Read the transcript for Episode 8 of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: Community Power Play: Locals Making Their Own Electricity

Tom Melville 0:01 When we flick a switch, a light comes on, then a pesky bill comes in the mail. For most of us, that's the beginning and the end of the story. Maybe you've got solar panels on your roof, so you're a bit more invested in the process, but you're in the minority. Until relatively recently, electricity generation was out of our hands... Beyond buying shares in a massive and probably foreign owned energy company... we were just consumers. But the way Australia produces electricity is changing, and that one-way, centralised model looks like it's changing, too. Throughout the country there are communities eager to be part of that movement. Community energy is when locals come together to generate their own electricity in their own backyard, primarily from renewable sources like solar. These projects provide cheaper, cleaner electricity while keeping the profits of power generation local.

David Marston 0:01 The gate is to keep the rabbits out, I got sick and tired of every time we planted a plant, we had to put a net around it to keep the rabbits off it. So we fenced the houseyard rabbit proof. Put the gate in and it worked.

James Hooke 0:16 If I was government, I would be saying, there's all these community people putting in a hell of a lot of effort and a lot of their own technical expertise. And if I was the government, I would say and they're doing for nothing the idiots if I can harness that, and use their free energy and their free skills, and all I've got to do is put a little bit of firm policy in place, for heaven's sake, get on and do it because it's just a no brainer.

Ethan Hamilton 0:18 I meet, James on a farm just outside Gloucester, a small town a couple of hours north of Newcastle in the Mid Coast region of New South Wales.

James Hooke 0:51 My name is James Hook. I'm a local farmer here, and I'm also in the chamber of commerce in Gloucester. My family's been in the district since the 1860s. And we've been on the property that we live on now since 1913. My grandfather bought at five pounds an acre.

Ethan Hamilton 1:05 James is excited about a new community project, a one hectare solar farm on the outskirts of town.

James Hooke 1:10 The business community is quite open to it. I'd say some of the farming community, particularly the, how do I say this, less progressive ones, have seen this as the bloody greenies doing their thing over the on the edge. They're not quite sure what they're doing and we don't know much about it. I expect there's a fair bit of that. The business community's wanting to know a little bit more about it, probably quite open to the idea. Some of the more progressive farmers would be watching it with interest. And some of them are involved in it, I suspect, and that's good.

David Marston 1:41 Now the reality is there's there's the power line coming out of town and down towards Bundook.

Laura Corrigan 1:47 So it's on your property?

David Marston 1:49 Yeah, yeah.

Ethan Hamilton 1:50 We're on David Marston's cattle property and tog Tugrabakh, just outside Gloucester. It's a site selected for the community solar farm, which will begin construction later this year. David has refused the $1,000 per year lease offered for the land.

David Marston 2:03 My wife and I have donated the land for 20 years. We're very happy to do that. It's a small percentage of our farm we are not losing much in terms of beef cattle production. But we're not gaining anything from the lease of the land.

Ethan Hamilton 2:21 David has a 35 hectare property. The gently sloping land has an unobstructed view of the iconic Bucketts Mountains, a range of rocky outcrops that overlook Gloucester. Well, unobstructed when the weather is right. Today it can't seem to decide whether to storm or not. rain comes and goes in between it powerful bursts of sunshine.

David Marston 2:41 This slope is slightly west of North which is fantastic in terms of...

Ethan Hamilton 2:46 A train track snakes through David's cattle grazing land. And just beyond that glistens the Gloucester River. David has worked in solar before as an installer and consultant he now volunteers his time as the chairman of energize Gloucester, the social enterprise behind the solar farm

David Marston 3:03 four years ago, there was a sustainability convention here, which was one of the things that was looking post mining, coal and coal seam gas. We were still at that stage, talking about why we didn't want the mining in the valley. And as a result of that, a number of ideas came forward. One of those was alternative energy and

Ethan Hamilton 3:30 energize Gloucester is now a group of 100 local volunteers looking for a sustainable way forward for their community.

David Marston 3:37 This is one of the interesting things about the energized Gloucester committee. It's a real brains trust. So we've got retired and not necessarily retired, but quite a number of people who've got skills in engineering, land management, natural resource management, electricity, marketing, community development, all the sort of things that you would actually need to bring a solar farm project together.

Ethan Hamilton 4:04 The group's first project was the installation of solar panels on the Neighborhood Center roof, which they funded through no interest loans from community members,

David Marston 4:12 we were thinking it might take about three years, but the sunshine was pretty good to us. And after two years, we generated enough electricity and sold it to the Neighborhood Center, which meant that they were able to buy back the system within two years and we were able to give back the money that we'd borrowed to the community members.

Ethan Hamilton 4:29 They are now working on a 500 kilowatt solar farm. The project was funded in a large part by The New South Wales Government and is set to generate enough electricity to power about 100 times. Once operational, its electricity will be available to locals. And through energized Gloucester's cooperative. Investors in the solar farm will be paid an annual dividend. The solar farm will be built with and for the community.

David Marston 4:55 We've said right from the beginning of the application for the solar farm. That money from the sale of about 25% of the electricity would go to low socio economic households. And there's a number of ways we can do that. One is providing discounts on their electricity bills. The other is assisting them with energy use efficiency in their houses to reduce their electricity needs and bills.

Di Montague 5:35 My name is Diane Montague, I'm Vice President of Energise Gloucester.

Ethan Hamilton 5:39 After a rupture of rain, Diane, and I go inside David's house to speak, we sit on an antique clawfoot chaise lounge.

Di Montague 5:46 When I came to Gloucester, there was talk of a mining company. And I became very involved in stopping the mining company from building a mine. And I ran the group that was against that for about eight years. It was exhausting. It was dividing, it was demoralizing, it was everything. I still feel quite emotional about it. And it divided the town. And it was very painful to watch. And to be involved in.

Ethan Hamilton 6:21 Di became involved in Gloucester's community energy movement, because she wanted to do something positive and constructive rather than antagonistic.

Di Montague 6:28 So my reason for becoming involved in this was because I'm passionate about renewable energy, but particularly about community energy. And also, I really believe that climate change is a real threat. So for me, it's really important I have grandchildren, I would really love them to have a life that isn't influenced by some of the terrible things that could happen with climate change.

Ethan Hamilton 6:55 Di says a solar farm is one way her community can reap the benefits of local power generation.

Di Montague 7:00 It's not a big company coming in, and transporting everything and bringing it in and taking all the money somewhere else. The whole idea of it is that the money stays here, the job stay here everything is stays in the community. And I don't know whether a lot of people will realize that about community energy, but that's a message I'm always trying to get out that this is such a wonderful thing for local communities. And it's happening all over Australia. There's heaps and heaps and heaps of groups. Now, some of them, you know, it's hard to get it going. So some are more successful than others. But certainly, it's taking off.

Stef Garland 7:32 So my name is Stephanie Garland, resident of Gloucester of Copeland actually, forseven years,

Ethan Hamilton 7:38 Steph works with local government. But today, she's speaking to me as a resident

Ethan Hamilton 7:43 And why do you think the movements coming from local government and communities?

Stef Garland 7:47 I think people are really, really concerned about the future, even people who haven't got a deep knowledge of climate science are seeing for themselves what is happening, and realize that things have to be really different in the future and not so dependent on really large centralized systems. We so subject to heat waves to bushfires to floods in this area, I think people understand the need for resilience at a local level. And that's the promise of a community energy that it can bring those concerns together.

Ethan Hamilton 8:17 Steph says community energy projects don't just provide cheap electricity. They also inform and mobilize communities.

Stef Garland 8:24 It supports the very many people like myself who are trying to live sustainably through providing fantastic information through providing leadership and through walking the talk. It also promises reduced energy bills for those who are recipients of, once to the farms up and running. And that's that'd be really tangible benefit to both businesses and residents in Gloucester.

Ethan Hamilton 8:48 Gloucester has been historically active when it comes to the energy sector in 2019, Gloucester made headlines for a landmark decision by the New South Wales land and Environment Court, which rejected the application for an open cut coal mine on environmental grounds. James the farmer you heard from earlier, believes the solar farm and further community projects have the ability to heal an historical divide in the town.

James Hooke 9:12 There's been a lot of opposition in town about coal mining and gas and pros and cons against it and it's been vicious, really nasty. I see this as a way of healing that a little bit. It's gradually healing but there's still a simmering resentment probably from the people who didn't get their way more with the coal mining and with the gas. They will see this as a positive thing once it starts generating money and turning money into turning into actually something concrete.

Ethan Hamilton 9:38 Community energy projects are popping up around the country. A database from the Community Power Agency records 174 across every state and territory, with the majority in regional areas. In Denmark, Western Australia, the locals funded a small wind farm, similarly outside Daylesford Victoria, the community purchase three turbines and volunteers and Yackandandah Victoria aim to make their town 100% renewable by next year. Host Tom Melville visited a one megawatt solar farm just outside Canberra. When the two and a half hectare array was switched on in March, it became the largest community solar farm in the country. It generates power for about 250 homes

Nick Fejer 10:23 Yeah, my name is Nick Fejer. I am the Chair of the Board of SolarShare community energy limited.

Ethan Hamilton 10:27 Nick showed Tom around the site, which is a few Ks outside of town, right over the highway from the Majura Valley winery.

Nick Fejer 10:32 This is our mount Majura project. It's a total of about 1.2 megawatts DC generation capacity which we have then strung out to a one mega watt inverter bank, which is in feeding into our Canberra transmission grid.

Ethan Hamilton 10:49 There are around 5000 solar modules arranged in rows about 50 meters long and raised a few meters off the ground. There's a central beam attached to a motor that runs down each row. And the panel's tilt with the sun, making the array a little bit more efficient. The company solar share calls itself a community based and community owned renewable investment vehicle. This is their first sight and was paid for by Community Investment and supported by the ACT government through a tariff deal. All the initial shareowners must be local, Nick, who is a volunteer just like all his colleagues at SolarShare, says community solar farms mean anyone can get involved with renewable energy.

Nick Fejer 11:33 I think that there's been a lot of centralization of all of these assets in the grid. I think that that model has run its time and it's clear that people are now tuning into, you know, asset owners on their own roof tops and having their own batteries. And to our mind, we're the sort of next step up from that. If you can't have it on your own roof, and you're still interested in participating in this change in our energy generation, then we give the opportunities for people to do that. There are also people who are interested in making a bigger contribution than they can do on their own rooftops. So we give these people the opportunity

Ethan Hamilton 12:08 SolarShares farm was funded by around 500 people, the shareholders only get one vote, no matter what, their intial outlay.

Nick Fejer 12:15 Yes, they're human beings and that's about it. We have anything from uni students who have scraped together a minimum investment, which is $500 through to, I would say late of life, financially secure people who are interested in thinking about the next generation. So it's every range in every aspect in between that Nick says community energy means the profits of power production stay in the region. What happens here with community, energy or ownership means that the actual financial benefits of this project stay inside the ACT region. So that means that all of the people who invest here are ACT residents. they reap the benefits of all of that in terms of our dividend profile and our capital returns. That means it increases the ACT economy. And that's the difference for us it really is much more focused on deeper economic benefits to the ACT.

Ethan Hamilton 13:03 The project's benefits extend beyond the direct community. Like many other community energy projects, solar share has committed to the sharing of ideas and information.

Nick Fejer 13:13 Part of the grant was for us to stand up and make public a framework for other community energy organizations. So we have an active role, which we play, which is to provide exemplars templates, lessons learnt for any other organization who want to do exactly the same thing we've done. So for us, it's not just about what we as SolarShare do, it's more about what we do with SolarShare and what we can promote other community organizations to do at the same time.

Kristy Walters 13:40 So I'm Kristy Walters, the Community Engagement Manager at community power agency,

Ethan Hamilton 13:44 The Community Power Agency is a not for profit that supports and builds the capacity of energy projects through workshops, training, mentoring and research. They helped to establish enterprise Gloucester back in 2016. Kristy says community energy fills a gap between individual action and large scale renewables.

Kristy Walters 14:03 You Know there's only so much the individual can do. And there's so much power in taking action collectively and communities and people right around the world really want to be involved in the solutions. You know, we've spent decades talking about the problems and so now people are really primed and raring to take action in being part of those tangible solutions.

Ethan Hamilton 14:26 Kristy says the community power agency follows the four Ds : decarbonisation decentralization, democratization and demonstration

Kristy Walters 14:36 Demonstration is kind of, I think, the most important you know, it's really important to be able to actually kind of see and feel what these energy projects look like and and how they impact people's everyday lives so that, you know, they can become more aware of what's going to be needed in the transition to 100% renewable energy and indeed, you know, it can be part of that. Not just bystanders but actively involved in in how we're gonna get there.

Ethan Hamilton 15:03 So, in an ideal world once projects have been demonstrated, and it's shown they work, what does the future of community energy look like in Australia for you?

Kristy Walters 15:14 I'd love to see more solar gardens pop up right across Australia. And indeed lots of communities being supported with capacity building and kind of early stage funding to start their own community energy project, you know, if they're in a remote location where sometimes the grid goes down, and they need to access pumps to put out bushfires, for instance, that are powered by electricity, making sure that those folks have standalone electricity systems backing them up. So they're resilient in times of stress from whatever that might be caused by. So yeah, I think community energy has a bright future. And we're really hoping to get more government support from all levels in the making those projects happen.

Felicity Stening 15:57 I'm Felicity stenning, CEO of Enova community energy.

Ethan Hamilton 16:01 This is also a future Felicity Stening sees.

Felicity Stening 16:04 Our purpose is to create resilient and sustainable communities and ensure that we're not leaving anyone behind in the transition to renewable energy.

Ethan Hamilton 16:12 Felicty is the head of Enova, Australia's first community electricity provider. It's based out of Byron Bay, and focuses on energy which is locally generated, stored and distributed.

Felicity Stening 16:23 Enova was established about five years ago by a very passionate group of Northern Rivers locals who were anti coal seam gas mining and successful in their pursuits for no coal seam gas to be in the local area, and decided to form a community owned energy retailer. So Enova is 100% community owned by 1600 individuals and mums and dads about 75% from the Northern Rivers. Ethan Hamilton 16:54 Felicity says there's a shift happening, where communities want to play an active role in ensuring their own energy security.

Felicity Stening 17:00 We've seen through a lot of the natural weather events, bushfires, floods that we've had over the last few years, and the intensity and frequency of those events. We've seen a drive and a need for resilience in localized systems to fortify against climate change events, what we're really seeing is communities wanting to take the power back into their own hands, be less reliant on energy traveling from very large grid scale energy sources, and wanting to have localized renewable energy systems and storage in their own communities.

Ethan Hamilton 17:37 Felicity says she's excited about the growing number of individuals and communities interested in producing their own energy. But she sees a need for more government support,

Felicity Stening 18:43 There is always a need, in my view for federal and state government solutions as well as community solutions. And I think it is interesting in the last few years that we're seeing more and more community energy groups are springing to life and wanting to take the power back into their own hands, to look at solutions designed for their communities that can have real impact.

Ethan Hamilton 19:08 This was a common concern that I heard from community energy enthusiasts. They want to see legislative recognition of community power and its role in Australia's energy future. They want to say a plan. Here's Di Montague from Gloucester again.

Di Montague 19:24 I think the government's been really slow and really led by what I believe is the outside forces to continue on with resources that are are on the way out that will never be sustainable. I don't think there's ever one answer. I don't think that solar is the answer. I think there's many answers to it that if we can have the answers are not going to be so polluting. I think that that's a really good way to go. But I think the federal government's been to put it mildly pathetic in a way that have not had any policies at all around this and it's been left to the states or better And the local people even better still, do you know, Australia could be the leader in this we could we've got so much sun, we could be the leader in this and yet we're lagging way behind in so many ways.

Ethan Hamilton 20:12 The electricity industry is tightly regulated. For example, in New South Wales you can't distribute electricity over property boundaries. Even if community energy groups could only licensed retailers are legally allowed to sell electricity to consumers. So the electricity from a community solar farm can't be directly supplied to members homes. This means that groups like Energise Gloucester and solar share, sell their energy to a retailer who then sells it back to the community. Stef Garland agrees that communities need more support.

Stef Garland 20:46 I think removing regulatory barriers is probably the first thing when those barriers exist, I think it's really difficult. At some point there might be perceived competition with the larger players in the market. So you know, maybe that there does need to be incentives given for for community energy projects to succeed, and there was originally funding for community energy. I don't believe that's the case now. And that would be something that would make a really big difference in the future.

Ethan Hamilton 21:15 Stef says a strong community Government Partnership would make a faster and fairer transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Stef Garland 21:22 Yeah, I think it's really about credibility. So governments are signatories to conventions, international conventions, they have targets like in New South Wales, we have a target for net zero emissions. Without community involvement and support. There's no way we're going to reach those targets and the goodwill that a group like Energise Gloucester can bring is incredible in a way that government could never achieve. So they're partnerships that I think are essential to success,

Ethan Hamilton 21:49 There is state support at the moment. Community energy groups can access some grants such as the New South Wales Regional Community Energy Fund, which is helping to get the Gloucester project started. The existing grant opportunities have been described as piecemeal, infrequent and oversubscribed. There's no cohesive national funding stream, no plan. However, in a recent announcement, the Federal regulator, the Australian energy market commission, suggested putting a fee on individuals feeding surplus solar into the grid at times of peak production. It's intended to reduce traffic jams on the grid, and to allow easier integration of new technologies. But critics describe it as being like charging cyclists to use a congested highway instead of trucks. David Marston again,

David Marston 22:39 When the big power stations were formed, it was government money, it was community money, and they contributed to those poles and wires and any associated technology that was needed to stabilize it. Now you've got the situation where it appears that they're not going to be charged to feed into the poles and wires, but households are going to be charged to feed into the poles and wires. I mean, our bill here last month was $42 a month through our household 44. Out of that 42 went to the poles and wires. It's a bizarre system.

Ethan Hamilton 23:21 Nick Fejer from SolarShare says the government is playing catch up.

Nick Fejer 23:25 I'm almost wondering if the horse has already bolted with regards to policy policy would have been great to have been set up five or 10 years ago to allow the industry to build and grow. What I think is happening now is the industry is built and grown by itself just by base war economics, without the Australian policy settings in place to support that we are either at or very close to grid parity, which means that at this point, it becomes commercially profitable to be installing renewable energy as opposed to, you know, non renewable energy sources. And I think that's just a straight function of decreasing prices in increasing efficiencies of solar compared to increasing prices for non renewables.

Ethan Hamilton 24:07 There has been a recent push at the federal level to get a community energy plan in place.

Helen Haines 24:11 I'm Helen Haynes. I'm the independent federal member for Indi, which is a seat in northeast Victoria stretching from the Murray River at Tintaldra. All the way down through the Alpine high country to King Lake Marysville, just outside of Melbourne,

Ethan Hamilton 24:28 Helen Haynes created the local power agency bill after noticing a rise in community energy projects across Australia with 13 in her own electorate.

Helen Haines 24:37 Well, it's a key driver of why I'm engaged in this space and why I think it needs some specialized federal legislation to make sure that regional Australia is not only having this happened to us that it happens with us and we really get some benefit

Ethan Hamilton 24:52 Helens bill was introduced to the parliament on the 22nd of February. It was met with little resistance and a parliamentary committee inquiry into the plan will take place later this year. The legislation would establish the Australian local power agency, the agency would have dedicated funds to drive local ownership of renewable energy projects. It will also implement Helens local power plan, a three part scheme aimed at establishing local hubs of technical expertise, underwriting community energy projects, and enabling community co investment in those projects. Helen says communities will play a crucial role in Australia's power diversification,

Helen Haines 25:32 I think what government has missed here is this whole piece of the energy puzzle I think that government have been so focused on on the climate wars on the debate between coal and renewable and inability to paint a picture of a regional Australia that's not dependent on coal generated power,

Ethan Hamilton 25:53 Not only for those communities who are eager to engage, but also for those a bit more hesitant.

Helen Haines 25:58 Having the community as part of the planning and conversation right from the get go. addresses some of the social concerns around large scale renewables coming into a region if local communities have the opportunity to share the profits we've seen in other nations seen certainly in the Scandinavian countries also in Scotland and Germany, that that resistance or the complaints disappear once communities are part of the planning and part of the profit sharing. Helen says her national power plan would benefit regional Australians provides a brighter future really for very isolated and remote communities and vulnerable communities such as those that are vulnerable to bushfire. We saw that just over the hideous 2019 2020 black summer bushfires where entire communities were cut off from an electricity supply for weeks having the capacity to generate local energy and store it and share it would give those communities a secure energy future.

Ethan Hamilton 27:04 Back in Gloucester, James says the future of his town is bright.

James Hooke 27:08 I would like Gloucester to be a place where my kids would would consider coming back one day because they will be proud of they would see the importance of community, they will also presumably need a job. And if my kids want to come back here, then we've done the right thing.

Ethan Hamilton 27:27 Nick Fejer in Majura says people are passionate about being part of something revolutionary

Nick Fejer 27:32 to be have a chance to be a volunteer or a board member or whatever it is and to kind of look back and say hey, with a group effort, we've built this thing which is generating all this electricity for Canberra residents. How cool is that?

Tom Melville 27:42 Nick Fejer there, finishing that report from Ethan Hamilton. Nick's just one of many community members from around the country getting involved in electricity generation. Tom Melville 27:43 That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thanks for listening. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast please tell your friends and give us a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts. It really helps. If you'd like to share your story, email voice at aust community media dot com dot a-u... that's voice at aust "a-u-s-t" community media dot com dot a-u. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash voice of real Australia. Follow me on Twitter @-Tom-Melville-1-2-4 Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our intern is Ethan Hamilton. Special thanks this week go to Anne Keen. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. This is an ACM podcast.

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 16 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.