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?

Hunter locals rally for offshore wind

On Sunday 4 February we joined hundreds of locals to support a clean energy future for workers, the community and the environment in the Hunter Valley. The atmosphere was charged with inspiration as speakers spanning health, industry and the environmental sectors, echoed the call for economic and environmental opportunities.

Charlotte McCabe, Councillor for Newcastle Council, said she was “here for common sense, climate change [and] jobs in the Hunter. I’m here in solidarity with the unions.”

“It’s actually very frustrating that we even have to spend our time and energy saying, ‘of course, we want renewable energy projects. There is so much to get done. We’ve got a lot of other crises that are going on. But we have to respond to them.”

Charlotte McCabe, Councillor for Newcastle Council

Scott Alcorn, a retiree and lifelong union member of the Teachers Federation, shared his motivations for coming along on the day, saying “[I’m here] to hear the perspectives of the union movement in relation to the offshore wind farm and to hopefully get some ammunition to fight back to those who are opposing the wind farm”.

Scott Alcorn, a retiree and lifelong union member of the Teachers Federation

Mis and dis-information has been rife in the region since the declaration of the Hunter Offshore Wind Zone in July 2023, with the now infamous billboard showing a dead whale in Port Stephens becoming a visual symbol of the lengths anti-renewables groups will go to in order to spark fear. 

Jasmine Stuart, a Renewable Energy Engineer and member of Rising Tide came along because she is worried about the urgency of climate change. She shares that, “we actually don’t have any more time to spare; climate change is happening right now. We’ve seen record temperatures just being smashed – every day, almost. It’s just off the charts. And so we’ve run out of time to move slowly on renewable energy. We need big solutions. And offshore wind is one of those solutions”.

Jasmine Stuart, Renewable Energy Engineer and member of Rising Tide

A key theme of the day was focusing on how the offshore wind in the Hunter can be delivered in environmentally responsible ways, ensuring that impacts to nature and biodiversity were minimal. Nathan Clements, Community Organiser with the Hunter Jobs Alliance said that their work as an alliance of environmental and union organisations has been on advocacy to government to call for best practice environmental assessments and implementation plans. He said, “we want to see independent assessments done to address community concerns and [a] beefing up of the environmental acts, so that people know for certainty that there are going to be proper assessments done and if they are not up to scratch, then we figure it [how to ensure protections or mitigation] out”.

Nathan Clements, Community Organiser, Hunter Jobs Alliance

The crowd were hopeful for a clean energy future for the Hunter, with offshore wind playing an integral part. Ross Kerridge, a community member and proud Novacastrian, said he hopes “that Newcastle has built the [offshore wind] industry and all the support services behind it – the research and development work – that it becomes nationally or internationally recognised as a centre for energy. And I hope that it maintains the traditional identity of Newcastle that’s been built up over the last 220 years of which I’m so proud.”

Ross Kerridge, community member and proud Novacastrian

Nathan Clements has similar hopes and views, he said he’d like to see “a huge emphasis on local jobs, local manufacturing, local procurement, benefits to the community – across the board. Let’s do it here, let’s not let the opportunity go to waste”. 

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.