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.

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?

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”.