Community energy retailer to take on Australia’s big three

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A NSW consortium has revealed that its plan to create Australia’s first community-owned energy retailer are underway, in what could be the first attempt to challenge the dominance of the incumbent retailers with a completely new concept in energy delivery.

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Plans to create Australia’s first community-owned power retailer are underway, in what could be the first attempt to challenge the dominance of the incumbent retailers with a completely new concept in energy delivery.

The proposal, by a consortium of not-for profit and commercial organisations, would result in the creation of a new sort of entity that would buy, as well as generate, its own renewable energy and sell it back to the community.

“Setting up a community-owned retailer is an option for people to keep it local – to buy renewable energy and keep it local,” said project coordinator Mark Byrne, from Total Environment Centre, a member of the Northern Rivers consortium.

NorthernRiversNSWThe consortium – which includes Total Environment Centre, Southern Cross University, Starfish Initiatives, Sustain Energy, NSW Trade and Investment, Office of Environment and Heritage and the North Coast Energy Forum – revealed on Friday that it had secured “modest” funding for preparation of the business plan, which would be accompanied by an application to the regulator for a retail licence, with the expectation that a community-owned retailer could be up and running within 12 months.

The group says successful examples of this are common overseas, but the model is not yet tested in Australia.

So will it work in Australia? According to Byrne, the timing is right to give it a go.

“We’re trying to connect what’s happening on an individual household level and the strong regional sense of environmental responsibility,” Byrne told RenewEcnonomy in an interview on Friday.

“There’s also a growing mistrust of the centralised energy model,” Byrne added, “so we’re trying to tap into that.”

Byrne, who has witnessed a growing regional interest in energy independence and sustainability through the North Coast Energy Forums he helps to coordinate every year – this year’s will be hosted by Bogangar in October – says it is not lost on the local population that 90 per cent of their energy supplies come from outside the region, and 85 per cent from fossil fuels.

“This is a problematic area in that it’s not really suitable for large-scale wind or solar,” Byrne said. Instead, the focus has been on small-scale distributed sources, such as rooftop solar – the region has one of Australia’s highest penetration rates for PV – and bioenergy, Northern Rivers being a rich farming district.

 

The project’s timing coincides with a growing push towards community energy ownership and independence, particularly in regional Australia, such as the Northern Rivers affiliated Lismore City Council’s plan to go 100 per cent renewable by 2023; and the development of Australia’s largest community-owned commercial solar system in Shoalhaven, announced this week.

And it’s a push that is not altogether unexpected. Network operators in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland have all acknowledged that it could be inevitable that all forms of centralised generation and transmission would be made redundant over time. While Ron Stobbe, the head of SA Power Networks, went one step further, predicting in April that rural communities – including major towns – could soon look after their own generation needs.

In NSW, the state government is actively promoting the search for the first town in that state that could become the first zero net energy town, generating its electricity locally from renewable sources, and storing and distributing it on a localised mini grid.

This ambitious effort, focused in the state’s New England region, is a sister project to the community-owned retailer project.

And as ZNET project director, Adam Blakester from Starfish Initiatives, noted last week, “the potential value of this model for Australia is quite significant, particularly given how abundant its renewable energy resources are and how distributed our energy needs are.”

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Launch of Northern Rivers Community-Owned Solar Farms. May 21, 2013 Source: Starfish Initiatives

For the community-owned retailer part of the plan to work, however, the consortium says it would need to provide a fair price for renewable generation matched to local demand, create local enterprise and provide energy security for NSW’s Northern Rivers. The business plan would also address how a community could help overcome structural and economic barriers to regional renewable energy.

And the advantages would be many, including renewable energy supply at competitive rates; support of locals wanting to self generate; preparation for future energy market reforms; access to innovative energy products; and supporting local community organisations and employment.

Blakester, who also spoke to RenewEconomy on Friday, agrees that “a convergence of factors up in the Northern Rivers” – including the high residential and business uptake of PV (“we don’t have Australia’s best solar resource,” said Blakester, “but it still performs well enough to outperform the grid!”) – suggest the timing is right to give the retailer project a go.

“Starfish and numerous others have been around the edges of the retailing side of energy for years and years,” he said in an phone interview. “The upside of ultimately having a ‘community’ retailer has long been at the top of the list” for the Northern Rivers group.

“The feeling is, if we can make this work anywhere, surely the Northern Rivers is that place.”

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17 Comments
  1. Andrew Thaler 5 years ago

    Here I am, loudly banging on about community energy, renewables etc with my offer to help provide sites for it via my 407kw Solar PV Farm in Singleton that can be expanded up to 5MW, the offer of about 10 acres of my land for free in Nimmitabel to place a few MW of solar, the chance to consider Nimmity as the first town to be energy independent… and no-one notices. No-body seems to really care.
    Why is this… ?

    Is the problem me, or my ideas?

    • Adam F Blakester 5 years ago

      Andrew, at this moment the only viable ‘community energy’ model we know of has to be “behind-the-meter”. Lismore City Solarfarm is viable because the solar energy is used on-site and so is valued at the rate of saved electricity costs. Once power goes into the grid its value is wholesale not retail.

      So my question is, is your 407kW solarfarm “behind-the-meter”? Or are you requiring to export your electricity over the grid? These are profoundly different business models.

      • Andrew Thaler 5 years ago

        Over the grid via the NEM. And keeping this answer short: and for the benefit of others, Adam and I had a long conversation last week instead of to-ing and fro-ing here 🙂

    • Peter Campbell 5 years ago

      I wonder if Nimmitabel is close enough to count as Canberra region? If so, there might be a way for a solar farm using your free land to be part of the ACT’s 90% renewable target.

      • Peter Davies 5 years ago

        Yes it is within the ACT Sub Region, No they won’t accept proposals outside the ACT without you are a majority ACT business.

    • Peter Davies 5 years ago

      A little from Column A and a little from Column B…:) Latest I heard is that retailers were also planning to slug commercial customers 6c/kWh surcharge on “avoided grid supply” to offset the network costs that can’t be passed on through normal bills where their usage has dropped through installing onsite solar. Do not underestimate their ability to unfairly compete.

      • Rikaishi Rikashi 5 years ago

        They should be forced to rip it out of the scamming distributors, who have spent and continue to spend billions on uselessly redundant infrastructure purely to line their own pockets.

        That’s the reason we’re paying twice what we should have to for electricity, and the LNP are just sitting around and letting it happen. As useless as a substation in the middle of nowhere they are.

    • Pedro 5 years ago

      Hi Andrew

      We met at clean energy week and I gave you my card. Also I met another bloke who may be able to help you out. Flick me a quick email and I’ll pass on his details

      • Andrew Thaler 5 years ago

        will do. Thanks.

    • Stuart Dean 5 years ago

      A good solar PV company is Mark Group – I installed a 4kW just to spite abbott.
      Now consider this: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/07/28/3461743/alec-annual-meeting-energy-climate/

    • coomadoug 5 years ago

      Talk to me Andrew. Write [email protected] ill give you a call. There is potential there at Nimiti and some interesting green energy nerds you might like to talk to

    • coomadoug 5 years ago

      There has been a lot of work done researching a small hydro pump storage option using the local town water. This in combination with leased solar to local homes and a couple of large solar arrays might be a great start.
      There may be a lot of people interested in using new load side demand management options.

      Also down the track perhaps an EV charging station in town associated with the famous local pie shop. Perhaps some electric vehicles used locally could substantiate the storage and evening hydro power.

      There is no end to ideas. Each day they become more interesting.

    • Dörte Planert 5 years ago

      The only problem is advertising for it. Try to contact http://cleanenergyforeternity.net.au/

      • Andrew Thaler 5 years ago

        Thanks D. I know of CEFE, they are only about 70km away 🙂

  2. Paul McArdle 5 years ago

    There have been other interesting retailers start up in past 12 months in terms of winning new customers (a few) or applying for a licence (many more). We’re researching them all currently for the 2014 update on our “Power Trading Schematic” – hence will be looking to add these guys as well…
    http://www.marketmaps.info/2014-pts.htm

  3. Chris Harries 5 years ago

    This would be an incredible breakthrough. I wonder if anyone has done the sums for a solid business case. There would be no end of community interest in investing in such a beast.

  4. Lachlan Smith 5 years ago

    Fantastic news. Queensland has great solar as you know but we are not taking advantage of this resource. To help make this a reality here is one plan. 1. The worlds largest fund raising effor to raise 600 million and spread the word about the best social technology far and wide. If you would like to help set up CORE as a not-for-profit so we can get underway in our promotion and fundraising effort please email me, [email protected]. Here is the website to make a concentrated solar thermal power plant a reality for Roma, Queensland, Australia. http://60worldchange.webstarts.com/

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