A community solar farm, Westmill Solar Park in the UK

The New South Wales government has provided $60,000 for a feasibility study into the establishment of a community-owned renewable electricity retailer in the NSW Northern Rivers Region.

The Total Environment Centre this month announced the tender was open for a company or organisation to develop a business plan for the proposal. Mark Byrne, TEC’s energy market advocate, said the proposal was an Australian first, and that there were a range of business models being considered. These include the new retailer aggregating renewable energy systems including domestic feed-in solar systems already in existence or to be developed in the community, and the option of “white-labelling” existing green power supplies while also purchasing more power from local renewable sources.

The successful proponent will be required to develop a business plan, and position themselves to submit an application for a retail licence with the Australian Energy Regulator. Mr Byrne said this means the proponent would need to have capital backing of about $1 million to meet fiduciary responsibilities.

The consortium behind the proposal includes Lismore City Council, Byron Shire Council, Sustain Northern Rivers, TEC, Southern Cross University, Starfish Initiatives, NSW Trade and Investment, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and the North Coast Energy Forum.

A range of requirements have been set, including the incorporation of a high degree of regional community engagement and potential for community participation as investors and customers; the ability to purchase renewable energy exported to the grid by customers at a reasonable price; the ability to provide electricity at competitive rates; and a sound proposal for how a mix of renewable energy generation sources could eventually supply consumption.

Due to its topography and geography, the Northern Rivers area is not well suited to large scale wind or solar projects to meet the region’s entire demand, Mr Byrne said. Currently, the only large-scale renewable energy generation capacity aside from domestic-scale wind, solar and hydro power is two co-generation plants at North Coast sugar mills.

“This is an opportunity to do something new,” Mr Byrne said.

“We are testing the market to see what’s most viable, and also wanting to take full advantage of the current state government feed-in tariff of 60 cents per kilowatt hour, which continues until the end of 2016.”

In a media statement announcing the tender, Lismore City Council said the business plan would need to provide a fair price for renewable generation matched to local demand, create local enterprise and provide energy security for the Northern Rivers.

“The plan will also address how a community retailer could help overcome structural and economic barriers to regional renewable energy.” the council said.

The NSW government has been supporting the broader development of community-owned renewable energy projects. A how-to guide for Community-Owned Renewable Energy released in April this year and developed by the Community Power Agency and Backroad Connections was funded via a grant from the Office of Environment and Heritage’s Regional Clean Energy program.

In the forward, Environment Minister Rob Stokes wrote, “Community owned renewable energy is a fantastic opportunity for all of us to participate in developing clean energy.

“Not only is community owned renewable energy a great way for us to improve our environment, but it is also an opportunity for regional communities to come together and benefit economically. A more diverse energy mix developed through local community enthusiasm will benefit us all.”

Tenders close September 12 2014, with the business plan to be developed by mid-2015. The consortium hopes the new retailer could be up and running by the end of 2015.

Find more information and download the tender documents here.