‘Let’s get on with it’ – Regions want real solutions, not politics

Australia needs bipartisan support for a plan to help regional communities to work with and benefit from renewable energy infrastructure in regional Australia. 

RE-Alliance and Community Power Agency have been working for more than a decade with regional communities hosting large-scale renewable energy projects and have solutions ready to fund that have come from regional communities.

RE-Alliance National Director Andrew Bray said the current discussion over Australia’s energy policy highlights how vital it is to listen to regional communities in our shift to a cleaner future.

Mr Bray said 40% of Australia’s electricity was already generated by renewable sources, increasing to 50% by the end of 2025, and regional Australia is already benefiting from hosting renewable energy infrastructure.  

“Rather than policies of distraction, we need to see all sides of politics focussing on getting on with the job we’re halfway through.”

“In this decisive decade for emissions reduction, governments can ramp up community engagement with solutions that exist right now. This will make sure the best renewable projects are supplying clean energy to homes and businesses, whilst benefiting local communities and looking after nature,” Mr Bray said.

Dr Jarra Hicks, Director, Community Power Agency said:

“We all want a say in the big changes happening in this country. But too often regional communities feel we aren’t properly consulted. These solutions can help us take hold of the shift to renewables with both hands,” Dr Hicks said.

With colleagues working in regional Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania, RE-Alliance and Community Power Agency have been advocating to government to fund three key solutions to boost positive outcomes for regional communities hosting renewables infrastructure.

1. Provide trusted, local information: Fund and resource Local Energy Hubs in Renewable Energy Zones across Australia

A network of 50 Local Energy Hubs in Renewable Energy Zones across Australia staffed by trusted, local experts on topics such as local renewables and transmission projects and household electrification could provide this information and support.

2. Create a race to the top for better practice: Make the Capacity Investment Scheme (CIS) the best it can be 

Research tells us that the fastest way to deliver quality renewable energy projects is to get communities involved from the very beginning and share the benefits.

Strengthening the CIS tender guidelines is the best opportunity we have to set a high bar for community and nature outcomes in every region that will host projects. The CIS is a national framework to encourage investment in renewables. The tender guidelines determine which projects get supported, and it’s vital that those delivering positive community outcomes are prioritised.

The latest guidelines released in May now clarify and prioritise good community engagement for the first time. But, nature still needs stronger protection, and local knowledge can be better harnessed when it comes to mapping local habitats and species that need protecting. 

The CIS could also include mechanisms to drive First Nations equity in renewable energy projects, similar to successful schemes in Canada and South Africa. The First Nations Clean Energy Network has been calling for a similar model in Australia.

3. Counter mis-and-disinformation: Use organisations like the CSIRO, as trusted sources of information on renewables 

Misinformation and disinformation can gain traction when there is an information vacuum in a community about the energy shift. 

A high-trust entity, such as the CSIRO, could host a dedicated national centre to lead research on renewables and transmission projects, produce clear, publicly accessible information and undertake outreach to share these resources.

Landscape view of solar farm in Uralla, NSW, with a gum tree in the foreground.

Government is listening – new tender guidelines for renewables finally valuing  communities 

Community Power Agency and RE-Alliance – two organisations working for more than a decade with regional communities hosting large-scale renewable energy projects – have warmly welcomed the Capacity Investment Scheme (CIS) improved tender guidelines released today.

The CIS is the framework that allows the Federal Government to set how successful projects will build renewable generation and storage. It will deliver a massive 23 GW of new renewable energy generation and 9 GW of storage in the regions – which could amount to 40 new wind and solar farms and a dozen battery projects by 2030.

RE-Alliance National Director Andrew Bray said strengthening the CIS tender guidelines is the best opportunity to set a high bar for community outcomes in every region that will host projects. 

“The Capacity Investment Scheme can establish a floor for standard practice, and raise the roof with extra incentives for outstanding commitments to First Nations communities, local environments, regional communities and workers,” Mr Bray said.

“While we still have a way to go, the government has shown it is really listening. The new guidelines released today are much stronger than previous tenders.

“It’s good to see the tender guidelines emphasising First Nations equity sharing, 

revenue sharing, employment and training opportunities, and we look forward to seeing how this is enabled through the assessment process.”  Mr Bray said

Kim Mallee, Director, Community Power Agency said government funds should only be awarded to projects that are in a race to the top for better practice renewables development.

“Research has shown that the fastest way to deliver quality renewable energy projects is to do community engagement well with fair benefit sharing,” Ms Mallee said. 

“Communities know what it feels like to be listened to and have input to a major project in their region, so it’s imperative that schemes such as the CIS pick projects that perform well and contribute to positive relationships between locals and the industry as a whole.”

What are the key improvements?

  • Changes to the CIS tender guidelines released today clarify and prioritise good community engagement for the first time. 
  • Community benefit sharing is now considered an imperative for projects in the first round of short-listing as well as the second.
  • The  weighting for assessment scores related to the social elements of a project  have increased from 20% to 25%
  • While these changes are a good step forward, there is still room to improve – particularly on proponents’ commitments to delivering quality community engagement beyond successfully winning a CIS tender.

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.

What’s in the budget for renewable energy regions?

Community Power Agency and RE-Alliance – two organisations working for more than a decade with regional communities hosting large-scale renewable energy projects – welcome the $22.7 billion investment committed to Australia’s renewable energy future in tonight’s budget, and call for a similar level of ambition to increase trust with regional communities who are critical partners in the transition.

$209.3 million for the Net Zero Economic Authority is also welcomed. RE-Alliance and the Community Power Agency look forward to the legislation passing soon – hopefully with an expanded remit to include all renewable energy regions – so that the Authority can start supporting regional communities as soon as possible.

RE-Alliance National Director Andrew Bray said:

“We can see a $20.7 million commitment to improving community engagement and community benefits which is really promising. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with the government to ensure that regional communities get the tools they need to tap into the benefits of hosting renewables. This is a start but we’re hopeful the government will up their ambition in building trust in the regions by the time we get to the mid-year budget update,” Mr Bray said.

“$10 million over two years, that will include delivery of public information on the net zero transition, is something we’ve been calling for and will help inform regional communities,” Mr Bray said. 

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that the shift to renewables delivers logical, local, long-term benefits for farmers, local councils and regional communities,” Mr Bray said.

Community Power Agency Director, Jarra Hicks, said it is now just as important that the government’s investment in infrastructure and technology is matched by funding and resourcing in building trust in the country’s shift to renewables.

“We need the government to create avenues for local participation. We need to front load the benefits for regional communities. And we need to communicate honestly about the change that is happening and what it means for regional and rural Australia,” Dr Hicks said.

RE-Alliance will host a webinar on what the budget means for renewable energy regions at 1pm on Monday 20 May 2024. Register here for details. 

RE-Alliance and Community Power Agency have been speaking to government MPs and Ministers over the past six months to ensure every step is being taken to support regional communities hosting the clean energy shift – a shift that needs to accelerate rapidly this decade to secure a safe climate future.

One of the measures proposed is a federally funded network of 50 independent Local Energy Hubs in regions with large amounts of current or proposed renewable energy developments and transmission lines. This has not been funded in tonight’s budget.