A group of us have just finished a community energy survey and report. We also wrote a small article for Pearls and Irritations which I reproduce here with a few modifications.

 Jonathan Paul Marshall, Kristy Walters, Adrian Ford and Eleanor Buckley

Dec 15, 2023

About a month ago, the UN 2023 Production Gap Report revealed that Governments around the world, are helping to expand the fossil fuel industry so as to “produce  110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, and 69% more than would be consistent with 2°C”.

As well, many of those watching the current COP 28, are probably thinking that governments and businesses cannot (or will not) solve the problem of emissions and climate change by themselves. Even when trying, and not freeloading on others for ‘justice reasons’, they face the difficulties of corporations taking land from local people, paying some people but not others creating new inequalities, disrupting local social relations, despoiling established environmental aesthetic, or use, values, and so on.

There has to be a way forward, that does not involve repeating the overtly failure-generating actions that have been made for the last 30, or so years of official climate action.

Community Renewable Energy

Community Power Agency and researchers from UTS and Melbourne University suggest that one way around this problem is to encourage Community Renewable Energy (CRE), as CRE projects can be sensitive to local concerns, can allocate money fairly, can look after the land, reduce ecological destruction. and don’t involve freeloading on anyone. CRE projects can potentially link and distribute energy from RE farms and private rooftops, and develop political self-reliance and competency. Furthermore, they can keep money spent on energy in the local area, to develop new industries or support established ones. Critically, as climate change increases, CRE offers a more resilient energy system, less vulnerable to grid disruptions and supply challenges.

Community energy involves energy controlled, produced and possibly funded by a community organisation.

More formally, CRE occurs when community members are involved in energy projects through at least two of the following functions:

• As funders (be they owners, lenders or donors);
• As decision-makers (especially with respect to design. installation and delivery), and/or;
• As recipients of the benefits of local energy production (financial, social, environmental or others).

Community energy was not feasible with fossil fuels, because large continuing investment is required in both plant and fuel. However, renewable energy (particularly solar) can be cheap and modular. This enables it to be built at a rate which reflects the money available, and it does not require the costs of continual refuelling as does fossil fuel or nuclear energy. This allows groups to undertake (and grow) smaller, economically feasible CRE projects. Indeed some local groups, like CEFE in the Bega region, are providing CRE one community rooftop at a time. Nation-wide local enthusiasm for renewables is also shown by the large take up of rooftop solar in Australia which is now approaching the levels of levels of coal burning energy. [1] [2]

We should perhaps also add that corporate renewables face the problem that Renewable Energy is basically free once the technology is installed, and that as a profit source it is not that great, precisely because the company does not have to sell a fuel source. The more RE is avaiable the cheaper and less profitable it becomes. This is a problem recognised by the International Renewable Energy Agency(IRENA)

The more renewable energy enters the system, the lower its remuneration becomes, reducing prospects for cost recovery and paralysing new investments, even when renewable energy is completely cost competitive

IRENA , World Energy Transitions Outlook: 1.5°C Pathway, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi 2021: 163)

This is considerably less problematic for CRE, where pricing can be decided by the community itself.

The CPA Survey

The CPA report involves the largest survey of Community energy organisations ever undertaken in Australia. The nation-wide survey suggests that there is considerable enthusiasm for CRE (over 142 groups, with 55 responses to the survey). Ninety four percent of responses suggested that people considered climate change to be a prime motivator for action. So CRE is, even now, enabling people to act on climate without waiting for governments or business.

However, CRE is being held back largely because of:

• A high dependency on volunteers who may experience burnout or frustration;
• Difficulties raising funds;
• Regulations and support designed for corporately provided power;
• Confusion over the help available, with insufficient organisational and expert support, and;
• Over the last few years, difficulties with Covid and climate conditions.

Despite these difficulties, the sector has grown significantly in recent years. Thirty of the fifty five responding groups were established after 2015. Groups self-reported over 44,000 supporters of various depth of connection, and were involved in 750 projects. They reported raising over $80 million dollars and producing 19,000 MWh of clean energy. Sixty four percent of groups reported being organised as incorporated associations.

While CRE is producing a small amount of Australia’s needs, this level of activity strongly suggests that with help, favourable regulation and clarity, more areas could self-supply, particularly in rural and regional Australia, where the costs of maintaining the grid is considerable.

Recommendations

In brief, the report recommends that:

• Governments set aside funding for community energy and capacity building hubs;
• Governments talk to community energy organisations, to find out the regulatory and other problems that they face;
• The Federal government establishes a nationally based Community Energy Collaboration Network to support community energy groups, and centralise information. At the moment, despite the best efforts of some organisations, helpful information is dispersed and hard to find;
• State governments set community energy targets;
• State governments help to establish a reasonable feed-in tariff, or other arrangement (such as P2P trading), whereby community energy does not lose all its profit to the grid, or town supplier.

Community Renewable Energy provides considerable hope for towns in Australia to participate in the energy transition, without waiting for others to act.

It clearly is already possible to act now, but action would be even better and more common, if CRE received the recognition and support it deserves