Power to the people: Enova Community Energy

Enova Community Energy managing director Felicity Stening stands behind electric car under leafy trees
Enova Community Energy managing director Felicity Stening (Image: Kate Holmes)

Topping the 2022 Green Electricity Guide by Greenpeace with the highest possible rating of five stars is Byron Bay-based social enterprise Enova Community Energy. Energy Source & Distribution talks to managing director Felicity Stening about how the company is going from strength to strength by putting people before profits.

As Australia’s first energy social enterprise, Enova Community Energy doesn’t really walk or talk like a typical energy retailer. Sure, it has shareholders to answer to and profit expectations, but at the heart of its being is one key mission: creating resilient and sustainable communities using renewable energy. 

Leading the dedicated and passionate team at Enova is managing director Felicity Stening.

Spending her formative years hiking and camping, Felicity grew up with a love of the natural environment that inspired her to study a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Biology at the University of Technology in Sydney.

A role within the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) saw her working with a team that was committed to creating significant change within the energy sector.

“It was a really great learning opportunity working within the state government, understanding policy development and how to engage with communities, businesses and households,” Felicity explains.

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From there she went on to work with Australian Power & Gas, which she says provided a great overview of how energy retailers operate and the regulatory environment designed to protect consumers. 

“I was fortunate to work in the product innovation team within sales and marketing. I was often in roles where I was in business development and assessing new technology, so I had a great view of what was being developed by external parties and what we could deliver that would positively impact people.

“I like shaping and creating businesses and bringing out the best in teams and people to help everyone deliver on a clear purpose. It’s not an easy thing, formulating strategy and delivering projects and services in new markets in the energy industry.”

Steering Enova through four of its first five-and-a-half years of operation has been hugely rewarding, Felicity says.

“Our mission is to create resilient and sustainable communities using renewable energy and ensuring that in the transition to renewables no one is left behind,” she explains.

“A third of people who are renting are locked out of having rooftop solar purely because they don’t own the roof over their heads. Enova has addressed this by looking at solutions such as solar gardens and pooling renewables.”

Enova’s business model revolves around giving back to communities. When customers sign up with Enova they can choose to have a $50 credit on their first bill or for Enova to give that credit to one of its chosen charity partners, such as The Black Dog Institute, Children’s Ground, or Community-Owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimby (COREM).

Putting customers and community at the heart of what they do is one of the reasons Enova topped the 2022 Green Electricity Guide by Greenpeace, scoring an incredible five out of five stars.

This independent recognition is testament to Enova’s business model and the hard work of its team and partners, Felicity says.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be rated at the top of the Green Electricity Guide by Greenpeace. We’re one of two companies that received five stars this year, the other being Diamond Energy, who supports us with their renewable electricity generation.

“We know we rated so highly due to our wholesale renewable energy purchases and community-mindedness. We led the market years ago with the highest feed-in tariff in NSW, attracting solar customers. We currently have approximately 50 per cent of our customer base having rooftop solar compared to the rest of the market, where about a third of the base is solar. 

“We know we need large-scale renewables as part of the solution for reducing the impacts of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions but we also know that distributed renewables are part of the mix—rooftop solar, community batteries, microgrids, virtual power plants, solar gardens. They are all part of the solution towards building resilient and sustainable communities in regional areas and cities.”

Enova Community Energy managing director Felicity Stening (Image: Kate Holmes)

Enova’s business model is unique in a number of ways, Felicity explains.

“Firstly, we are 100 per cent community owned. We have 1,600 individual shareholders, including 1,100 who invested in Enova when we started five-and-a-half years ago. 

“Secondly, we put 50 per cent of our profits from our energy retail arm, Enova Energy, into our not-for-profit arm, Enova Community, for community renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and free energy coaching so we can help people understand their energy usage habits and reduce their consumption. 

“The other 50 per cent of our profits go back to our shareholders, and we are on track to deliver our first profitable year this year, which is fantastic.”

Enova’s successes to date include Australia’s first solar garden, which it has delivered in partnership with North Coast Community Housing and COREM.

“We installed a 35.5kW system on the roof of North Coast Community Housing’s headquarters in Lismore. They buy the energy from that solar system from us at a 30 per cent discount and then we divide that money up between around eight low-income households and four local community groups,” Felicity says.

“We’re also working with Community Power Agency and Pingala Community Energy who are establishing the Haystacks Solar Garden near Grong Grong in the Riverina region of New South Wales.

Haystacks is part of a 1.5MW on-the-ground solar garden array that will support approximately 333 solar gardeners, who will be Enova customers and will receive credits on their bills. 

“Haystacks will be looking for people to buy ‘plots’ in the solar garden at a cost of between $4,000 to $4,200 per plot. Over the first 10 years of the solar garden’s operation they’ll receive credits on their bills from the energy generated. It’s a fantastic model for people who are renting dont have a suitable roof for solar or are otherwise ‘locked-out’ of the renewable energy transition.”

With the broader vision of seeing the greater community-owned renewable energy movement grow, Enova shares its knowledge and learning with other organisations.

We’ve shared a lot with Haystacks, for example, particularly our experience with the ATO tax ruling enabling the solar credits on customer bills to be tax exempt, which was a two-year process for us to obtain,” Felicity explains.

“For me, it’s about working collaboratively not just within our team but with other organisations to get more achieved at a faster rate. This comes down to our long-term survival, so we don’t have to grapple with food security, water security issues, and mass movement of people as a consequence of severe weather caused by climate change.”

With Enova’s success a testament to what can be done with the will and might of a few, why aren’t there more social enterprises within the energy sector?

“We’d love to see more social enterprises in the market,” Felicity says.

“There’s certainly a will out there to create more community-based renewable energy projects, however, there are a number of inhibitors, starting with the regulatory framework and funding constraints, which are two of the biggest challenges. 

“Small organisations typically lack the financial and team resources to deliver small, medium or large projects. With funding entities, there’s a tendency to fund larger organisations that have a longer track record. I understand why that’s part of their risk profiles, but at the same time it doesn’t make it easy for smaller organisations wanting to bring about significant change.

“The regulatory environment has also hampered a lot of potential projects. We tried for four years to get breakthroughs on the regulatory front in terms of community batteries, microgrids and tariff changes on the network front with local use of services charges. 

“In my view, there’s still a lot of regulatory work that needs to be done to support distributed renewable energy and to build resilience at the local level. We are still working through the process of setting up a community battery project and what shape that could take. 

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“We’ve chosen a path now where we are still advocating for large-scale changes to happen but we are focusing our work within the existing regulatory framework knowing that the time it takes to change it is better spent developing projects that can be delivered now rather than years down the track.”

Looking to the future, Felicity is excited to lead the team through Enova’s continued growth and expansion.

“We’d like to grow from our existing 12,000 customers up to 50,000 customers and then 100,000,” she says.

“Electrification of transport is another goal for Enova, so we are running an electric vehicle bulk buy with an organisation called The Good Car Company. 

“The EV bulk buy features a mix of new and second-hand electric vehicles available at a bulk buy rate for anyone looking to purchase an electric vehicle.

“The price points range from $17,000 to $55,000 with an electric vehicle tariff soon to be available for Enova customers that is designed to suit those with EV charging requirements.”

Asked about the pressure of generating profit while staying true to Enova’s social enterprise heart, Felicity says, “It’s always a balance in terms of growing a sustainable business and creating resilient and sustainable communities. In our model, those things sit alongside each other, and we never lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve. Customers and communities are at the heart of everything we do.”