Distributed local renewable energy that’s clean, is the way of the very near future
A talk given by Alison Crook, Chair of Enova Community Energy on ABC Radio National Science Show. Part one.
By Robyn Williams on The Science Show
Transcript of the talk below.
Robyn Williams: Alison Crook is a former Australian Businesswoman of the Year. She is now chair of Enova Community Energy and lives in northern New South Wales.
Alison Crook: Two years ago I talked about how in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales the community had come together to establish a social enterprise, Enova Community Energy, to allow us to take control of our own energy and, in doing so, allow us to take direct action on climate change.
The story of how and why Australia's first community-owned energy retailer came into being remains as relevant as ever. The need to meet the combined challenges of delivering affordable energy for all, together with increased energy security, future reliability and, most importantly, lowering carbon emissions, has become increasingly important as we drag through each day of this long, hot and windy summer. And Enova's approach as part of an effective solution to those challenges is ever more vital.
The spring and entry into summer of 2019-20 that we have witnessed across Australia will now have convinced all except for those devout denialists that it is time to accept the scientific evidence on climate change and, in consequence, to admit that lowering carbon emissions is critical.
It is not surprising that regional communities have been steadily pushing for renewable energy generation. We can see that in our increasingly arid country we can't afford to waste water or risk contaminating the water supplies needed for agriculture and for protecting biodiversity on industries that have no long-term future such as coal and coal seam gas mining.
And large numbers of us are very aware that if we want good job prospects for our children, then Australia should be investing, as rapidly as possible, in all the technologies and industries required to transition to renewable energy and to reverse the damage being done to the natural environment.
Since we also know that our fossil fuel-based stationery energy consumption is responsible for over 33% of our carbon emissions, we understand that the faster we successfully plan for and transition to renewable energies, the better off we will all be. We hope that the past months means that an increasing number of city dwellers will now share our sense of urgency.
So what exactly do we want to do to make this happen? The Enova vision is to enable self-sustaining communities instead of the existing highly centralised energy system in which large fossil fuel fired power plants generate energy which is sent long distances over transmission lines, then distributed into households and businesses, with money flowing out the other way.
We envisage a system known in the energy industry as DER, Distributed Energy Resources, in which households and businesses can share in the generation, storage and economic benefits of renewable power. Our vision is not simply one of increasing numbers of households and businesses with solar and batteries, plus clever software potentially enabling them to use less, or have their stored energy drawn on automatically to support the grid in times of need. This is what is commonly thought of as distributed resources, but it is only part of what we see as possible. We see it as possible and desirable to ensure that everyone can share in the shift to renewables and share in the benefits, and that we use the shift to keep more money in our communities and strengthen them.
So, what we want to enable are communities that are genuinely self-sustaining, in which streets can share batteries, in which apartment blocks and retirement villages can operate as embedded networks, in which those who can't have solar on their own rooftops, for whatever reason, can participate in solar gardens, and low income households can also share in the benefits of such gardens, communities in which industrial estates or small villages operate as microgrids of locally generated renewable energy with their own storage, still linked to the grid and able to support it but preferably able to stand alone in extreme weather events, in which it is cost-effective for communities and local governments to work together to earn small to mid-size renewable generation plants, to meet their needs or that of nearby industries. If Enova is the retailer, then 50% of profits coming from a community will be returned to those communities based on postcodes, to contribute to self-sustaining projects. As we see it, by taking care of their own energy, communities can keep money circulating in local economies to benefit people, jobs and businesses.
The Australian Energy Market Operator in its draft Integrated System Plan 2020, has spelt out that 'across all scenarios, the national energy market will evolve from a centralised coal-fired generation system to a highly diverse portfolio, dominated by distributed energy resources, and variable renewable energy, supported by enough dispensable resources to ensure the power system can reliably meet demand at all times.' As AEMO sees it, small-scale distributed energy resources are expected to double, and in some scenarios triple by 2040, holding grid demand relatively constant. Residential, industrial and commercial consumers are expected to continue to invest heavily in rooftop PV with increasing interest in battery storage and load management. The modelling projects that DER could provide 13% to 20% of total underlying annual national energy market consumption by 2040. Well, as we see it, there is room for an even greater contribution from DER, provided we can achieve the right regulatory framework which requires a willingness from government and regulators to recognise that there were real benefits inherent in enabling small players, including community-led organisations. And, make no mistake, the transition to renewables with storage represents a real opportunity for communities to take control of their energy future and the finances associated with that. Needless to say, this view is not one being encouraged by large-scale operators whose future ability to maintain existing profit margins depend on continuing centralised control and operation of plants, whether fossil fuel or renewable, by the smallest number of operators possible. And these players are regularly making their case to government for additional taxpayer-funded transmission networks to support their centralised approach.
Well, how has the little battler with the big vision gone? In the past three years, Enova has managed to build its customer base to more than 7,600, with 10,000 projected by June. We have continued to challenge the market with one of the highest feed-in tariffs paid for solar exported to the grid. We expanded in late October 2019 from serving customers in country New South Wales through the Essential Energy Distribution Network, to serving the whole of New South Wales, including Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong, via the Ausgrid and Endeavour networks. And we are seeing a good response as people are now seeing the links between bushfires, climate change and their own energy choices.
Our first pilot microgrid is underway in the Byron Arts and Industry Estate, in partnership with Essential Energy, a research team from the University of New South Wales, and Wattwatchers. We are currently in planning for our first industrial-scale battery project to enable testing of both the value of batteries in smoothing demand peaks, and of software that will enable energy trading between households. While we are not yet in profit, we are on trend to deliver a profitable year in 2021. Meanwhile, working through our not-for-profit arm and in partnership with North Coast Community Housing, we have enabled solar PV on social housing via government grants, and we have just completed our first social access solar garden to provide credits from renewables to more of their social housing tenants and community organisations.
Using funds donated by our customers to our Renewable Development Initiative fund and in partnership with other community organisations, particularly community-owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimby, we have helped install solar panels on a number of community organisations' rooftops. In 2019, Enova supported Liberation Larder which provides meals to the homeless and those in need in the area, the Black Dog Institute's mental health programs for regional areas, and the Red Cross's bushfire fund. 2020 will also see us funding tree planting activities for the regrowth of our forests.
Next time, I'll explain just how our solar gardens work and how they can be of benefit to anyone who is renting and to others who can't have solar on their own rooftop, for whatever reason. I will also talk about some of the existing opportunities and some of the barriers which must be overcome as we transition to a more secure and self-sustaining future.
Robyn Williams: And that 'next time' on The Science Show will be in about a month from now. Alison Crook is chair of Enova Community Energy and a former Businesswoman of the Year.
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