‘Community energy’ may be the answer to regional prosperity under ‘net zero’. This town wants to give it a go

The historic wheat and sheep farming town of Katanning is embarking on a project to change not just how it gets electricity, but who gets the money.

Deep in the Wheatbelt south-east of Perth, this is a conservative heartland. The region has voted for Liberal or country parties at the state and federal level for more than a century.

Far from the “inner-city enclaves” often referenced in the national climate debate, it’s not the type of town where you might expect to find a renewable energy program with radical ambitions.

A Federation-era two-storey corner pub on a wide empty street
The town’s main employer is the local abattoir.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

But important townspeople — including business owners, the local council and the state and federal MPs — see an opportunity to combine solar power with regional prosperity.

Under the plan, the town would essentially become its own power station.

Rather than importing electrons from elsewhere, it would generate them locally.

More importantly, the solar panels would be community owned, meaning the millions spent on electricity bills wouldn’t leave the region.

It’s hoped this will mean cheaper energy, new energy-intensive industries, a more resilient grid, and a more prosperous local economy.

At a time of national debate over how regional areas will fare under the new “net zero” commitment, advocates say this is part of the answer.

So can it work? And if it does, what could the future hold for regional Australia?

What’s the model?

Geoff Stade is a third-generation Katanning farmer who now splits his time between preparing for the upcoming harvest and running an energy company.

As the recently appointed chairman of Katanning Energy, he’s spearheading the community energy program.

A man in t-shirt and cargo pants stands in front of a ground-mounted solar array
Geoff Stade with a ground-mounted solar array installed by the company.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

Community energy is broadly where communities come together to develop, deliver and benefit from clean energy, like solar panels and wind turbines.

“We’re all about the economics of it and taking control of our own energy security,” he says.

But there’s a long way to go.

Katanning is at the very beginning of a three-step program:

  1. 1.Assisting households and businesses with access to clean energy technologies like solar panels and batteries
  2. 2.Setting up a community energy retailer to share energy across the community, so that all the rooftop solar panels form an aggregated “virtual power plant”
  3. 3.Scaling up generation and storage by building a solar farm or installing a community battery

The idea is the community will benefit from cheaper electricity, from residents being able to own shares in the company and receive a dividend from the electricity sold, and through any profits going back into the community rather than being spent elsewhere.

Launched last month, the company will have installed panels at more than 30 premises in and around Katanning by the end of November.

By the end of next year, it expects to have managed 200 installations, with a total capacity of about 2,000 kWh.

A row of simple one-storey houses including one with rooftop solar
Katanning has a stable population of about 4,000.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

“I really haven’t come across too much hesitancy,” Mr Stade says.

He says as long as the energy is cheap, people are on board.

“They’re very pragmatic people and they can see how solar saves you money and makes steps towards energy security.”

‘Taking control of our destiny’

Words like “control” and “security” are a common reason given by residents when asked about their interest in community energy.

The locals have good reasons to want to be in control. Crows landing on transmission lines from the coal-fired power station in Collie, almost 200 kilometres away, have caused several recent brownouts: these cost the town in spoiled stock and lost trading hours.  

At the beginning of this year’s winter, the local Tyrepower became one of the energy company’s first customers, signing a 10-year rent-to-own lease agreement for a large solar array.

“I love being in control of all my environment. Master of my own destiny,” says Kristy D’Aprile, who runs the business.

A woman smiling at the camera with racks of tyres in the background
Tyrepower’s owner Kristy D’Aprile says her business has halved its power bills.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

Katanning Shire chief executive officer Julian Murphy also uses that word “destiny”.

Community-owned local power generation appeals to country virtues like self-sufficiency, he says.

“If we generate energy from a community base, we’re in control of our own destiny.”

A middle-aged bearded man wearing a plaid shirt
Community-owned solar is a “win-win” for the town, says Katanning Shire CEO Julian Murphy.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

Katanning’s community energy ambitions are also backed by the two local members: WA Nationals MP Peter Rundle and federal Liberal MP Rick Wilson, who see an opportunity for local jobs and growth.

“Projects like this bring some life back into the country,” Mr Rundle says.

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Mr Wilson, who recently backed the aspiration of “net zero” domestic emissions by 2050, says community-owned energy is not just about “saving the planet”, but cheaper power bills.

He says it could be an answer to the widespread problem of “small inland towns where growth seems to have stalled”.

“I think this is a model that could be rolled out in other towns across the electorate,” he says.

Calls for national program to support community energy

What’s proposed for Katanning is based on a model pioneered by Indigo Power, an energy company in north-east Victoria that grew out of a local community energy group Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY).

According to TRY, more than $160 million leaves the region every year through people paying their electricity bills.

The Yackandandah program is much more advanced than Katanning’s and recently installed a community-scale battery.

Ben McGowan with Yak01
Indigo Power’s Ben McGowan with the community-scale battery.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

The company’s general manager, Ben McGowan, says he’s received a “fair bit of interest” from community energy groups around Australia who are consideringdoing something similar.

“We want to scope up a working model for community energy that can be replicated wherever there’s interest,” he says.

According to the Community Power Agency, a not-for-profit that advocates for community energy, most community energy projects are in Victoria, where they have state government support.

“We’re yet to see this level of support from other governments in Australia,” the agency’s Kristy Walters says.

“Imagine how vibrant our regional towns could be if they were actively supported to progress community-led renewables projects that keep energy dollars local and drive local economic development.”

May a thousand community power plants bloom

The Yackandandah model itself is inspired by a boom in community energy programs in other countries.

In Denmark, for instance, all new wind power projects must include 20 per cent community ownership.

In Scotland, community-owned wind farms have become common; a recent report estimated one of these will return 20 million British pounds to community projects over its 25-year life span.

This is significantly more than the amount typically paid to communities as compensation for having a local solar or wind farm.

A row of wind turbines in the ocean
A wind farm near Copenhagen — wind generates about half of Denmark’s energy.(Getty: Francis Joseph Dean)

Community energy is about ensuring everyone benefits from a local renewables project, rather than just the farmer whose land is used for the solar panels or the wind turbines, says Helen Haines, the independent federal MP for Indi, which includes Yackandandah.

“There’s 100 community energy groups around Australia. This is a strong movement for everyday people who want to see the true benefits from what is an inevitable renewable energy boom,” she says.

“Just about every renewables project that’s going to be created in Australia is going to be in regional Australia — it’s about regional Australia benefiting from that.”

Dr Haines envisions a future where regional Australia is dotted with small community-owned power plants.

She’s introduced a bill to federal parliament mandating community-ownership of regional renewables projects and setting up a dedicated Australian Local Power Agency, which will support regional communities to develop and invest in their own renewable energy projects.

Towns like Katanning, for instance, would have access to expertise and seed funding to do such things as build solar farms and install community batteries.

The bill has gone to a committee, which is expected to deliver a report soon.

If Australia doesn’t act quickly, Dr Haines warns, it will lose the opportunity for regional communities to benefit from the renewables boom; private enterprise will install the necessary solar and wind.

“The boom is a runaway train,” she says.

Town’s journey may be ‘tricky’

In Katanning, Mr Stade heartily agrees with the Victorian progressive politician.

WA’s few big state government-owned coal-fired power stations are likely to soon be replaced with a scattering of renewables projects, he says.

Katanning could wait for someone to build a solar farm and collect the town’s power bills, or the community can get in there first.

“Change is coming anyway,” he says.

A wide empty street with an old brick building
Advocates hope community-owned power can be a source of regional prosperity.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

Katanning’s journey will be “tricky” says Tony Wood, the energy program director at the Grattan Institute.

He says community energy raises difficult regulatory and infrastructure issues.

“Let’s assume you’re generating 90 per cent of power locally. Does that mean you’re going to make an offer to the local distribution company to buy the local grid in town?

“Who’s going to maintain the grid? Is the local community-owned energy business also responsible for ensuring the wires and poles and substations are working?”

If the town wants to remain connected to the grid, (just in case something goes wrong), the cost of doing so can be very high, he says.

“What’s it going to cost to have the connection to the main grid when it’s only used 10 per cent of the time?”

None of these problems are insurmountable, he says.

“But it’s not easy as it appears when you start.”

Technicians repairs a power line in a fire-charred landscape
Transmission line failures can cause bushfires.  (Getty: Education Images)

Katanning’s local power distributor is the state-owned corporation Western Power.

Asked about its support for community energy, Western Power says it’s “committed to collaborating with regional communities … including the connection of greater renewables into the network.”

There isn’t a government plan to promote community-owned energy.

Western Power’s focus is on disconnecting the more remote towns and communities from the grid, and setting them up with standalone systems of solar and batteries.

This will save millions of dollars in transmission costs, and improve resilience.

A row of solar panels and a metal box in a flat and sunny landscape
A Western Power standalone solar array and battery.(Supplied: Western Power)

It won’t, however, necessarily change who collects the power bills.

When Western Power recently tendered for a company to install solar systemsin remote parts of the state, the $17 million contract went to one of Australia’s largest energy providers, AGL, based in Sydney.

‘It’s about economics, not ideology’

In Katanning, Geoff Stade is talking about opportunities, or “destiny”.

With a supply of cheap electricity, he says, the town could attract a recycling business to process the mounting stockpile of waste at the local rubbish dump.

It could also earn money from charging the electric vehicles of the tourists passing through; the highway could be a river of gold.

A statue of a man on a plinth overlooking the town
Katanning was the first town in Western Australia to get electric street lights.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

Then there’s all the energy being used on farms: right now, most of this comes from burning diesel, but electric tractors are already on the market.

If farming is electrified, there’ll be enormous new demand for renewable electricity in regional areas.

“On the the industry side of things here in Katanning, your imagination is where it finishes. If we’ve got excessive cheap power, that attracts a lot of different industries,'” Mr Stade says.

He has few concerns about the shift to “net zero” and shakes his head with dismay at the politics “over east”.

Katanning doesn’t make money from coal; it has nothing to lose from solar, he says.

“Whatever your ideology, the economics stacks up.”

Source : abc.net.au

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