All those in favour, raise your hands

Jarra_HicksJarra Hicks, co-founder and Director of the Community Power Agency, says, “The lack of political action has been an instigator for a lot of people on the ground. I think we’re getting to the point where there’s enough people and enough interest that we’re having successes of our own but we’re also able to influence the shape of policy.”

Jarra’s enthusiasm for the community energy sector is infectious. “Having witnessed how other communities have done it overseas and being able to share those stories and images with people is really compelling,” she says. Yet she remains grateful for the opportunity to share this inspiration, which is both refreshing and endearing.

Very active in the climate change and anti-coal movement during her university days in Newcastle, Jarra  further shaped her community-based orientation in the alternative food movement, helping to build a community supported agriculture program connecting people with food origins. Then her research focus on how communities respond to climate change connected her with communities seeking solar bulk-buy purchases and with Hepburn Wind at the then pre-planning-approval stage.

Jarra’s years of travel through North America and Europe researching inspiring community energy projects have fed her motivation since her return to Australia. “Knowing there are [urban] community groups, transition towns, climate action groups as well as regional groups that would like to really embrace community energy” but had not yet conceived the possibilities, has led to her extensive community consultation here to help spread her knowledge and experiences. She has helped initiate and develop the early stages of New England Wind out of Armidale, NSW and, more recently, Mount Alexander Community Renewables out of Castlemaine, Victoria.

“There is present in communities the will to make change and live more sustainably; to address climate change and enrich their relationships with each other.” Jarra is proving to be a great spokesperson for that will, as well as the many benefits of community energy.

“It has so much to offer [not only] getting renewable energy installed, but also building relationships in communities, building people’s skills, building people’s knowledge, their engagement as active supporters of renewable energy; building local economies; all of these different benefits including the environmental ones. What makes it so exciting is this broad appeal to such a range of people with different motivations.”

Growing up in Asia has afforded Jarra a deeper perspective, from which she sees how our choices affect the environment and other people in a global sense. She effectively distills this knowledge to help community groups through an holistic approach to these choices, encouraging us to consider what we may not have exposure to, yet can relate to as members of a community.

“It’s come a long way in the last few years in terms of the general population starting to get what it might be.” The ‘it’ is a unique combination of appropriate and beneficial social, environmental and economic outcomes which has the power to transform anyone exposed to community energy to rapidly become a supporter.

Rapid uptake successes in community energy overseas in Denmark, Scotland, Germany and USA have resulted from the following things occurring simultaneously: systematic removal of barriers in electricity markets, grid networks, and public policy; provision of funding support mechanisms such as grants or low-interest loans; access to mentors and technical assistance such as wind mapping and solar mapping.

As exciting as these times are, Jarra remains pragmatic, yet encourages, “It would be great to have incentives to support this growth, but all we really need is for everyone who is interested in this space to pitch in and do what they can to help us remove the barriers, to open the space in local communities, in the electricity market, in the grid network, in the policies.”

And so say all of us.

Memery bank

CraigMemery“I’ve been very lucky I’ve got to work on a whole lot of different projects across different scales of wind energy, so over a number of years I’ve been able to pick up a pretty broad and deep knowledge of that; so as well as the regulatory, policy and grid connection side of things [I offer] a bit of subject expertise in wind energy and also in solar.”

Craig Memery might well be a community energy treasure. As an energy industry professional now with the Alternative Technology Association, he brings to the sector an enviable knowledge of energy markets and mechanisms, regulatory and policy frameworks, as well as alternative technologies’ feasibility, installation, grid connection, project development, resource assessment and resource management. Add to that power performance testing and demand side management and there’s little wonder he’s taught wind energy at TAFE.

As a consumer advocate, Craig works at energy market and policy reform, his efforts yielding tremendous results on behalf of community energy groups in overcoming regulatory barriers – “there are rules that have been changed to assist proponents of distributed energy” – as well as resource-based challenges. “We’ve built some fantastic tools recently to help communities do feasibility studies on solar to find sites without having to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on consultants. We give them these tools to do it themselves.”

Craig sees the Community Energy Congress as an ideal opportunity to gel the sector, allowing relationships to strengthen and thereby deepen its capacity to bring about change. He would like to see the Congress steward a coordinated and positive advocacy from the sector, to achieve recognition by energy market decision makers equal in status to, and thereby building on, existing consumer advocacy.

He envisages a desirable outcome for all as the sector matures to allow us to learn from one another so projects are delivered with greater efficiencies and to better effect.

Craig would like the Congress to convey a message to the energy market institutions and energy businesses for cooperation and support of the sector in recognition of the potential which exists for demand side participation to create new efficiencies and build a mutually beneficial, more sustainable energy sector.

Let’s help craft it.

“It’s so much fun!”

Shota FuruyaCultural, sociological and political science expert with Japan’s Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), Shota Furuya, says this is his main message to potential supporters of the community energy sector. “I have been working with this sector for 10 years and every time I go into communities I see wonderful cooperation and collaboration between many interesting people.”

Established in 2000, ISEP has helped pioneer community energy projects in Japan. Personally inspired by community energy stories from Germany and Denmark, Shota quietly states “Especially since Fukushima, we have many, many initiatives and I have supported several successful community projects. My role is to set up the forum for multi-stakeholder engagement, then facilitate consensus, project planning and development.” Then, when communities successfully start their process, he will work with them on dialogue between stakeholders. “I introduce skilled experts to practitioners and build networks among them.”

“Fukushima is very divided since the nuclear accident and communities are very sensitive to energy issues. Most people are interested in renewable energy but don’t know how to do it so we go to the communities and talk with people and advise how to start the process and how to plan and develop their projects with multi-stakeholder participation.”

“My main objective for the Congress is to share inspiring community energy stories from Japan with the Australian people. My second objective is to build a network between Australia and Japan. Renewable energy is essentially decentralised and distributed, so individuals, organisations and communities are often isolated, but sometimes international connection between those players brings unexpected new ideas, so I hope we can inspire each other.”

And with inspiration comes motivation.

Pingala Plans Solar Farms for Sydney

The community energy group Pingala sees a future where solar power will play a vital role in providing Sydney’s energy requirements.  Tom Nokolds, the secretary of Pingala, says the organisation has plans to develop “many solar farms … owned by the community … right here in Sydney”.

Nokolds feels that the Community Energy Congress in Canberra will be an opportunity to share experiences and skills amongst the growing community owned segment of the Australian energy sector.

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ARENA helping put power in the people’s hands

logo_coa_cmykThe Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) became a key supporter of the emerging Australian community energy sector in November 2013 when it announced substantial funding for the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE), led by UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, to help catalyse community renewable projects around the country.

The ARENA funding will go to develop a Community Energy Strategy for Australia.  The strategy is currently under development.  As part of the Strategy development process, the Coalition for Community Energy is organising the inaugural Community Energy Congress, to be held in Canberra from 16 to 17 June, 2014.

Nicola_Ison_SmlISF project leader Nicky Ison said community renewables encourage regional economic development, create local jobs and represent an opportunity for Australians to play an active role in where their electricity comes from.

“Community-owned renewable energy projects put power in the hands of Australian towns and suburbs, providing an exciting opportunity, particularly for renters, to get involved in Australia’s renewable energy future,” Ms Ison said.

“ARENA’s support will help us develop a strategic approach to take this promising and committed part of the Australian renewable energy sector forward.”

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said community renewables projects are of national benefit as they encourage community support for renewables, helping the development of other projects across Australia.

ARENA is providing $165,280 for C4CE to investigate funding models, skills and regulatory barriers for community renewable projects through research, workshops and the inaugural Congress,” Mr Frischknecht said.

“This project brings key players in the sector together to investigate the challenges and opportunities of community renewable projects and chart a pathway for the sector to tap into its potential.”