Renewables roadshow: how Canberra took lead in renewable energy race

Michael Slezak

As Australia remains mired in a broken debate about the supposed dangers of renewable energy, some states and territories are ignoring the controversy and steaming ahead.

While Australia is far from the renewable capital of the world, the Australian Capital Territory may soon be among the world’s top renewable energy regions. And as it transitions, the ACT is demonstrating the benefits of the renewables boom to the rest of the country.

In 2016 the ACT government legislated the target of sourcing 100% renewable energy by the end of this decade. It is the most ambitious renewable plan in the country, although Victoria is pushing ahead with a target of 40% by 2025. New South Wales has lagged behind other states, and doesn’t have a specific renewable energy target, but it aims to have net-zero emissions by 2050.

As part of the ACT renewable energy plan, the government has run a smaller-scale community solar scheme,says Lawrence McIntosh, project leader of SolarShare, a member-owned company building solar projects in and around the ACT.

Standing among the grapevines of the Mount Majura vineyard, McIntosh describes the country’s largest community-owned solar farm that will soon greet drivers as they enter the nation’s capital from the north. “It’s our flagship project for the Canberra community,” he says.

The vineyard needs sloped ground to grow its grapes, so on a flat piece of land it isn’t using for grapes, SolarShare will install 5,184 modules, creating a 1.26MW solar farm.

“That’s about enough power for two to three hundred homes and we’ll have in the range of 500 to 600 investors, who together own this solar power array,” McIntosh says. Those owner-investors will come from the local community, with people in the ACT invited to buy shares in the project, which start from about $500.

While one in 10 ACT households has solar on their roof, many other homes are not suitable for solar – they may be renters, live in an apartment, or have shading over their roofs. To allow those people to take part in the changing energy system, the ACT government offered to buy electricity from a large-scale solar project that allowed members of the community to have direct ownership in it. After a competitive process, SolarShare’s Mt Majura solar project was selected to progress to the next stage.

In the ACT, Shane Rattenbury is the minister responsible for the scheme SolarShare is relying on. He’s the head of the Greens in the ACT, and is also minister for climate change and sustainability in the ACT’s Labor government.

The federal coalition has attacked state and territory renewable energy targets, saying they are “unrealistic”. But the ACT’s 100% renewables target appears set to easily meet its aim. “Canberra has taken on a 100% renewable energy target, delivered by 2020, and it will happen,” Rattenbury says.

“The government has already signed the contracts so the wind turbines are now being built. Some of the solar and wind has already come on stream. A lot more comes on in April 2017 and certainly by the time we get to 2020, we will have a 100% supply of electricity from clean sources.”

By reaching the 100% renewable energy target, he says the ACT will reduce its emissions by about 40%. “We’ve achieved the lowest prices ever seen for renewable energy in Australia,” Rattenbury says.

With an effective reverse auction, the ACT has given other states a leg-up, by lowering the cost of new wind generation. The auction there achieved costs that beat those in the surrounding NSW’s lowest prices by more than 10%.

But more than just providing clean energy, Rattenbury says it gives the ACT community confidence they’ll have cheap and reliable power for decades to come. “They’re fixed prices over the next 20 years, so we’ve really protected our community against future energy price rises.”

Rattenbury says the community is right behind the target. “There’s a certain pride in Canberra being a jurisdiction that is doing what the science tells us we need to do – embracing renewable energy and doing it in a way that is affordable,” he says.

Having renewable energy owned by the community has increasingly been used as a way of building support among the community – and undoing some of the anti-renewables campaigning waged by fossil-fuel interests. McIntosh says community ownership of renewables is going to be a key way to accelerate the pace at which renewable energy is deployed. “I think we’ve seen in other countries, in places like Denmark in particular, where I believe every single solar renewable energy installation, within about a 4km radius, about 50% of the ownership comes from within that radius.”

He says that has driven community support and enthusiasm for the transition away from fossil fuels. And McIntosh says they’ve seen the community get behind the Mt Majura solar project. “The reaction from the community to our project has been really great.”

Motivations for backing the project are varied. McIntosh himself is doing it because he thinks community ownership of electricity supply is important. He sees it as a form of participatory democracy. “I think that’s important because it means people get to take part economically in the way our energy system is changing,” he says.

A local resident, David Osmondlin, plans to invest in the SolarShare project. He’s been involved in a number of renewables projects, and sitting on his veranda underneath a wind-powered Ikea light, he says he’s passionate about the political role community-owned renewable energy can play.

“Having community ownership really builds social license in a community,” he says. “It gets all the community behind it. It makes it much more likely for the politicians to support it if there’s a groundswell of community support behind it.”

But he is also in it for the money. “Interest rates are very low at the moment and most of these community renewable projects are making a better return than putting your money in the bank,” he says.

Osmondlin is pleased to be living in the ACT, where this sort of project is supported by the government. But in less progressive states and territories, he says community-owned renewable energy projects could be the way forward, with people taking the decision into their own hands.

“Obviously other governments around Australia have been less progressive. Community projects like these are one way that communities have got around recalcitrant governments that have been too slow to act.”

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