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Renewable energy's hard slog

27 March 2015

Hicks Lson Home Feature

While still in the nascent stages of its development and having suffered some blows in recent months, the renewable energy sector in Australia is growing. According to the co-founders of the Community Power Agency (CPA), Nicky Ison and Jarra Hicks, since 2009 the sector has grown from three projects to eight operating projects with 60 in development.

That’s considerable growth when you consider the challenging nature of the existing Federal government’s attitude to renewable energy. In the long term, Nicky and Jarra believe, that growth will escalate, especially if there is a return to the bipartisan support renewable energy has enjoyed in the past.

No matter what you think about carbon emissions, higher power prices, you would think, are an absolute vote killer in anyone’s books and to be avoided at all costs.

“Across the world, and Australia is no exception,” says Nicky, “what we’re witnessing as renewable energy grows is groups of people and communities coming together to deliver renewable energy projects that benefit not just individual members but work on a larger scale for whole communities.”

Renewable energy is energy which can be obtained from natural resources that can be constantly replenished. Types of renewable energy technologies include bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar and wind. Technologies, such as wind turbines, solar panels, even bioenergy plants are much more modular and scalable than the large fossil fuel generation or hydroelectric plants we normally associate with power. That accessibility, as Nicky explains, allows many more people to build and own their own power projects, and that often includes an energy efficiency component.

“The uncertainty at Federal level in relation to renewable energy hasn’t been able to squash growth and interest in community owned and operated power projects, and beacons of hope at the State and Territories level help that growth,” she adds.

The CPA now works in collaboration with a group of nine other interested organisations and has accrued significant funds - around $700,000 – specifically to develop strategic initiatives in the sector. The monies sit outside the funding available to individual community energy projects and represent a significant amount of the behind-the-scenes work in which the agency has been engaged for the past few years.

How did these two young women become so intrinsically involved in community energy and what keeps them inspired?

Both women answer in unison: Jarra via her Skype connection (she is in regional New South Wales when we talk), and Nicky from across the table in the library of the Institute of Sustainable Futures in Sydney where she works and where we have organised to all ‘meet’.

According to Jarra, her inspiration comes from the environmental, financial and social benefits a community experiences: “Community energy projects decarbonise, decentralise and democratise the energy system. They also demonstrate that a renewable energy system is possible and that process changes behaviours. Renewable energy reduces greenhouse gases. People invest in projects for the economic benefits. What they find in the process is that they become more aware about efficiency and the environment. As their values and behaviours shift we find many people begin to think in a wider way about their lives, conservation, waste. They consider themselves environmentalists.”

Both Jarra and Nicky also note that renewable energy projects help support the local community – money that would normally flow out of the community to large power concerns remains in the local community. The projects also support the creation and development of new technologies, as well as motivating stakeholders to mobilise to defend renewable energy policy.

“Most of the places around the world doing the most in renewable energy also have the strongest renewable community energy sectors. Scotland, for example, has a 100 percent renewable energy target and has 500 operating community energy projects. Germany is also in a primary position: 46 percent of installed renewable energy capacity is owned by citizens,” the two women explain.

Jarra, who grew up in Asia and also Gloucester in regional NSW and has done Development Studies at university, says her life experience has made her acutely aware of the way that Western lifestyles externalise the costs of the way in which we live.

“I’m interested in sustainability and self-sufficiency, in understanding from where our resources come. Community energy offers you the opportunity to take control of your energy supply, and actively contribute to something that will be good for the climate and the place you live - both economically and in building social capital.”

Nicky’s parents who are academics, her father in environmental sustainability, her mother in social justice, have played a great part in formulating her aspirations and inspirations.

“In 2006 I went to a talk by Hermann Scheer. He’s like the father of renewable energy. I want to create a society I want to live in, and renewable energy helps achieve this. My thesis was in renewable energy from an engineering and social science aspect. Jarra approached hers from the developmental studies angle. In 2010, 2011 having worked together on other projects we could see that bringing some focus to the sector - and within the sector - was going to be necessary if it was to grow and develop, so we began the Community Power Agency.”

On the ground CPA works with individual community groups to build their capacity to develop community energy projects. It also works in collaboration with other organisations at the State and Federal level to create conditions in which community energy projects can thrive, replicate and benefit communities, and at the inaugural National Community Energy Congress in June 2014, the CPA came together with other organisations to launch the Coalition for Community Energy, which is now developing a national strategy around renewable and community energy.

“Advocacy work and leveraging local groups to participate in the political process are important parts of what we do but where we’ve been most effective is in the use of our expertise. Over the years we’ve built up a large body of knowledge and experience and through it we’ve built strong links and relationships with organisation such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, providing it with opportunities to fund catalytic projects like the recent National Congress with the aim in the future that it will develop a large funding stream for community energy,” explain Nicky and Jarra of their drip-feed-down meets community-energy-up strategy. 

Footnote: In a recent poll by Essential Research which asked - among other things - about renewable energy, it was found that: “Those more likely to have ‘green power’ were Greens voters (34%) and live in Victoria (30%),” which, when you know the flagship community energy project in Australia is Hepburn Wind, begins to make sense. Hepburn Wind is a two wind turbine farm owned by a co-op of almost 2000 members. It began as a small renewable energy association in the town of Daylesford Victoria.