There is a moment towards the end of the newly-completed documentary The Bentley Effect that will cause politicians, fossil fuel developers and major corporations to wince: “We won,” says Meg Neilson, a former accountant and local landowner. “We took on the big boys and we kicked their arse.”
The Bentley Effect chronicles the community fight against coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers, from early defeats to the resounding victory at Bentley, where more than 5,000 people gathered to show their opposition to a CSG drilling program by the listed company Metgasco.
They finally won when the heads of a proposed 850 police force realised that their members would be stared down by the mass of farmers, landowners, mums, dads, scientists, local business people and activists – who had organised themselves to rally against the unconventional gas invasion.
The politicians had no choice but to defuse the situation by rescinding the licence, and a moratorium has been in place ever since.
“This is a great moment for democracy and will resound around the planet, and we will continue to roll this invasive, unsafe and dirty industry backwards,” Ian Gaillard, a carpenter and one of the chief organisers, tells the film.
“What we’re seeing here is the death throes of the carbon industry. It is not just about Bentley, not just about the Northern Rivers, it’s a huge movement that we are starting here. The world is watching us, this is only the beginning,” adds Simon Clough, a mediator and then deputy mayor of Lismore. “We are sending a message to government that this is what communities can do when they come together.”
The Bentley Effect made its debut last weekend at the Byron Bay Film Festival, where the gripping and moving film – a near six year labour of love from director-producer Brendan Shoebridge – received a standing ovation for more than five minutes and was voted best local film.
That reception was to be expected, given it was an enormous local issue. But as Gaillard and Clough point out in the film, it has broader significance, particularly at a time of intense pressure from industry to reopen Australia’s coal seam gas reserves and allow new coal mines, while in the meantime state and federal governments have removed the right to protest and are threatening to introduce legislation that will prevent environmental groups from taking legal action.
And it’s not just a story of a remarkable and heroic social movement. There is a broader message to corporate Australia and to governments about their inability to see beyond their short-term profit motive or political gain.
They didn’t see it coming – witness the delightful scenes of the local member, and the former planning minister Brad Hazzard and his bureaucrats looking completely overwhelmed and mystified.
And they still don’t get it, or understand what a shift to an energy democracy means. It is not just about a choice to have clean energy, it’s also a declaration against greed. And community energy is not just a social movement, it is a perfectly valid technology and business alternative.
It is no coincidence that Byron Bay-based community-owned energy retailer Enova, the first energy retailer in Australia to adopt a community-funded and community-owned model, has become the major sponsor of the film.
Chairwoman Alison Crook, AO, who has a distinguished career in business and administration, says it was the Bentley protests that planted the seed of the idea for a community energy retailer.
“It was a need to demonstrate to government that it is untrue to say that there is an energy shortage, that this region is perfectly capable to do without that gas,” she tells RenewEconomy.
“And the only way to stop them in their tracks is to do something constructive and show them that it isn’t necessary. We’re committed to finding a practical solution to making renewable energy affordable and available to anyone who wants it. And we found it.”
Indeed, Enova reached its start-up goal of raising $4 million in capital on the very day that the mining licence in Bentley was rescinded. Enova is now rolling out its community retail model to consumers in the region. Its profits stay local and are reinvested in local renewable energy.
“We have developed a renewable energy supply model that can be emulated in other small communities all over Australia,” Crook says. “The Enova Energy solution is simple, but it has far-reaching potential.”
Crook says that the leaders of big power companies are beginning to understand what this means, “but I don’t think that the politicians have got it yet.”
And what is it that the politicians have not understood? It’s the environmental factor – the desire to stop greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from massive carbon bombs like the proposed Adani coal and coal seam gas reserves.
It’s the attraction of renewable energy; wind and solar in particular.
And it’s the new technologies and the plunging costs that bring this together and make renewables a more affordable, more reliable alternative to dirty and expensive centralised fossil fuel power generation.
The big utilities and their representatives, meanwhile, are either kidding themselves about the changes around them, or too busy trying to extract maximum profits from their incumbent assets while they can. “The risk is that they overplay their hand,” Crook says.
Witness the reaction to the extreme pricing events in South Australia and the state-wide blackout. Witness the opposition of incumbent interests to rule changes that could open the path to more efficient and cheaper technology alternatives. Witness the push for tariff changes to make solar and even battery storage less attractive.
Witness the brave suggestion from the network lobby that a $25/year discount on Australia’s absurdly high grid charges could somehow convince households and businesses to stay on the grid.
And that leads to what is probably the underlying message from The Bentley Effect. That is that the community cares, and it now has technology choices that can offer cheaper and more reliable power. Not only does the community have the will, it also has the means.
The Bentley Effect will be shown in Lismore’s Star Court Theatre this Saturday, before making other stops in the region and then beginning a national tour. See the website for more: thebentleyeffect.com.
Note: Giles Parkinson’s partner, Anne Delaney, is executive producer of The Bentley Effect.