This article was originally published on abc.net.au/news on 16.6.14
By Carl Smith
The growing number of community-led projects that generate their own power through renewable energy is the focus of Australia’s first Community Energy Congress, being held in Canberra this week.
Nicky Ison from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures said self-sufficient energy projects in towns and small communities were becoming more popular as people looked to transition away from fossil fuels.
“Community energy is fundamentally about community members coming together to develop, deliver and own community energy projects,” she said.
“We now have 50 community energy projects in development across every state and territory in Australia.”
Ms Ison said the projects were environmentally responsible, with social and economic benefits.
“Community energy is the sweet spot,” she said.
“Benefits include lower power bills, regional development opportunities – particularly by bringing new income streams into the community – also increased social capital, and directly acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s got social benefits, it’s got environmental benefits, people do it for economic reasons, it’s an ethical investment.”
Simon Holmes a Court said the Hepburn Wind Project in Leonards Hill was proof the model works in Australia.
“It’s been generating power into the grid for three years now, we’ve generated more than 31,000 mega-watt hours of energy,” he said.
“We’ve put more power into the grid than our town uses in an average year.”
Hepburn Wind Project ‘widely supported by community’
Mr Holmes a Court said the project was widely supported in the community.
“There’s obviously the environmental concern but a lot of people in our community were really passionate about the social return,” he said.
“Our project is a big supporter of local groups within the community, and a local employer.
“There are about 24 people who have been staff or directors, who now have a great appreciation and a whole new skill-set.”
But organisations attending the Community Energy Congress said they were concerned about reduced Federal Government support for community-led projects.
Mr Holmes a Court said government support would help communities like Leonards Hill to grow.
“In 2008-09 we built our project predicated on strong support for renewable energy and we’re very concerned that the Government is backing away from that,” he said.
“In doing so they’ll damage a significant amount of value: social value and economic value in our area.
“We really hope that the Government takes very seriously the risk they’re putting our community in front of.”
Jarra Hicks from the Community Power Agency agreed that local renewable energy projects stimulated small societies and economies.
“This is a level of engagement with renewable energy that you can’t get any other way,” she said.
“It also builds relationships between people, and it keeps money in the local economy.
“When local shareholders own a portion of a renewable energy facility, that’s a benefit that stays in the community.”
Concerns raised over Renewable Energy Target review
In the lead up to the 2013 federal election, the Coalition promised to support a fixed 41,000 gigawatt-hour (GWh) target, equating to roughly 20 per cent of Australia’s expected energy requirements in 2020.
But a review of the target is underway, headed by self-professed climate change sceptic Dick Warburton.
Ms Ison said she was concerned the Government may wind back the Renewable Energy Target and that it could jeopardise current and future community energy projects.
“The renewable energy target and maintaining, or even expanding it, is crucial to the continued growth of community energy across Australia,” she said.
“All communities across the length and breadth of Australia can benefit from community renewable energy.”