Local, Independant and Effective

Community energy a vital piece of national energy jigsaw

Posted October 16, 2017


It's time to unleash the power of communities to address local energy needs and security, says Cathy, who has introduced the Renewable Energy Legislation Amendment (Supporting Renewable Communities) Bill 2017 to the Parliament. (Transcript under video.)

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (10:05):  I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Across Australia, in the media, in this House we know we've got a problem with energy. We've got a problem with the price of energy. We've got a huge problem in rural and regional communities, in particular with manufacturing in communities, with prices going up. We know that the Prime Minister is working on the big picture, but I reckon there's a really important part of this whole infrastructure, an important part of the jigsaw, that would make a really big difference, and that's support for community energy. It's part of the answer. To date, I'd say we've been working at the global picture of energy prices and we haven't paid nearly enough attention to the role of communities and local governments in addressing this problem. The Renewable Energy Legislation Amendment (Supporting Renewable Communities) Bill 2017 is part of the solution. The bill is particularly directed to the work of ARENA, and I will talk in a minute about how that can happen, but it is the opportunity to actually make community energy a really central part of resolving the problems that we're facing.

The bill that I'm proposing provides greater certainty to communities looking to develop a community energy based model. It encourages innovation and investment and aims to ensure best practice planning to support growth in community energy. The bill will give certainty to a sector that is still developing so that, while programs may come and go and governments may come and go, their industry will remain part of the conversation at ARENA and CEFC. The bill amends the functions of ARENA to allow for funding of planning, development or implementation of community energy projects, and development by the community energy sector of innovative businesses and financing models. It clarifies ARENA's role in collecting, analysing, interpreting and disseminating information and knowledge on community energy models and in advising the minister on these matters. The bill also makes additions to the functions of the CEFC to allow investments in community joint partnerships or other community energy models to support sector development. The bill defines a clear role for the CEFC in supporting and accelerating the commercial viability and self-sustainability of community energy projects. Recognising that ARENA and CEFC both play a role in supporting community energy is reflective of the original intent of these organisations when they were established in 2012. The supporting renewable energy communities package brings together the ARENA Act and the CEFC Act once again.

Mr Speaker, I will now talk to some of the detail of this. Really and truly, communities in my electorate of Indi—as I'm sure they are in your electorate of Casey—are absolutely taking the run with solving the problems of their own energy costs. I am really proud that in my electorate not only have communities, like Yackandandah, got together but councils are working together. Indigo, Benalla, Winton Wetlands, Renewable Albury Wodonga, Totally Renewable Yackandandah, Benalla Sustainable Future Group, Up2Us Landcare Alliance in Mansfield, the Wangaratta Sustainability Network, the Murrindindi Climate Network, North East Water—playing a leadership role—and Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health are among many establishing strong working relationships with local and state government and industry groups to develop their own solutions. These include supply based projects like renewable energy installations and storage as well as demand-side projects like energy efficiency, demand management and community education. We are working on both sides of the supply and demand equation, which we know is so important because this is an economic problem that we're facing.

One of the most ambitious and successful projects to date, which I've talked about often in this House, is Totally Renewable Yackandandah. TRY, as they're affectionately known, are actively working towards their goal of 100 per cent renewable energy and energy sovereignty by 2022 by introducing energy measures to reduce the total amount of energy the town consumes and increase the amount of renewable energy generated by the town through the installation of solar systems.

To support this, they have established the TRY Perpetual Energy Fund. This local community has its own philanthropic fund; it has raised money; and it reinvests for community energy in Yackandandah. They provide a no-interest loan available for energy efficient or solar installations. This perpetual energy fund has supported the installation of large solar panels on an array of community assets, including the Yackandandah Community Development Company, which is a community-owned and operated fuel station and farm produce store, and also the supermarket, the hospital, the men's shed, the community centre and the Yackandandah Folk Festival. TRY are now working on a business plan that will refine the community energy model.

This innovative approach has the potential to be replicated right across regional communities, helping to boost regional Australia. Herein lies the role for the Commonwealth. Today in my electorate we have local communities doing extraordinarily good work taking the run. We have local government providing support and infrastructure and employment opportunities. We have the state government absolutely coming to the party putting money in. The gap is the Commonwealth. While the Commonwealth is working on energy, I believe that if we could bring the Commonwealth to state government, to local government and to this community sector, we would have the trifecta working and unleash the power that our rural communities have to really and truly develop sustainable and reliable energy systems.

Of course we need a national approach and a national policy. But the community energy sector is one really important part of the jigsaw. What I am proposing today is that we bring ARENA to the table. You would say, why hasn't ARENA been there in the past? It sounds so obvious. Initially they did. When ARENA was set up under the previous government, they did do a bit of work with community-based power. I understand through anecdotal evidence that it didn't work out so well. The industry has really matured now, and it's time for another approach. I would be saying to ARENA and to the government, energy is like an elephant. The joke goes around, 'How do you eat an elephant?' The answer is, 'One piece at a time'. I'm saying that with community energy we can just bite off one part of the big elephant and really make it work.

I say to ARENA, come and work with us in Indi and with my colleagues in other places. I see here my National Party colleagues  rom Mallee and Murray. I know they have enormous amounts of sun and huge communities who want to do this as well. Come and work with us rural communities and help us work out where the regulatory barriers are. Help us work out how to do the governance models and set up the pricing so we can get these grids happening locally.

I have to say to my colleagues, in Yackandandah we have a good partnership going with AusNet Services. AusNet Services are putting in the infrastructure; the Victoria government is putting in money; local government is putting in money. We're ready to go. The opportunity for the nation is huge. It's going to take real skill for ARENA to work across the governments, because traditionally that's the hard thing. But I'm really optimistic because I've seen government projects such as the City Deals, where we've been able to work with Commonwealth, state, local and with community groups. I know that we've just had a review of Regional Development Australia and how RDAs work. I would be saying to ARENA and other CFCs, 'Come and work with our Regional Development Australia group and Regional Development Victoria, because together we could actually get this integration happening and really get terrific runs on the ground.

I want to finish off with a message to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, I know you care about innovation. Your National Innovation and Science Agenda gives great hope to so many people in Australia. What I'm saying with this particular bill is that it doesn't actually need make-up stuff. We don't have to conjure magic out of the ether. We already have innovation happening in our communities. We already have job creation happening. We already have community involvement, state government involvement and local government involvement. We are on the cusp of the innovation that we know is going to make such a difference to our regional communities. It will create jobs; it will employ people; it will help solve the high price of energy; and in the process it will build sustainability and confidence in our communities.

So, I'm really pleased to bring this bill to the House. I look forward to the government encouraging them to bring it on for debate so that we can actually have a fair dinkum debate in the House and my colleagues from the government side, particularly the rural and regional Libs and Nats, can say, 'Yep: this is a great program, and it would make a huge difference to our communities, and they'd be willing to support it.' I'm very happy to commend this bill to the House.

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