Small is beautiful: Community-owned energy

Photovoltaics from Westmill Solar Park, UK
Photovoltaics from Westmill Solar Park, UK

By Paul Grad, energy writer

Australia’s first community-owned electricity retailer, Enova Community Energy of Byron Bay, New South Wales, can now get down to business.

The Australian Energy Regulator approved, on October 16, Enova’s application for a retail licence, subject to the company raising a minimum of $3 million. On December 15, Enova announced it passed minimum capital of $3 million.

Enova’s chief executive officer Steve Harris said there are several community-owned energy providers in Australia, but they are only energy generators, not retailers.

The company plans to serve the Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales with a community-owned energy retail model offering 100 per cent renewable energy to residential and small business customers. It plans to generate revenue by retailing energy to residential and small business customers with a focus on maximising the amount of “green power” sold. It will minimise its customers’ energy bill through energy efficiency programs.

Enova said its business aims and philosophy are a result of a growing sentiment by community members that the existing retailers weren’t providing services suitable for meeting expectations for renewable energy take up and investment.

Mr Harris said in common with other community-owned energy companies, Enova will ensure that at least 51 per cent of the company’s shares are owned by local communities.

“More than $300 million per year is spent on electricity in the Northern Rivers region. By buying locally we can return $80 million per year to the region through profits and operating costs. And we will be earmarking funds to help lower income groups enter the energy supply cycle,” he said.

He said Enova will be able provide a personal level of service unique in the energy supply sector. Enova will focus mainly on environmentally-minded residents in the region, which the company estimates to be about 26,000 – of a total of about 130,000 households – and those with existing or potential for future rooftop solar PV installations.

Community-owned energy projects are locally owned by organisations, businesses and individuals who utilise renewable energy such as wind and solar to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce energy costs to the local community. The crucial feature of those projects is local community members have a direct and controlling stake in the project – in addition to land lease payments and tax revenue. They participate in the management and operation of the project at all times.

Community-owned energy projects are usually too small for the utilities to manage.

“While large energy retailers are not against supporting local community energy initiatives, they typically aren’t geared in a manner which can effectively operate and provide the small-scale of specialised services that many customers want in our region,” Mr Harris said.

The concept of community-owned energy has caught on in a big way oversesas, including the US, Germany, Denmark, India, the Netherlands and the UK. In Germany about 50 per cent of the installed capacity is owned by citizens and communities. In Scotland there are some 250 community energy projects.

While in Australia, the community energy sector is still comparatively new, there are already about 60 community energy projects either operating or under development, capable of generating 50GWh of clean energy per year – enough to power about 10,000 homes.

Several government agencies and many local residents’ groups throughout Australia support the development of community energy projects. For example, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) supports community energy in various ways. For example, it funds the National Community Energy Strategy, with several participating organisations led by the University of Technology Sydney.

Australia’s first community-owned wind farm is the Hepburn Wind Project. It is built an owned by Hepburn Wind, a community co-operative supported by the Victorian Government. It is located in Leonards Hill, north-west of Melbourne and comprises two 2.05MW wind turbines supplied by Repower Systems AG, of Poschiavo, Switzerland. The turbines are capable of producing enough energy for 2300 households.

The wind farm is the first project of the Hepburn Renewable Energy Association, now known as SHARE. It began generating power into the local electricity network on 22 June, 2011.

Australia’s second community wind farm is Denmark Community Windfarm at Wilson Head, about 10km from the Western Australian town of Denmark. Its turbines, which began operating in February 2013, generate 800kW each. The project was supported by the Federal Government through the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program, implemented in Western Australia by the Public Utilities Office.

A 99kW community-owned solar power system called Repower One was installed at the mouth of the Shoalhaven River on the NSW south coast. About 20 per cent of the system is funded and owned by Shoalhaven Heads Bowling and Recreation Club, with the remaining 80 per cent funded and owned by community shareholders. Repower Shoalhaven claims Repower One is Australia’s first investor-owned community solar power system. Repower Shoalhaven is now developing a 30kW system for Repower Two, on two local churches.

Several community energy projects, including solar, biogas and mini-hydro projects in NSW have recently received the Sate Government’s Growing Community Energy (GCE) grants. The grants aim to provide start-up funding to help communities develop viable renewable energy business models. The GCE projects will receive a total of nearly $1 million and will have a combined energy production capacity of more than 60GWh per year – enough to power about 9000 homes.

Grants were awarded to:

• Coffs Coast Climate Action Group, which will receive a grant for its Repower Coffs renewable energy project. The project will address a lack of uptake of rooftop solar in rental housing and the increasing cost of living for low income households. The project aims to install about 80kW of solar PV on some 45 homes by the end of 2016.

• The Community Owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimby (COREM), an organisation established in 2014 for the purpose of developing community-owned renewable energy projects in the Mullumbimby area, which will join forces with the Byron Shire Council to develop a solar PV system for the town of Mullumbimby. It received a grant for developing clean energy in the region, including a feasibility study for a 75kW community solar farm.

• The Goulburn Group (TGG), which received funding from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to investigate the possibility of developing a 1MW solar farm in the city of Goulburn. TGG set up Community Energy 4 Goulburn to identify opportunities for regional community energy projects.

• Australian Radio Towers, a company based in northern NSW, received a grant to help develop a wholly community-owned project to take the entire Tyalgum Village – with a population of about 300 people – off the grid.

• A few community groups in Lismore will receive grants for new clean energy projects. Two grants will go toward the development of solar farms and a biogas plant. One grant will allow Starfish Initiatives – a registered charity based in Armidale, NSW, with the purpose of supporting rural and regional sustainability – to build two 100kW solar farms in partnership with Lismore City Council and community investment. Another grant will help Nimbin Neighbourhood and Information Centre to build a small-scale biogas plant in a local dairy farm. This is expected to serve as a business model for developing two more community-owned biogas hubs in Murwillumbah and Casino.

• Pingala – Community Renewables for Sydney, a not-for-profit community energy organisation, plans to build a solar farm on top of Young Henrys brewery in Sydney. Electricity from the system will power brewing processes, avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.

In Victoria, the development of clean energy and community energy is promoted and supported by a group of Surf Coast residents with a concern of climate change and sustainability. The group has formed the Surf Coast Energy Group (SCEG), a not-for-profit organisation that now has almost 1000 members.

One of the most ambitious initiatives in Australia is that of Totally Renewable Yackandandah – a 100 per cent volunteer community group, formed in 2014 with the goal of powering the small Victorian town with 100 per cent renewable energy and achieving energy sovereignty by 2022.

Outside Australia, examples of some of the most successful community energy projects are the Westmill Solar Park in the UK, the Samsø wind-powered island in Denmark, a windmill in the village panchayat of Odanthurai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the wind farms in the German district of North Frisia, and several installations throughout the US.

Westmill Solar Park is located near Watchfield, on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border (rated at 5MW). It consists of more than 20,000 polycrystalline PV panels, generating 4.8GWh per year, and is the UK’s first community-owned solar park. Westmill Solar Co-operative believes the park is the largest community-owned solar project in the world.

At Samsø, a small island with a population of 4100, 11 onshore wind turbines provide 11MW of power, enough to power the entire electrical load of 29GWh per year of the island. Local farmers own nine of the 11 turbines. The other two are owned by local wind co-operatives. Samsingers now export electricity from renewable sources to the rest of Denmark.

The Odanthurai village council of Tamil Nadu has become completely self-sufficient in energy by using renewable sources like wind, solar and biogas. It has set up its own 350kW windmill and also has a 9kW biomass gasifier to pump drinking water and street lighting. And, in the German district of North Frisia there are more than 60 wind farms with a capacity of about 700MW, and 90 per cent are community-owned.

In the US state of Florida, a community solar farm has 1300 solar panels generating 400kW of electricity. In the state of Massachusetts, residents of Brewster have founded the first cooperatively run solar garden, producing 350kW for the local community.

As more experience is acquired in managing and running such community-owned energy projects, and their benefits are fully realised, they are becoming increasingly popular around the world. It certainly seems community-owned energy projects are going to continue to ramp up in Australia, cementing their place in the country’s new energy future.