Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP seconds Helen Haines MP's motion on community energy in regional Australia

24 August, 2020


 I thank the member for Indi for her motion, and I'm pleased to second it. The development of community energy in regional Australia will create local jobs in those communities. I acknowledge the government's support for community energy in Australia with the Energy Efficient Communities Program, which is distributing funds of $40 million to projects around Australia. I also acknowledge the New South Wales government and Minister Kean for the $15 million Regional Community Energy Fund that is supporting community energy projects from Gulgong to Goulburn and right to Byron Bay.

Community energy can make an enormous contribution to Australia, from the bush to coastal cities, and will accelerate job creation and shared values. Australia and the world are in an energy transition and, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator, the planner, forecaster and manager of the grid, up to 15 gigawatts of coal will retire over the next two decades. The market has made it clear that the cheapest replacement is renewables and storage; it is not gas. This could be wind or solar, with pumped hydro, solar arrays on roofs, virtual power plants and, of course, green hydrogen. Community energy projects are a way for communities to assist in this transition but also to take the power of renewable technologies into their own hands whilst creating local jobs and boosting local economies.

According to the Community Power Agency, community energy projects are social and community enterprises driven by local people. So community energy groups tend to have a social and environmental driver as well as an economic one. They encompass a range of technologies and activities from a breadth of scales determined by the community needs, the availability of local natural resources, technologies and funding and community support. An example of this is a group of community members collectively funding and installing a large array of solar panels on their local town hall to power local businesses in the surrounding area. There are multiple benefits to this approach. The projects create local jobs, they reduce power prices, the power matches local needs and they foster a sense of community cohesion and shared values.

We need these benefits in these tough times more than ever—especially jobs. Fortunately, for every $1.5 million invested in renewables almost eight jobs are created, compared to only 2.6 jobs in old energy production like coal or gas. There is no doubt that our job future is in renewables.

Luckily, we don't have to look too far for examples. We have these kinds of projects in many regional communities and in Warringah. ClearSky Solar Investments are an award-winning not-for-profit from a New South Wales government grant. They established an unlisted structure allowing private investors to finance solar installations across schools and businesses. ClearSky partnered with another not-for-profit, Pingala, and did one community finance installation for the 4 Pines brewery. They invited 4 Pines employees, friends and Northern Beaches locals to participate and make up an inclusive investor portfolio. They had so much interest that they had to draw names. The way it works is that 4 Pines pays for electricity consumed, with the proceeds being returned to shareholders by a power purchase agreement of smart commercial solar for a return of up to eight per cent on their investment.

In Warringah, we're also supporting communities like those in Indi. Solar Choice, a renewable energy developer based in Warringah, secured planning approval for one megawatt in the Majura Valley community solar farm in the ACT. This is the largest community-owned solar farm in Australia. It will have over 5,000 solar modules, will power approximately 250 homes and will abate 1,600 tonnes of Co2 every year. The benefits are obvious so how do we get more of these going?

Alongside the member for Indi, I call on the government to direct financial support to these communities in the form of grants and concessional loans, to support local communities to develop renewable energy projects based on the existing model likes the community power hub model in Victoria—the Majura Valley solar farm, the 4 Pines Brewery community funded solar—and take it one step further by establishing a national community energy agency to enable capacity building in regional communities. We need a renewable-led recovery.