Communities partnering with large scale renewable energy projects could increase local jobs and boost local economic benefit up to fivefold.

MARKET PULSE: Australian investors are pumping millions of dollars into community-owned energy projects in regional areas to wrest back control of their electricity supply and create local jobs.

The first snapshot of the burgeoning sector shows Australians have financed more than 30 wind and solar projects to the tune of almost $24 million. All up, almost 8000 kilowatts of renewable energy has been installed – enough to power a small town.

Community Power Agency founding director Nicky Ison said there were more than 50 community power projects up and running across Australia and more than 90 groups developing projects including solar-powered breweries and dairy farms, bioenergy hubs, farmer wind co-ops and energy efficiency programs.

Nicky Ison, Community Power Agency

“Australians are saying loudly and clearly, ‘We want to invest in renewable energy in this country, and we want to invest in our own communities,’” she said. “This means that jobs and investment stay local, and communities have ownership over their own power again. We think for these reasons community energy is shaping as major disruptor of our energy system.”

The majority of recent projects were financed within hours of going out to the community. “Hundreds of investors are effectively missing out on getting a slice of the action every time a community energy project is seeking capital because there’s so much interest,” Ison said.

According to Ison, the community power approach most relevant to job creation is the idea of communities partnering with large-scale renewable energy developments.

“That’s a model that is prevalent in the US and Europe,” she said. “And what research shows, particularly coming out of the US over the last 10 years, is that if you have a local ownership component to a large-scale solar or wind farm – the research is particularly around wind – you increase the local jobs and the local economic benefit by between two and five fold.

“By having the community involved in the process of developing the wind farm or solar farm, you engage companies, either national or multinational companies, with the people that exist and work in that community, and you are much more likely to see local employment benefits associated with that.”

In addition, more of the revenue generated by the renewable energy project stays in that local economy because people have that ownership stake – they spend their dividends locally.

In NSW’s Shoalhaven region, two young people have been employed to coordinate local solar projects. Repower in Shoalhaven is one of the more successful community power groups in Australia with multiple projects on the go.

In Victoria, the state government has committed $900,000 to develop community power hubs in Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley to help community groups access legal and technical skills.

Ison said the injection of funds would supercharge the sector, which is about to boom in central Victoria.

“The Victorian Government’s Community Power Hubs program is a big step in the right direction,” she said. “It has the potential to unlock profits, jobs and investment in renewable energy and ensure they stay in local communities.”

Training will be a big part of jobs creation. The Bendigo Sustainability Group is looking at partnering with a registered training provider to deliver training in how the electricity system works and skills development appropriate to the wind and solar industry.

While the funding is a good start, Ison believes with more government capital, the sector could more than treble.

The Community Power Agency will work with governments across Australia to establish a network of energy hubs to offer legal and technical advice to help groups cut through the red tape that’s stalling projects.

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