Community Engagement: The Crucial Stitch in the shift to Clean Energy

Locals are best placed to really know a place. Traditional Custodians often have an unparalleled knowledge of a land and its history. Farmers are very familiar with the local climate, the winds, the rocks and the terrain. Those who work in local industries will be aware of opportunities and know the potential challenges. Community groups and residents usually know how people interact and live in a town, where the schoolkids wait for the bus, and what activities will cause bottlenecks and stress. Local people, farmers, businesses and community organisations also have lived experience of any current interruptions or limitations that their existing electricity networks provide.

Little of this can be learned from a desktop study.

That’s why it is essential that local experience and knowledge is fully part of the design for renewable energy projects.

Recently, we heard from the Minns Government that the establishment of electricity  infrastructure in NSW’s first two renewable energy zones may be delayed by two years and will cost up to $10 billion. Minister for Energy Penny Sharp cited a lack of community engagement as one of the key reasons for the new timeline.

As someone living in the New England region, it has certainly been eerily quiet on the engagement front since the New England Renewable Energy Zone was declared in December 2021. However, it is encouraging to see the state government recognise the critical role of good engagement, and all eyes will be on the process as consultation on transmission line corridors for the New England REZ starts this month.

Historically, both governments and developers have often fallen short of good engagement, failing to recognise the value of community to a project’s success. They often rolled out engagement based on a “decide and defend” model, and employed authoritative decision-making, obscure jargon, and bureaucratic language buried within small printed notices in newspapers.

Proponents who fail to adequately engage with communities not only slow the shift to renewable energy, they will increase costs and upset communities. They also miss a huge opportunity.

When engagement begins early and is done well, in a way that genuinely incorporates community input and knowledge, locals know that they have been included in the planning process and understand the value they add to a project. Plus, it mitigates the risk for project delays that occur if critical information isn’t factored in at the outset.

Communities may not have all the answers, but they will have a lot of questions! And it is through engaging with these questions that government and developers can improve on their original concepts, or even better, ask communities to co-design projects with them.

Aiming for mere acceptance of a project underestimates the value of community engagement.

At non-profit Community Power Agency, we are concerned with the social aspects of the transition. We want to see how the everyday person as well as impacted landholders can participate in the design of specific projects and how the benefits from the expanding renewable energy industry are being distributed to regional areas.

When it comes to community engagement, a stitch in time saves nine. Any attempt by governments or developers to cut corners will result in neither a fast nor fair transition.

However if planned and executed well, engagement does not necessarily cause delays. Indeed, it is the very thing that could speed projects up.

This article originally appeared in the Northern Daily Leader

Guest post – Repower Our Communities

My name is Kathryn Maxwell and I’m the president of the Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance (SHASA), a community energy group in NSW. I’m writing to you today from Parliament House to launch a new campaign to Repower Our Communities along with Community Power Agency.

Sign up to support the campaign here!

Many of you have first-hand experience of the wonderful things community energy groups can achieve in towns across the country. In Eurobodalla our group has helped 10 community owned facilities install over 100 kW of solar and 20kw of batteries. However, I know that it is a real struggle to access the required resources to make more of these projects happen, whether that be funds, expertise or capacity.

That’s why I came to Parliament today with a group of farmers and other community energy representatives from regional Australia. This exciting new campaign, in partnership with Farmers for Climate Action can sidestep the climate wars by highlighting the bushfire resilience, local jobs & economic opportunities that community energy can bring to our regional communities if it’s supported appropriately.  

Join the Repower Our Communities campaign and create a groundswell of community energy support.

The Repower Our Communities campaign, based on Independent Member for Indi Helen Haines’ Local Power Plan, will build public support for the roll out of community-owned renewable energy in the regions, making sure our towns and regions benefit from the renewables boom.

There are no losers here. By keeping the focus on local jobs and benefits to our regions, the Repower our Communities campaign is a chance to avoid getting bogged down in the climate debate and get on with the job of reducing Australia’s emissions. It’s a no brainer, truly.

Join our campaign to give it the support it needs to succeed!

We farmers already know that, with government leadership, the transition to renewables could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revitalise our farming and regional communities.

Wind and solar can be harvested throughout the year, providing local jobs and income in good times and bad. By making sure the benefits of renewable energy projects stay with us, we can increase the resilience of regional communities in the face of a changing climate.

I believe we can win this campaign. Australians love renewable energy and already right across the country, from Yackandandah to Shoalhaven, local groups are developing community-owned renewable projects. We just need the government to come to the table.

Sign up and help power Australia with community owned renewable energy.

Here’s to helping more communities transition to a renewables future,

Kathryn Maxwell

President, Southcoast Health & Sustainability Alliance (SHASA)

Solar for All video

Solar for All

Solutions that unlock solar for everyone

When it comes to solar energy, Australia really is the “lucky country”. Australia is to clean solar what Saudi Arabia is to dirty oil. We’ve got so much of the stuff that a large part of our national identity is shaped by our sunshine. We are Bronzed Aussies, the Sunburnt Country, only some of us live in the Sunshine State, but we all Slip, Slop and Slap!

No surprise then that Australian home owners have so warmly embraced rooftop solar. Not only is this a great way to keep on top of rising energy bills, it also speaks to our sense of identity as independent pioneers and, added bonus, gives an opportunity to “stick it to the big guys”, the energy companies who send us their bills each quarter. 

With the world’s highest rate of rooftop solar installation, Australia now has over 2 million solar homes. Unfortunately some of us are less lucky than others. Some 35% of us are “locked out”, unable to access the benefits of rooftop solar. This is because many Australians are renters, live in apartments, have shaded roofs unsuitable for solar or just can’t afford the up-front cost.

Locked out energy users love solar as much the rest. They’d like to participate in the solar revolution and take control of their energy future. They just need someone to unlock the potential of solar for their situation.

Unlocking solar

It may seem obvious that if you don’t have a roof suitable for solar then you can’t buy a solar system to get the benefits it brings. That’s the end of the story, right?

Thankfully, some people see this as the beginning of an exciting quest, not the end of a short and disappointing story. These entrepreneurs, advocates and creative thinkers have been working hard with like minded people in their communities to find ways that would allow those of us who are locked out to access the benefits of owning solar.

This is the first of our Solar for All series of articles where we’ll explore the emerging solutions for locked out households, the barriers holding these solutions back and those who hold the key to a future where everyone has fair access to affordable, clean solar power.

Framing the problem shapes the solution

Creating a solution to an identified problem starts with an exploration of the underlying causes. Well designed solutions tackle the barriers, not just the symptoms. The framing of the problem very much shapes the solution.

What is interesting about the “locked out” problem is there are multiple barriers that lead to households being prevented from having access to solar. This explains why we are seeing a diversity of solutions emerging to unlock solar for everyone.

Solar Affordability

If the locked out problem is framed as an affordability problem then of course solutions will focus on making solar more available to those without the means to pay the full price of solar up front.

Solutions to address a rooftop solar affordability problem: 

  • Rebates
  • Financing products for low income households
  • Government programs that allow vulnerable energy users to access solar.

Landlord and renters

If the problem of being locked out is most urgently felt by renters who can’t convince their landlords to install solar, then the solutions for tackling this problem will no doubt do a great job of solving what is known as the “split incentive” issue. 

The issue of course being that although it’s the landlord who pays for the cost of installation, it’s the tenant who gets the benefit of consuming the electricity for free. This raises questions that form barriers. Questions like: who should pay for the installation, who will receive the benefit, and how can costs and benefits be fairly shared?

Solutions to address the challenging dynamic between landlords and renters: 

  • Programs or models designed to build trust between tenants and landlords but also share the benefit with the landlord more fairly
  • Programs or models that remove the need for the landlord to make any sort of financial outlay including but not limited to Solar Gardens
  • Interventions that compel or mandate landlords to install solar.

Short tenure

Some people believe (correctly) there is a critical issue with households who aren’t sure how much longer they’ll remain in their current home. With solar payback periods measured in years, this means uncertainty over length of tenure can hold people back from making the investment into solar. Some solutions do a great job of locking the payback to the property, not the occupant who chose to install solar. 

Solutions to address short tenure

  • Council-backed rates-repayment schemes and other financing products emerge in this area.

Market and regulatory failure

If the biggest barrier locking people out of solar comes from our energy regulations and the way our energy market operates, then we’ll see solutions that work creatively to navigate an outdated energy system that wasn’t designed for the dynamic way we expect energy to work today. 

Solutions to address market and regulatory failure

  • High technology offerings such as Virtual Power Plants
  • Business models such as Solar Gardens

Support for diverse solutions

As we can see, there are diverse reasons why solutions are being developed to solve the locked out problem. This diversity is reflected in the variety of solutions emerging for these too-often neglected consumers.

The Solar for All Campaign calls on State Energy Ministers to implement a carefully designed Package to support all locked out customers. This will be done by ensuring all solutions are recognised as playing an important part of this complex area.

In the next article in the series we’ll focus on one model that delivers an effective solution for all locked households, regardless of the reason why they might be prevented from owning rooftop solar.

Scott Morrison’s betrayal of the Pacific was immoral – and completely unnecessary

Read Nicky Ison’s opinion piece outlining how Australia is in a unique and fortunate position whereby we can prosper economically while we reduce our contribution to climate change. Ignoring our Pacific Island neighbours is immoral but more than that it does nothing for our economy or our strategic position in the region.

Read the full story in the Guardian here.

Three pilot Community Power Hubs for Victoria

Read Nicky Ison’s article about how the Victorian Government’s announcement of three pilot Community Power Hubs is an important step towards helping every community across Australia to have its own wind or solar farm.

The Victorian Government has announced it is piloting three Community Power Hubs in Bendigo, Ballarat and the Latrobe Valley.  It is an important step in the right direction towards seeing the support communities and a range of local actors need to decarbonise, democratise and decentralised our energy system for the benefit of communities and people across Australia. However, more needs to be done to unlock the potential of community energy across Victoria.

Read the full story in One Step Off the Grid here.