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Push for $50m fund to support community energy projects

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Community energy and pro renewable NGOs are calling for the Federal government to establish a $50 million fund that would seek to leverage up to half a billion dollar of investment  in community-owned renewable energy projects.

The call for a Community Energy Grant Fund is an attempt to offer a catalyst for growing community interest in renewable energy projects, and to fill in a gap in the country’s portfolio of renewable energy projects of between 10kW and 50MW.

According to a proposal led by the Community Power Agency, Yes2Renewables and other NGOs and community energy groups, the funding could cover early stage development costs for around 75 projects and bring them to the stage of being  investment ready and able to release share offerings to the community.

This would include feasibility studies, resource assessment (such as wind monitoring), community engagement, planning studies, business case development, and legal advice.

The proposal seeks to tap into growing interest in the community renewables space, as outlined in RenewEconomy last week. On Thursday, the NSW Government confirmed our story that it is awarding $441,000 to help 9 local groups lay the groundwork for some community energy projects – mostly commercial scale rooftop solar – and to conduct feasibility studies.

Many more projects are being contemplated, organisations such as Community Power, Embark, and Starfish Enterprises have numerous proposals on their books, and say this fund would take the concept of community energy onto a national scale.

Community Power’s Nicky Ison said more than 35 communities across Australia are developing community owned wind and solar projects, but only two are up and running – the Hepburn Wind farm in Victoria and the Denmark wind farm in WA. “If the other 33 groups don’t receive start-­up assistance soon, they risk dying on the vine,” she said.

Community energy projects are seen as an important catalyst for the successful rollout of renewable energy projects of all sizes. The high levels of community ownership in Denmark and Germany in medium and large scale projects are seen as keys to the high levels of renewable energy deployment in those countries.

Leigh Ewbank, from Yes 2 Renewables, said community involvement was essential for the successful rollouts of larger projects. “You need to win over the community before you can start talking about larger wind farm proposals,” he said.

The announcement by the NSW government on community energy grants came as it teamed up with the Clean Energy Council to release a set of guidelines on community engagement with large scale wind projects.

NSW has around 28 announced wind energy projects worth a combined $6.5 billion, although not all of these have been approved. Apart from community support, the fate of some of these projects will likely rest on what planning rules are decided by NSW cabinet. That decision is believed to be imminent. The fate of the renewable energy target will also be a key factor.

Rob Stokes, the NSW parliamentary secretary said the guidelines would help address the vexed issues of social licence and community engagement. “The industry is recognising that it has been done poorly in the past and needs to have collective approach and have clear framework for applicants and communities.”

Stokes said the intense debate on King island about Hydro Tasmania proposal for a feasibility study into a $2 billion wind farm showed that the guidelines “don’t solve these issues, but they put the parameters around the argument.”

Note: See RenewEconomy’s Community Power section for more information and stories. Please click here.  

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