The election of an Albanese Government and a raft of climate-focused Greens and independent MPs heralds a new chapter in Australia’s story of becoming a renewable energy superpower. But there are some blank pages to fill in Labor’s Power Australia plan before community energy initiatives like solar banks and neighbourhood batteries can be deployed to assist more Australians to benefit from cheaper, cleaner power.
Over the weekend we saw that Australians in cities and regions around the country overwhelmingly voted for climate action. With the doubling of the crossbench, the public have made it clear that the major parties have not been delivering effective climate policy that will have tangible outcomes.
“Labor’s Powering Australia plan brings some welcome community energy initiatives that have potential to assist everyday Australians to transition to a lower carbon energy system and provide savings on their power bills if designed and delivered appropriately” says Community Power Agency’s project manager Kim Mallee.
The 2022 federal election result indicates broad social acceptance for the large-scale build out of renewable energy, however it should be remembered that social licence is an active process which can be revoked.
The Powering Australia Plan commits 85 solar banks and 400 neighbourhood batteries which could enable everyday Australians to be active participants in and beneficiaries of the renewable energy transition – but only if they are well designed and adequately supported.
While the design of these community energy policies is yet to be clarified, we suggest a roll-out of Community Power Hubs across regional Australia bolstered with a capacity building network behind it.
“Community energy is not just an electricity project at a local scale – it’s the community having agency and participation in energy projects to determine their own vision” says Mallee.
Solar Gardens (Banks)
Solar Gardens (as we prefer to call Solar Banks) provide a solution for the 30% of Australians that are still locked out of the rooftop solar revolution because they rent, live in an apartment or have an inappropriate roof due to shading or other reasons. Solar Gardens offer plots in an off-site solar array with the electricity generated from their solar garden plots credited onto participants’ electricity bills.
Community energy projects such as Solar Gardens play a critical role in the transition to renewable energy not just in terms of megawatt capacity but also in a way that is socially inclusive, creates social licence and stimulates meaningful regional economic development.
Community Power Agency has been pioneering the Solar Garden model in Australia since 2018 with an ARENA funded research project in partnership with University of Technology Sydney, that found the model is viable and desirable in Australia.
Labor’s ‘Solar Banks’ initiative commits $100Million to deliver an initial 85 solar banks assisting with 50% of the capital costs and importantly also covers the project’s feasibility and development costs.
After our Solar for All advocacy campaign, Community Power Agency was successful in receiving grant support from the NSW Regional Community Energy Fund for Australia’s first large-scale Solar Garden along with Sydney based community energy group Pingala, solar developer Komo Energy and community-owned electricity retailer Enova Energy. The Haystacks Solar Garden will be a 1MW solar array in the NSW Riverina and allow 333 people to purchase 3kW solar garden plots and receive credits on their electricity bill. It is in the final stages of network and construction approvals.
From the previous two years experience developing Haystacks Solar Garden we know that to roll out an effective Solar Banks/Garden program of the size Labor are proposing will require tailored expertise, support and coordination – such that could be provided via a Community Power Hubs & Network model.
The ‘Community Batteries for Household Solar’ initiative also outlined in the Powering Australia Plan shows some promising potential if developed effectively with communities at its heart. The initiative commits $200 million towards developing 400 neighbourhood batteries to help store rooftop solar energy at peak generation times and then make it available for the community at peak demand times.
There is a lot of buzz right now about the potential for neighbourhood batteries to assist in the transition to a clean energy future in a way that is nimble and equitable for everyday people. Developing business models and partnerships that suit the Australian electricity system and deliver meaningful participation for communities will be a key first step in developing this initiative effectively.
Whilst there are a number of neighbourhood battery trials underway in Australia there is a critical balancing act in making a project successful which requires careful consideration of network location, metering technology, tariff design and community engagement. Lessons learnt from existing trials will be critical in ensuring the roll out of an Australian wide community battery program of this scale is effective.
For more analysis and insight on neighbourhood batteries see this Renew Economy article by ANU researchers.
Community Power Hubs
Community Power Hubs are on-the-ground support organisations with the expertise and resources to enable community energy projects like solar banks and neighbourhood batteries to thrive.
To date in Australia there have been three regional pilot Community Power Hubs programs (currently expanded to 7 locations) funded by the Victoria Government with existing non-profit organisations resourced to deliver this program.
A key feature that has enabled the success of the Victorian Community Power Hubs is the background facilitation role played by Sustainability Victoria – a government agency – to enable collaboration, capacity building and knowledge sharing.
The roll out of solar banks and neighbourhood batteries will need on the ground support like Hubs adequately bolstered with a capacity building network. Our policy brief – Smart Energy Communities Program – details how 50 Community Power Hubs with grant resources and a Smart Energy Communities Network for capacity building can be delivered and scaled up over 10 years.
*This blog was edited on 26/5/22 to update our language about community batteries – we agree with the ANU Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program team that they should be referred to as “neighbourhood” batteries as a catch-all, except where community members have explicit participation and/or control over their planning and operation.