Renewables roadshow: how the people of Newtown got behind solar-powered beer

Michael Slezak

Newtown – Sydney’s grungy inner-city suburb where a seemingly endless string of Thai restaurants is interrupted by body-piercing shops, clothes stores and a growing number of small bars.

It’s a suburb known for its beer-fuelled nightlife and alternative cultural tastes. It’s also one of the most progressive areas in Australia: at the last New South Wales election, the Greens got more than 45% of the primary vote (and almost 60% after preferences) in the seat of Newtown.

It makes sense, then, that beer and progressive environmental politics would come together in this suburb and, right in the middle of Newtown, a community-owned solar array is powering a local brewery.

“Solar-powered beer tastes better,” says Oscar McMahon with a laugh. He is the cofounder of Young Henrys, a small local beer company whose brewery is now home to the solar array, which is owned by members of the Newtown community.

NSW has become one of the worst states for driving the transition to renewable energy, so Newtown locals have taken matters into their own hands.

The groups involved in the project – the brewery owners, the local investors, supporters in the NSW state parliament and the community energy provider Pingala – each have their own overlapping reasons to buy-in.

McMahon is the epitome of the Newtown variety of hipster. Standing among the fermenters, he has an impressive amount of tattoos protruding from his black sleeveless shirt and a full long beard that would make any biker jealous.

He and Richard Adamson began their business in a small warehouse space in Newtown in 2012. “We had a brewery that could produce 1200 litres at the time and we were generally selling about 5-10 kegs a week at the beginning,” McMahon says.

“Five years later, we’ve got a much more efficient, bigger brewery. We now have five warehouses. We have sales people all over the country and we are selling nationally to about 300 different venues.”

The idea for the business came out of a beer appreciation club they both attended. McMahon says the pair wanted to “create a brewery that is as in contact with the people that drink the beer as beer club is”. They have maintained that ethos by having a small restaurant or bar at each of their brewing locations and hand-picking the venues that sell their beer.

They see the community solar project on their roof as another way to be in close contact with the community around them. “We are buying our power from people that have invested in an idea and infrastructure within our business,” he says. “The benefits are that you open yourself up to other people that believe in your company to actually buy in.”

Adamson, McMahon’s business partner, thinks much of the local enthusiasm springs from the living situations of those who live there.

“A lot of people who live in Newtown either rent or they live in apartments. They don’t really have the opportunity to access solar energy,” Adamson says. “This way they get to participate and know that at least some of the electricity being used in the area is being generated by solar.”

Local state member Jenny Leong has been a supporter of the Pingala Young Henrys project from the start. So much so that hers was one of the 54 names drawn out of a hat with 300 names in it, allowing her to invest money personally in the project.

“What we see here is the community stepping in and filling the gap that is completely left open by the fact that we have no leadership from our national or state governments when it comes to really addressing the issue of pollution and really moving us away from polluting fossil fuel industries,” she says.

Indeed federal energy policy has been left in tatters after a decade of inaction on climate change. Investment in new electricity generation has stalled while many of the country’s old coal-powered generators are poised to close.

Consequently official government projections show greenhouse gas emissions are rising and will continue to do so to 2030. This means there is no hope of achieving the cuts in emissions Australia promised to make when they signed up to the Paris agreement in 2015.

Projection graph

Meanwhile, the lack of certainty for energy businesses has meant investment in energy generation has frozen, directly causing prices to jump and adding more than the cost of a $50 per tonne carbon price to wholesale energy prices.

The ACT, Victoria and South Australia have moved ahead in this area but NSW has been slow to build their own renewable energy policy. In 2016 they announced a goal of having zero net emissions by 2050, which would require a lot of renewable energy generation, yet how that would be achieved has not been clearly spelled out.

Leong says a project like this shows the community taking action, and moving forward without the politicians.

“Newtown is an electorate that is made up of some of the most wonderfully progressive people in the country, who want to see a real shift towards genuine protection of our planet and our environment from pollution.”

Pingala installed the brewery’s solar array and organised the ownership structure. The 29.9kW array is owned by 54 locals (including Leong), who will get 5%-8% return on their investment each year. The brewery sources a big chunk of its electricity from a totally renewable source, while paying about the same for its electricity.

At the end of 10 years, the locals will have made a profit on their investment and the solar array will be gifted to the brewery, who will continue to use it to generate free energy for another decade or longer.

The Young Henry’s installation is the first project that Pingala has organised but they expect it to be the first of many. “We spent a long time developing our business models and building a community base,” says April Crawford-Smith, a convenor of the four-year-old community energy organisation.

Their next step is to replicate the installation at other locations around Sydney. “We have amazing plans for the future, doing a similar project again on other breweries as well as looking at apartments and schools. And we have also looked at remote Aboriginal communities and energy affordability and solar as well,” Crawford-Smith says. “So we have a pretty broad remit.

“It’s very ambitious but at the very heart of it is community and them driving forward solutions for our environment and our society.”

For some at Pingala, the project of building community renewable energy is also about social justice. Pingala coordinator Tom Nockolds wants the public to own the sources of their own energy, taking it away from big business, and putting the profits and other benefits into the hands of the public.

“Community ownership of renewable energy is so important because we are in the midst of an amazing energy transition. It’s no longer a question of if it’s going to happen, it’s happening all around us,” Nockolds says. “The real question is are we going to take advantage of the opportunity to build fairer systems in the way our energy systems are structured?”

Leong believes her electorate of Newtown is the ideal place for the transition to begin.

“The wonderful local feeling that is appreciated by so many in Newtown is to have a locally brewed beer powered by solar energy and linked to an incredible community initiative and a cooperative structure,” she says. “What could be better than solar powered beer?.”

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