Small, community-scale renewable energy projects play a significant role in our clean energy future, but how do we encourage them in a policy environment that is geared towards larger scale initiatives?
Dr Jarra Hicks, Co-Founder of the Community Power Agency, says the key is to deepen the ways communities can be involved – whether through direct participation, or personal investment.
“The more people can put their stamp on a clean energy project, the more emotionally-invested they become. Then, what you see is people becoming advocates for the energy transition,” she said.
With this in mind, Dr Hicks and team are championing a range of avenues for people to participate in clean energy projects.
Ahead of the Energy Infrastructure & Community Engagement Conference, she sheds light on a few.
Solar investment schemes for renters
Rooftop solar has proven highly popular across Australia, with this year set for another near-record installation rate.
In the first half of 2023 alone, 1.46 gigawatts of new capacity was added from small-scale solar systems, owned by households and businesses – a 20 percent increase from the same period last year.
While the uptake is encouraging, it represents a missed opportunity for renters and apartment dwellers, who are locked out of the trend.
Equally, for governments, who wish to tap into this large demographic (more than 31 percent of households) when tackling their carbon reduction targets.
Here, Dr Hicks says solar share schemes can help, by offering an attractive alternative for renters. She recently pioneered this model in Australia with the Haystacks Solar Garden in NSW.
“Renters – who are often frustrated by their exclusion from rooftop solar – can achieve similar benefits via a solar share scheme that credits their energy bill.
“Essentially, for a small amount, they can buy shares of solar, directly from a solar farm, and the electricity generated goes towards their bill, in the same way energy collected from their rooftop would.
“It’s great because it allows people who don’t own a rooftop to participate in solar and can offer them cost savings. This will be increasingly appealing as energy prices continue to soar,” she said.
Community owned projects
Government investment into community-owned renewable energy projects has proven a big hit in countries like Scotland, where more than 500 projects have now been injected with funding.
Often involving wind, small scale hydrogen, or district heating, the projects are devised by community members and typically involve a minimum of 100 people. This means large droves of the population now have direct experience in a clean energy project.
“The scheme has really permeated its way through the country and caused widespread benefit and awareness,” Dr Hicks said.
“The government pursued this, quite openly, to help achieve their carbon reduction targets, but also to win the hearts and minds of its population.
“With such deep personal involvement, there is now a significant amount of social support behind renewables, which will help Scotland pull off such a rapid and expansive transition.”
Community investment schemes
An offshore wind farm in Copenhagen, Denmark, recently opened up a €10 million stake of its business to community members.
Initially unsure of how popular the investment scheme would be, the company was shocked when its shares sold out in just two days.
The co-ownership arrangement has also had positive knock-on effects for social licence, with the community now advocating for – and helping to dispel myths – around the project.
“Having this direct community link will inevitably create a more positive context for your renewable energy initiative, because people are directly invested in it and reaping the rewards,” Dr Hicks said.
“It’s encouraging to see such a positive success story overseas and I hope many more similar examples will unfold here in Australia.”
Sharing more ideas and insights, Dr Hicks is due to present at the upcoming Energy Infrastructure and Community Engagement Conference.
Joining her on the stage are Mike Young, Executive Director, Planning and Communities from EnergyCo; Daniel Andersen, General Manager Energy Markets from Powerlink; and Emma Vogel, Executive Director of AusNet Services.
This year’s event will be held 30 November – 1 December at the Radisson Blu Plaza Sydney.
Learn more and register your place here.
About Dr Hicks
Dr Hicks first started working to engage communities on renewable energy in 2010. Since this time, she has worked with a range of community, corporate, NGO, academic and government stakeholders to increase the positive engagement of communities in renewable energy development.
Jarra has a PhD from the University of New South Wales. Her research analyses the social and economic outcomes and impacts from community owned wind energy projects in small regional communities.
Dr Hicks’ research, publications, guides and policy work serve as industry benchmarks and have influenced improvement in industry practices of community engagement and benefit sharing.
Through her work with Community Power Agency, she has partnered with renewable energy developers, governments and communities to co-design benefit sharing and community engagement strategies that deliver on community expectations and generate strong community support.
She has` also supported regional communities across Australia to design and pursue a variety of community-led renewable energy projects, from bulk-buys of solar panels to assist households to community-scale solar farms.