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Why every Australian town should have its own wind or solar farm

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One Step Off The Grid

Imagine every town in Australia running off its own renewable energy projects, every farm has solar and is part of a wind, solar or bioenergy cooperative and every new suburb has its own microgrid so neighbours can share one another’s power.

It’s not that hard to envisage, right? That’s because people across Australia are already working to make it a reality. And it’s a reality that comes with a bunch of benefits.

Community-led renewable projects keep jobs and profits in the towns in which they are build. The decentralisation of energy drives down the cost of up-keeping the electricity system and hence our power bills. Supporting organisations such as community groups, farmers, households, councils and property developers that have not previously been in the energy business to lead on clean energy will also speed up the modernisation of Australia’s electricity system.

The more people deploying renewables, the quicker we move to a zero emissions energy system. And, as the household solar boom has shown, when people and organisations have a direct financial stake in its success political and social support for clean energy grows.
The Victorian Government is on the case. Two weeks ago its Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio established three pilot Community Power Hubs to help groups in Bendigo, Ballarat and the Latrobe Valley access legal and technical advice to get their innovative clean energy ideas up and running.

It is a widely welcomed move by organisations across the community energy sector (which campaigned for a network of 50 hubs across the country). But it’s a small step in what promises to be a long race to truly unlocking the potential of community and local clean energy across Victoria. The $220,000-$300,000 set aside for each hub and the two year timeframe of the program is not commensurate with the task at hand.

That’s because there are a tonne of obstacles along the way.

A number of energy consumers that face market barriers to installing rooftop solar and are currently locked out of the clean energy revolution. These include low-income households, renters, apartment dwellers and people with unsuitable roofs. There are business models that can overcome these barriers, but they are much more complex and thus typically more expensive than for a homeowner with a sunny roof.

The task of accessing impartial information is not simple. The clean energy sector is still relatively new in Australia and the combination of many new actors with little brand recognition and a lack of trust of incumbent energy retailers such as Origin and AGL means that consumers are not sure who’s information to trust.

Accessing expertise is also a problem. While non-experts can play a much greater role in an energy system powered by renewable energy, there is still an important role for experts. Community energy groups for example typically need to access lawyers, energy professionals and finance experts.

And, perhaps most frustratingly, the rules of the game make many projects unviable. The rules of the energy game are skewed in favour of large power plants, rather than local energy projects.

Given the benefits of consumer-led local energy projects and the barriers that have to be overcome, the establishment of a larger state and eventually national network of 50 Regional Energy Hubs that has long-term government support is really what is required.

As such, community energy groups across Victoria and beyond will continue to campaign to unlock the benefits of community and consumer-led renewables and energy efficiency projects. The next step – to see the establishment of at least 10 Victorian Hubs, with longer-term and larger funding support from the Victorian and Federal Governments.

Nicky Ison is Founding Director of the Community Power Agency

This article was originally published on RenewEconomy’s sister website One Step Off The Grid. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter here.  
  

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  • Ian

    Nice, very nice. Solar and wind built by and for the country communities and electricity exported to the city will have one remarkable effect: Energy will flow to the city and money will flow to the countryside.

    Solar and wind gardens or allotments may be the answer to making these technologies available to the disenfranchised renters, businesses, inner city dwellers. This could take the form of a community owned energy farm with exports going to offset these people’s electricity accounts.

  • Mike A

    Interestingly, an effect of negative gearing is that houses owned by landlords have no incentive to put solar panels on the rooves of their houses no matter how economic it might become.

    • Ian

      About 30%of households rent and the number of rental dwellings, either free standing or semidetached, is about 1.6 million. Plenty of scope for distributed solar. Perhaps what is lacking is a suitable legal framework. For owner occupiers , the incentive to installing solar is the reduction in electricity bills. For the investment owner presumably at present the whole solar output is exported to the grid for minimal FiT or some sort of financial arrangement is made with the renter. Perhaps no one has really thought through this problem before.

      For starters, an arrangement between renter and property owner needs to be mutually beneficial. The owner supplies the solar panels and the renter supplies the market for this energy product. If the financial arrangement was renter gets 100% benefit from the roof top solar then why should the owner investor bother. If the owner charges the renter the same rate as the energy retailer, then the renter would prefer to keep life simple and just pay the energy company. They would need to split the benefits probably down the middle to make this worthwhile to both parties.

      • Mike A

        Maybe but I don’t like artificial intrusions to the investment market. With utility sized solar now ridiculously economic and some solar battery solutions almost there it may be simply to produce lots of cheaper clean solar at utility size with batteries. Utility sized power storage is much cheaper.

        • Ian

          There is already a legal framework for rental agreements governing the house/unit rental market. Some say that the LCOE for behind the meter solar is 10c/KWH. The Fit is about 5 to 10c/kWh, at this rate there is no benefit to the building owner for installing solar. The renter pays the electricity retailer 26plus c/kWh . Presumably the owner would get a tax advantage for installing solar, perhaps bringing the effective LCOE down to closer to 5c/kWh. If the owner charged 15c/kWh that would be 40% less than the retail price for the renter – not a bad deal or both. Without some sort of standardised agreement or even a template for an agreement, this kind of arrangement where both renter and owner can benefit would be lost.

          If rooftop solar closely matches utility scale solar in LCOE, then utility solar can never match behind the meter solar on retail-equivalent prices, simply because utility solar needs distribution, marketing and sales infrastructure – this makes utility solar inefficient and expensive . 1.6 million houses is a potential power station with nameplate capacity of 8GW – not a green field needed to be gravelled over.

          By encouraging the large rental market to install solar, the owners can be used to reduce electricity bills for the renters, very much in a similar way to negative gearing allowing rental prices to be lower than the actual interest payments on the full value of a house.

          Some solar battery offerings are AC and can be quite portable, so that the renter can just take their storage solution with them. That is if this part of the solar/storage equation were to be made available to renters.

          • Mike A

            The best we know about utility sized solar is the agreement just signed in India for USD5 cents kWh. that is very much lower than solar in Australia. there has been none in Australia. they are all to small what there has been has not been subject to international tender