Worker installing solar panels on a roof

Community energy upgrade fund – here’s what you need to know

Last week the Federal Government announced a new $100 million Community Energy Upgrades Fund. At first glance, the words “community energy” sparked excitement. However, after some further digging we discovered that while it is welcome news for local councils, grassroots community energy groups unfortunately miss out. 

Grants will be available for local councils who are looking to do energy efficiency upgrades on community facilities such as libraries, pools, sporting fields and community centres. Efficiency upgrade examples include replacing energy-intensive heating in council pools with heat pumps and installing energy efficient lighting and battery storage. The aim of the program is to upgrade local facilities that simultaneously lowers energy costs and emissions. The fund adds to the $1.6 billion Energy Savings Package the Federal Government announced in the 2023-2024 budget. While the fund shows promise, it’s important to mention that the guidelines are still being developed. If you work for a local council – keep your eyes peeled for updates. 

While the fund doesn’t extend to grassroots community energy groups, a quite disappointing aspect, it is clear that the Government has taken inspiration from the community energy sector. Community energy groups around the country have been driving clean energy initiatives for over a decade, often relying on their own resources. Many of these groups have delivered projects on community facilities, like installing solar panels, to decrease carbon emissions at the same time as reducing electricity bills of key infrastructure in their town.

At Community Power Agency, we strongly advocate for a more inclusive approach to future funding. By fostering collaboration between councils and community energy groups, we can tap into the invaluable insights these groups possess and a huge amount of passion for driving projects forward, ultimately maximising the positive impact of energy upgrades. 

Grassroots groups who have paved the way

Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance (SHASA) have had a huge impact in their region. By partnering with Micro Energy Systems Australia, they have been able to help over 23 community groups through three different pathways: 

  1. Fully gifting PV Solar systems free of charge to community not for profit organisations, such as the Bodalla Local Aboriginal Land Council. 
  2. Sourcing grants to support the installation of PV Solar systems to community not for profit organisations, such as the Moruya Preschool.
  3. Supporting community organisations to install PV Solar systems through their Eurobodalla Solar Bulk Buy program including the Kyla Park Community Hall in Tuross Head.
Brigitte Warburton, Cathi Young, Marie Sutton and Ammanda Donnelly, with Stephen Cornthwaite (far right) of Micro Energy Systems Bodalla, who installed the school’s new solar system. Photo: SHASA.
TRY Founder, Matt Charles-Jones gives thanks at the launch event for the many collaborators on the EV Charger project.

In 2022, the town of Yackandandah celebrated another great partnership with the launch of the town’s first EV charging station. Including Victorian Government funding, community advocates, Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY) partnered with community social enterprises, YCDCo (fuel and rural supplies) and Indigo Power and alongside Indigo Shire to deliver the charger to support their drive toward 100 renewables. This being just one of many innovative collaborations in new energy. 

Queenscliffe Climate Action Now (QCAN) have collaborated with the local Borough of Queenscliffe Council and Vortex Electrical to run a community solar program, aimed at increasing the uptake of solar in their community. They are doing this by leveraging the buying power of the community and partnering with contractors to make the installation of quality solar, battery and heat pump hot water systems easy and affordable. And the best part, for every solar and/or battery system installed as part of this program, Vortex is making a donation back to the community in the form of solar and/or battery products which will be used to install renewable energy systems on community buildings throughout the Borough.

QCAN treasurer Neil Mathison, Mayor Isabelle Tolhurst, QCAN secretary Peter Cook and QCAN president Kitty Walker at the Point Lonsdale Bowls Club. Photos: Vinnie Van Oorschot

These are just some examples of community energy groups taking the power into their own hands to progress climate action and deliver local benefits. We hope that in future, funds can be directed towards these groups to increase collaboration and impact.

On the ground in the New England Renewable Energy Zone: mid-year wrap

In January, our New England Renewable Energy Zone (NEREZ) team received a boost with the recruitment of Heidi McElnea as Engagement Coordinator. Heidi lives within the New England REZ, and she’s been building local connections, facilitating information flow and working on strategies to increase local participation in the renewable energy transition since her role got underway.

We’ve been continuing our collaboration with community groups for support, connection and capacity building.

In March we hosted a community energy information evening with ZNET Uralla and local solar energy company Meralli. The focus of the evening was to walk though different models of community owned energy models and consider the opportunities of co-designing projects with developers. Kim gave an overview of the Haystacks Solar Garden project, a cooperative arrangement that Community Power Agency is facilitating which enables people to purchase a solar garden plot. 

We worked with the UNE’s Smart Region Incubator on an Energy Roundtable and Innovation Challenge. Both were very successful, with lots of strategies developed at the Roundtable, and some new start-up enterprises with a renewable energy focus that grew from the Innovation Challenge. 

CPA Director Kim Mallee with Kate Hook, Community Engagement Manager for RE-Alliance and Heidi McElnea, CPA Engagement Coordinator.

Councils play a significant role in the renewable energy transition, and we’ve been meeting with Mayors and senior staff to co-design a joint council capacity building workshop which we will hold in August. 

Other work has included an initial gap analysis of workforce training, employment and procurement, and taking a proactive role in information sharing with media and stakeholders. We strongly advocate for the importance of community participation in the current consultation around preliminary transmission line corridors at every chance we get. It is exciting to see the transition unfolding in the region and all the possibilities these activities brings to regions. Over the next few months we will continue our work on the ground to improve the social outcomes for communities in the NEREZ.

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

Minister readies New England region for transmission consultation

NSW Minister for Energy Penny Sharpe today announced that consultation will soon begin on the corridor identifying possible placements for the transmission lines that will carry power from the New England Renewable Energy Zone to the Upper Hunter. 

This preliminary study corridor for the transmission lines will be approximately 1km wide and will be refined as a result of community consultation undertaken by the NSW Government. 

NSW’s EnergyCo is currently preparing a range of materials to distribute to communities in the region to help build an understanding of what this means for them. The New England Renewable Energy Zone was declared in December 2021 and will be an integral part of NSW’s transition to clean energy as aging coal fired power stations are retired.      

We’re keen to see the NSW Government roll out information about preliminary transmission corridors for the New England REZ and start this stage of the consultation process. We encourage people in the area to get involved – it’s a window of opportunity,” said Heidi McElnea, our Engagement Coordinator who is based in the New England region. 

“Communities have an innate knowledge of their local area, and we all need to work together to find the best ways to balance planning, people and the environment, as well as the technical aspects,” Ms McElnea said. 

We are working in the region to connect local people to the right information, building the capacity of locals to know what an excellent transition can look like. Community Power Agency does this through fostering collaboration, offering capacity building to local governments and community organisations and sharing expertise on community engagement, benefit sharing and local procurement.     

There is an interactive map on the New England Renewable Energy Zone website, and it is expected to be updated with the proposed transmission corridor as early as June. That web address is

2023 Budget: opportunity for fast transition, but community & environment should be at heart

Labor’s 2023 Federal Budget has delivered a few hits and a few misses from the perspective of the clean energy transition. 

In every context, Community Power Agency looks to the community experience of the energy transition. 

Will communities be involved in the process and kept informed? Will local people experience benefits and opportunities, will their needs be considered alongside those of industry and government? Are rural and regional communities included, in the way that urban communities are? Will this contribute to a fairer and faster transition?

It is with these questions in mind that we have assessed the 2023-2024 Federal Budget. Read on to see our take on what works and what doesn’t.

We welcome the investment to support small businesses and households to ‘electrify everything’, and to improve energy efficiency. 

This includes the Household Energy Upgrades Fund, which will provide: 

  • $300 million (over forward estimates) for energy performance upgrades for social housing
  • $1 billion to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for household energy upgrades in partnership with banks and other lenders to upgrade homes with battery-ready solar PV, modern appliances and other improvements
  • $36.7 million to expand and accelerate The National Energy Rating Scheme for existing homes, which will help to boost mandatory energy performance rental standards.

Additionally, the Small Business Energy Incentive will offer tax incentives for energy performance retrofits for small businesses, and ACT residents will be able to access concessional loans via the ACT sustainable Household Scheme to electrify or improve energy efficiency of their homes.

These investments provide long term reduction in bills for households, as well as protection from volatility in energy supply, in a way that one-off handouts cannot. It is great to see the Government recognising the benefit of this kind of support, that colleagues, such as the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), have been lobbying for in the lead up to the Budget delivery. With this investment also delivering significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it certainly is a win-win. 

We welcome the funding for and legislation of the National Net Zero Authority. The budget includes $83.2 million towards establishing this new very needed body, which will provide oversight and guidance of our clean energy transformation. 

The Net Zero Authority will:

  • Support workers in emissions-intensive sectors to access new employment, skills and support as the net zero transformation continues.
  • Coordinate programs and policies across government to support regions and communities to attract and take advantage of new clean energy industries and set those industries up for success.
  • Help investors and companies to engage with net zero transformation opportunities.

The Federal government has highlighted that First Nations groups, alongside industry, unions and state and territory governments will be key stakeholders in the delivery of the Authority’s ambitions. CPA welcomes this pivotal piece in the energy transition puzzle, maintaining that while there needs to be centralised oversight of transition, regional and community voices must also be heard. 

We welcome the formal allocation of $12 billion, from the existing $20 billion investment in Rewiring the Nation to go towards transformational transmission projects. Investment in upgrading our transmission infrastructure is critical to our meeting net zero targets and should be done in a way that minimises potential impacts on biodiversity while involving community in the corridor placement. 

The transmission investment includes:

  • $1 billion in Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation projects
  • $1.5 billion towards Renewable Energy Zones and offshore wind in Victoria
  • $4.7 billion to unlock critical transmission in New South Wales.

Through our continued work on the ground in regional host communities, in particular the New England region, we have learned that any large scale infrastructure development, be it transmission or renewables projects, must involve and benefit local communities. We continue to advocate for a fair and fast transition to renewables (which includes the necessary transmission) in ways that provide genuine means for locals to participate, have a say and receive tangible benefits. 

It is disappointing to see funding measures in the budget which provide over $33 million public subsidies for the continued operation of fossil fuel industries; the world’s largest carbon emitters.   

Also incredibly disappointing are the miniscule changes to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax (PRRT), which aims to limit the proportion of PRRT assessable income that can be offset by deductions to 90 percent. These projects can currently deduct their capital costs against their tax liabilities, which has resulted in PRRT returning no or little tax revenue from these projects despite generating superprofits ($63bn in 2022/23).
The result of a 1% increased share to taxpayers in the words of Tim Buckley is “very pedestrian relative to the LNG export industry’s windfall war-profiteering and oversized contribution to Australian domestic energy price hyperinflation [1].    

International experts agree that we need to rapidly scale down the use of fossil fuels, including gas, not just continue its ongoing operation, albeit with small improvements to decarbonisation attempts.

CPA supports budgetary measures which fast tracks Australia to be powered by 100% renewable energy, through processes that improve community involvement and participation in the energy transition. 

By investing in energy efficiency in homes, the electrification of everything, a Net Zero Authority and transmission infrastructure, the government is making steps towards a more equitable renewable energy system. It’s a good start, and a workable platform on which non-profit organisations like CPA can contribute to a better energy future.   

[1] – Labor’s Budget is good for climate and renewables and great for the gas cartel