
Local Landcare members view tree planting on solar host farmer’s land in New England.
Remo Boscarino-Gaetano and Dr Eric Nordberg show Heidi McElnea fauna monitoring systems on the University's solar farm. They're walking through the middle of a solar array.
University of New Englands’s Remo Boscarino-Gaetano and Dr Eric Nordberg show guide co-author Heidi McElnea fauna monitoring systems on the University’s solar farm.

“By integrating biodiversity considerations from the outset of planning a new solar farm, we can achieve substantial benefits. This includes minimising negative impacts, fostering on-site biodiversity enhancement and collaborating with neighbouring communities to bolster local biodiversity,” says co-author David Carr, Founder and Director, Stringybark Ecological.

Moreover, the guide outlines co-benefits for industry, illustrating how developments can be future-proofed and streamline the approval process by exceeding current legislated requirements. By achieving biodiversity increases and leveraging ecosystem services, industry players can also build constructive relationships with host communities and Traditional Owners, while reducing land use conflict. 

The guide couldn’t come at a more critical time, as Australia grapples with the urgency of addressing the intersecting challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Dr Eric Nordberg from the University of New England is a researcher in the new field of conservoltaics, and has contributed some of his findings to the guide. 

“Similar to artificial reefs in aquatic ecosystems, solar farms can serve as hubs for biodiversity enhancement, introducing structural complexity into the environment and providing crucial shelter and habitat for various species,” Dr Nordberg said.

The guide has been funded by The Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal, and will be launched in collaboration with Glen Innes Natural Resources Advisory Committee and Southern New England Landcare.

Haystacks Solar Garden launches in Grong Grong!

On Saturday 27 April, the small Riverina town of Grong Grong celebrated a major milestone – the launch of Haystacks Solar Garden. 

This Australian-first way of doing solar allows anyone connected to the electricity grid to access the benefits of solar directly on their electricity bill. 

This initiative is especially significant for the 30% of Australians who have been unable to access solar energy due to renting, living in apartments, or facing other barriers to installing rooftop solar panels.

“Haystacks Solar Garden has pioneered a new community-focused way of doing clean energy. It is a proof of concept for industry, demonstrating that there are many different ways to do solar and share the benefits with everyday people. Community energy projects like ours are a critical part of ensuring that the energy transition is both fast and fair.” said Kim Mallee, Haystacks Project Manager and Community Power Agency Director.

Haystacks Solar Garden is hosted by the purpose built 1.5MW Grong Grong Solar Farm that completed construction in March and this week began exporting electricity to the grid. Some background on how the solar garden works can be found here.

“Our incredible project team went above and beyond to pioneer this solar garden model in Australia – and to all our members that came on the rollercoaster journey from 2020 – we wouldn’t be here without them” said Kristy Walters, Haystacks Solar Garden Co-op Chairperson.

“Haystacks Solar Garden proves that solar can be made accessible for everyone – regardless of where you live or your tenure status, nobody needs to be locked out of benefiting from solar.”

175 solar garden plots were purchased by households in QLD, NSW, VIC and SA. These plots are expected to deliver an estimated $883,750 of savings to solar gardeners’ (household participants) electricity bills over the 10 year life of the project. 

“We’re making history here with Haystacks Solar Garden. I’m a renter, I live in a unit and my partner and I are both in our 80’s! We deeply care about equity in the shift to clean energy and this is a way of making the benefits of renewables accessible to all” said Haystacks Solar Gardener, Jean Hay. 

The launch of Haystacks Solar Garden comes just after the recent Commonwealth Government announcement of $30 million towards solar banks and onsite rooftop solar installation – aimed at enhancing solar accessibility for low-income renters and apartment dwellers. 

“The launch of Haystacks Solar Garden marks a significant leap forward in implementing solar garden models here in Australia—a concept that has already proven successful overseas in places like the US and Germany.” Kim Mallee, Project Director – Community Power Agency said.

“Despite the massive uptake of rooftop solar in Australia, there are still countless individuals in our communities who lack access to the benefits of solar energy. Haystacks Solar Garden serves as a template of success, paving the way for more solar gardens to follow and ensuring that more people can share in the solar revolution” said Nigel Hancock, Pingala Treasurer and project partner.

Haystacks Solar Garden is a project of Community Power Agency, Pingala and Komo Energy with Energy Locals as the participating electricity retailer. This project is proudly funded by the NSW Government in association with the Haystacks Solar Garden Co-operative, under the Regional Community Energy Fund.

How National Merit Criteria can boost better practice in renewable developments

Regional communities are central to the success of Australia’s shift to clean energy. Their treatment and level of agency in influencing new energy infrastructure development will greatly affect the efficiency of the large-scale renewables rollout. A roll out which, having been delayed for far too long, is now attempting to be delivered at a very rapid pace inorder to meet Australia’s much needed Paris Climate commitments and a 82% renewable energy target by 2030.  

So how can our regional communities who are being asked to host a nation’s new energy infrastructure be empowered to influence the design, reap the benefits of this energy boom, and genuinely participate in the energy shift? 

One method lies in the not-too-glamorous lever of tender merit criteria. 

  • How a project has engaged with a community to date and what it plans for the future;
  • How a project has designed its benefit-sharing program with its host community;
  • Whether First Nations people have been involved; and
  • Initiatives that have been established to enable local workforce participation.

When done well, these elements form the backbone of building trusted relationships and fostering stronger social licence. 

The call for better community engagement with a focus on building social licence is being voiced throughout the renewables sector. Most notably, the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commission (AEIC) Community Engagement Review recommended that the Government “Improve community engagement by motivating developers to achieve best practice and only selecting reputable developers for new project development”.

Australia needs national leadership that directly improves the social performance of renewable energy projects so that communities can have confidence in the national energy shift. Where the Federal Government provides incentives or permits for renewable energy development such as the Capacity Investment Scheme, funding provided through ‘Rewiring the Nation’ or Offshore Wind Feasibility Licenses, it must be coupled with strong National Merit Criteria for social performance. 

It’s not enough for a project to be financially viable and technically sound, projects must also be fair to the communities and environments that host them. 

Community Power Agency has prepared a discussion paper on the need and importance of implementing National Merit Criteria for incentivising best practice renewable energy development in an effort to highlight how this seemingly unassuming tool could be a key to unlocking social licence for the renewables sector. 

The benefits of communities being (literally) invested in big renewables

While many communities are being asked to host large-scale renewables and transmission projects, we believe they should also be able to co-own or co-invest in them too. 

Enabling models for communities to become co-investors in large-scale projects builds a groundswell of people directly invested in these projects’ success. These models create important opportunities for everyday folks to be involved in and benefit from the renewables boom. Community co-investment has been proven overseas (e.g. Denmark, Scotland, Canada) to increase community support and benefit from large scale projects.

Co-investment offers the community the chance to be invested (literally) in a project’s success – and enables communities to share in the rewards of harvesting the sun and the wind. 

CPA Director Jarra Hicks was lucky enough to see this model in action when she visited the Isle of Skye in Scotland as part of her PhD research. 

Isle of Skye is an incredibly beautiful and historic island and in the north of the island is an arc of 12 turbines that form the 28MW Ben Aketil Wind Farm. Local people were supported by Energy4All, a UK not-for-profit to establish the Skye Renewables Cooperative. Through the co-op, 570 people (most of whom are Skye residents) invested over A$1.6 million to purchase a 2.8% stake in the profits of the wind farm and are guaranteed a minimum return of 6.5% per year.  At times the return has been 12%, thanks to the generous winds of the Western Isles of Scotland. Each year, the co-op distributes up to 5% of their income as grants to ‘green’ projects on Skye and the rest is returned to the local investors. 

Photo credit: www.skye.coop
Photo credit: www.skye.coop

For the community, co-investment has ensured that a portion of the economic benefit from harvesting the wind stays in the local community and has led to a sense of community ownership in the project. For its members, the co-op is also an avenue for community action on climate change. For the people involved, it has given them a sense of satisfaction and positivity. Co-investment has built connection to and active support for the wind farm, and helped people to reconcile with the changes it has created in the landscape. As one community member explained:

“Turbines do have an impact on the local area, they do change the landscape, they become part of the landscape, they become part of Skye. So I think the more that the local people can feel that the wind farm is something that is part of them or is something that has some benefit for them – somebody hasn’t just come along and stuck them there – the better”. 

For the wind farm developer and project owner, community co-investment helped to build positive relationships and social licence in the community, which eased their planning and approvals process. As the Development Manager explained: 

“It improved our chances to get planning approval and it’s expensive to go through that process, so it’s important to do what you can to improve your chances of success. . .  it’s the right thing to be engaging with local communities about projects because you are going to impact the local environment, because wind turbines are big structures. . . It helps to be talking about some of the positive benefits that can flow directly to the community, like community benefit funds and community ownership. . . if you can do that successfully and you can secure some happy investors, then that helps you with future projects because they can become advocates for renewable energy”

In Australia, co-investment opportunities are still a new concept. The Sapphire Wind Farm (Squadron Energy) in New South Wales was the first to open up a public investment process, attracting A$1.8 million of investment from roughly 100 investors, many of whom were local to the area. This model, delivered in partnership with the DomaCom, a managed investment fund, streamlined the offering for local people. Other wind farms, such as Western Plains (West Wind) and Delburn (OSMI), have since made commitments to offer community co-investment.

In the current context, where regional communities are being asked to host many new wind, solar and transmission projects, there is scope for co-investment to be a win-win. 

Why shouldn’t regional communities be co-investors in a renewable future?