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Renewable energy park for Central West NSW community part of 'energy democracy' movement

By Micaela Hambrett, Friday May 15, 2020 - 08:15 EST
ABC licensed image
The first community owned windfarm, Hepburn wind was built in Victoria in 2007. - ABC licensed

Empowering a town with its own solar farm, the Orange Community Renewable Energy Park won state funding and aims to power over 2,000 homes with cheap clean energy.

After several years of devastating drought, some rural communities are working to develop their own renewable power to help .

The proposed Orange Community Renewable Energy Park lies six kilometres outside town in the Central West of NSW.

The project successfully secured one of seven grants from the NSW Government's $15 million Regional Community Energy Fund.

If approved by local council, the 11.5 hectare solar farm will generate enough power for 2,150 homes, and will displace 8,500 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

It is part of the increasingly popular push for independent energy in regional Australia, especially in the absence of a national energy plan, in a movement known as the energy democracy model.

Energy democracy model

"The energy democracy model allows all consumers to be empowered in the energy market," renewables consultant Amy Kean said.

"Solar is the cheapest form of energy. It's far cheaper to produce energy from the sun than it is to buy from the grid."

Small energy parks, usually built and owned by the community, are for people who are unable to access rooftop solar — a demographic that the renewables industry describes as disenfranchised.

"For example, those households that may have heritage issues or rent or live in an apartment … you can invest in a community solar farm and get the same economic benefits," Ms Kean said.

Alan Major is the managing director of a company called Energy Democracy, which he established to assist communities build their own cooperatives, establish a subscriber base, connect to existing electricity infrastructure and staff the cooperative once the park is operational.

In the Orange example, Mr Major is helping to establish the Central West NSW Cooperative, which will be the collective investing in the Orange Community Energy Park.

"When a member buys shares in the cooperative, those shares are equivalent of two and a half kilowatts of solar panels and two and a half kilowatt hours of battery storage in the park and that generation is pulled on behalf of the members." Mr Major explained.

"And for those that can't put solar on their roof, we meter their income from those panels against their electricity bill, reducing energy costs."

Ongoing financial dividends, as well as health and environmental benefits can make energy democracy models especially potent for regional communities.

Battered by drought and bushfire, many regional towns are witnessing an increasingly fractious climate.

As a renewables advocate Ms Kean said regional towns can diversify their economies and steer their consumption towards a lower impact on their environments which they likely rely on for agriculture or tourism — or both.

"Empowering regional households and also drought proofing and diversifying income sources is a key benefit of renewable energy in regional New South Wales." Ms Kean said

State and local government lead the way

Australian Wind Alliance's national coordinator Andrew Bray said with the lack of a Federal Government plan on energy transmission, local and state governments were going it alone.

"Both New South Wales and Victoria have stepped outside the traditional transmission planning processes," he said.

"They've said, 'Look, the existing processes we have are not adequate to get the new transmission built that we need. So we're going to make sure that it happens ourselves.'

"The two biggest states have both gone that way, which is tacit acknowledgement that the Federal Government's not giving the leadership in that area that it should be."

But he said this provided regional communities with a unique opportunity to engage with bespoke renewable projects from their inception and shape how the project can benefit their town or region.

"Local communities can really be on the front foot in terms of fashioning the outcomes that they want to see from renewable energy developments — a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

Electricity's iPhone moment

Alan Major believes the changes in a household's energy consumption are so seismic, they will be unrecognisable to the consumer.

"Households as we know them are going to change completely," Mr Major said.

He likened the transition to that of mobile phone plans, where we no longer pay for phone calls but rather access to a handset and data.

"We'll no longer be buying electricity; we're going to be buying light.

"In same way, you can clearly see an option, in the not too distant future, where we'll pay for cooking [time] or pay for refrigeration [time]. It's a digital transition.

"This is electricity's iPhone moment."

Amy Kean agreed, but was concerned there was more at stake for those unable to participate than just expensive power bills.

"There's an energy revolution occurring — it's happening right now," Ms Kean said.

"But by not having [access to renewable energy] you're not being able to access cheaper power and you're going to be beholden to older technologies and the markets, which is just not economically clever.

"But you also don't get the other benefits; like health, when we know traditional fossil fuel generators contribute 85 per cent of nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, the pollution has direct correlation with hospital admissions.

"Climate change is affecting regional New South Wales right now and the solution is ready — and cheaper."


© ABC 2020

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