The past few years have been exhilarating in the world of renewable energy technology. The global price of solar PV has plummeted, while electric cars have gone from cramped novelties that might just get you to the supermarket and back, to work-horses that can take you right up the east coast of Australia. Effective, affordable home battery storage used to be something that a keen tinkerer might be able to stitch together at significant cost; now it’s a ‘coming soon’ consumer product that can be hung on the wall (thanks Tesla).
But while a global view of the sector might be exhilarating, here in Australia we’ve had a stark lesson in the effects of uncertainty on a market, as the RET review rolled on and on. Turns out, unsurprisingly, that uncertainty is a bit like pouring sand into an engine. Investment in utility-scale renewable energy projects has all but ground to a halt, some major global players have given up on the country altogether, and potentially thousands of jobs have been lost.
It is said, though, that creativity flourishes in times of scarcity. And one bright spot in the local sector must be the creativity, tenacity, and progress shown by the community renewables sector during the past 18 months. Community projects are driven by people who realise the urgency around Australia transitioning to a low-carbon economy, and know the critical importance of some ‘beacon’ community projects to show everyone what the future could look like.
The Farming the Sun project in Lismore is shaping up to be Australia’s first council/community owned project. Community investors will lend the council the funds required to install two 100kW installations, and then receive a competitive return on their investment.
New England Wind looks set to follow in the footsteps of Hepburn Wind in establishing NSW’s first community-owned wind farm, and the Tyalgum Energy Project aims to take the town of Tyalgum off the grid entirely. That’s a prime example of the kind of determination and ambition that the RET uncertainty has spurred in people.
Sydney Renewable Power Company will, later this year, offer shares in the financing of a 520kW PV installation at the International Convention Centre Sydney redevelopment in the heart of Darling Harbour. One of the largest CBD arrays in Australia and one of the first public-private partnerships of its kind, it will provide a visible, high-profile example of just what can be achieved by a small group of determined people despite an unfriendly and uncertain policy environment.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing about these projects is that most of them are being created with an ‘open-source’ mindset, which means they will share their materials and knowledge for the good of future projects. For example, in Newcastle, Lighthouse Community Energy is providing a toolkit to interested community groups to help them with every aspect of getting a project up and running, from finding a site to finalising a deal to complying with legal requirements. The Community Power Agency and Embark have been doing similar support work for a number of years.
That’s critical because these projects will need to happen many, many times over in order to make a meaningful contribution to lowering Australia’s carbon output. Which brings us back to the RET. Yes, we’ve seen a large number of dedicated people forge ahead regardless of the uncertainty, on sheer dedication alone. But just think how much larger this number might be had we the kind of environment enjoyed by other countries around the world where community energy thrives, like the UK and Denmark.
We’ve also seen a shrinking in ambition of many community projects to fit within the SRET guidelines, given that this looked more certain of continuing. While expedient, this has been a case of policy uncertainty stifling the ambition of these community groups There is simply no reason why projects like Sydney Renewable and others can’t tackle larger scale projects as other community groups have done around the world. But this will be impossible without a stable and certain policy environment.
The community energy has shown a remarkable ability and desire to get on with it. All we’re asking now is for the distraction and uncertainty to come to an end so we can do simply that.
Andy Cavanagh-Downs is Director of Sydney Renewable Power Company