The way Australia produces electricity is changing. The traditional one-way, centralised market is being disrupted. Small communities are taking part in their energy future, getting together to produce electricity in their own towns. These communities want cheaper, cleaner electricity as well as local opportunities, and they're tired of waiting.
"I think the federal government has been, to put it mildly, pathetic in a way, they have not had any policies at all around this," says Diane Montague, the vice president of Energise Gloucester.
The social enterprise is building a 500 kilowatt solar farm with and for their community.
"The whole idea of it is that the money stays here, the jobs stay here everything stays in the community," Diane says.
Projects like these fall under the banner of community energy - where locals come together to generate their own electricity, primarily from renewable sources like wind and solar.
David Marston is a cattle farmer who volunteers his time as the Chairman of Energise Gloucester. While his connection to the land he grazes is evident, so is his passion for community. We're at his farm, just outside Gloucester in the Mid-Coast region of New South Wales, he points out where the solar farm will be.
"This slope is slightly west of North which is fantastic in terms of capturing maximum solar," he tells me.
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One hectare of David's 35 hectare property was chosen for construction of the solar farm, however he refused the $1000 per year lease. When asked why he would donate the land for the twenty years the project will run, David simply says "it's part of how we see life".
The project received funding from the NSW Government, through the Regional Community Energy Fund. But it's mostly relying on donations and the sale of shares to the community.
"We're a bit on an extremity of electricity distribution lines and we can actually make a positive contribution to grid stability"David Marston, chair of Energise Gloucester
Through an Energise Gloucester subsidiary cooperative, investors in the solar farm will receive shares and be paid an annual dividend.
David says the solar farm will give back to the community in more ways than one.
"We've said right from the beginning of the application for the solar farm, that money from the sale of about 25 per cent of the electricity would go to low socioeconomic households"
Projects like the one in Gloucester are popping up all over the country. Not-for-profit Community Power Agency records 174 across every state and territory with the majority in regional areas.
In Denmark, Western Australia, the locals have funded a small wind farm, similarly outside Daylesford Victoria the community has purchased three turbines, and volunteers in Yackandandah aim to make their town 100 per cent renewable by next year.
When the 2.5 hectare Majura Valley Solar Farm in the ACT was switched on in March, it became the largest operational community energy project in the country. The array consists of around 5000 solar tracking modules, with enough generation to power about 250 homes.
Nick Fejer volunteers as the Chair of SolarShare, the company behind the project.
"Our company is based very much around connection. Our vision statement is connection between a group of people, to energy generation assets, to the grid, and the way that they actually generate their electricity to live their lives" Nick says.
This is the company's first site and was funded by 500 local shareholders with support from the ACT government.
What is happening here means that the actual financial benefits of this project stay inside the ACT region.Nick Fejer, Chair of SolarShare
Nick says there's a broad spectrum of SolarShare investors, with no "typical profile". There are those who have invested the minimum amount of $500, all the way up to $100,000.
"They're human beings, and that's about it. We have everything from uni students who have scraped together a minimum investment, through to late life, financially secure people, who are interested in thinking about the next generation. And everyone in between."
Over the 20 year lifespan of the project, SolarShare expects to pay back the initial outlay of investors with an additional five per cent return.
Nick says the government is playing catch up when it comes to community energy policy.
"I'm almost wondering if the horses already bolted with regards to policy. Policy would have been great to have been set up five or 10 years ago to allow the industry to build and grow. What I think is happening now is the industry is built and grown by itself."
While there is some funding available through various state and territory bodies, the existing grant opportunities have been described by Independent federal MP for Indi, Helen Haines, as "piecemeal, infrequent and over-subscribed". There's no cohesive national funding stream, and no plan.
On the 22nd of February Helen introduced the Australian Local Power Agency Bill to parliament. The legislation would establish the Australian Local Power Agency, which would have dedicated funds to drive local ownership of new renewable energy projects.
"It would be a statutory authority that was tasked specifically to ensure that community-owned energy was supported through the federal government." Helen explains.
"I think that government has been so focussed on the debate between coal and renewables, and has an inability to paint a picture of regional Australia that's not dependent on coal generated power"Helen Haines, federal member for Indi
The agency would also implement Helen's Local Power Plan -- a three part scheme aimed at; establishing local hubs of technical expertise; underwriting community energy projects; and enabling community co-investment in energy projects.
Helen acknowledges the importance of community projects in Australia's energy future.
"I think what government has missed here is this whole piece of the energy puzzle. I think that government has been so focussed on the debate between coal and renewables, and has an inability to paint a picture of regional Australia that's not dependent on coal generated power," she says.
Back in Gloucester, David Marston says groups like Energise Gloucester offer a practical solution to a range of regional issues.
"We're a bit on an extremity of electricity distribution lines and we can actually make a positive contribution to grid stability," he says.
David believes that, despite the difficult regulatory environment and limited funding opportunities, community run projects offer a promising way forward in Australia's energy future.
"I think community energy's got a long way to run, we see this as the first of several solar farms around the community".