Power In the Hands Of the Community
22 October 2018 at 8:50 am
Jarra Hicks is co-founder of Community Power Agency, a not for profit with a vision of putting the power back in the hands of the community. She is is this week’s Changemaker.
Whether you like it or not, Australia is in the midst of an energy transition. Wind turbines and solar farms are becoming part of Australia’s rural landscape, replacing the rapidly closing fossil fuel plants as they become too expensive to run.
The battle to get renewable energy taken seriously has been a long one, and is far from over, but with the momentum it has gained, people like Hicks are trying to make sure the whole community is benefitting, and not just a few big companies.
The vision for the Community Power Agency (CPA) is simple. Create a fair and sustainable energy sector, by putting the power back into the hands of the community.
CPA are driving the community power movement in Australia, and they believe by helping communities start their own energy projects, the environmental, social and economic benefits to the community will follow.
In this week’s changemaker, Hicks talks about her frustration over political leadership on climate change, the importance of ethical business, and making renewable energy accessible for all.
Was there a particular moment or event that made you want to start CPA?
I don’t know if it was one particular thing. Before Nicky Ison and I co-founded CPA, we’d been overseas, and done study tours of community-owned renewable energy projects, and seen how positive and empowering these projects can be in terms of communities coming together, and taking action on issues they care about. From climate change, regional development, to self sufficiency, there were lots of different motivations. When we returned to Australia in 2011, there were some community groups trying to kick start projects, but there weren’t actually any that were operating, and definitely no jobs available. So that’s why we founded CPA.
Both of us came from a background of being active during university in environmental issues as well. I studied in Newcastle, which is host to the world’s largest coal exporting port, so I was very much aware of the damage we were doing to the planet as a result of carbon emissions, and the need to think about how we transition our communities and economies in a fair and sustainable way. I also realised that in the absence of government action, community action was incredibly important.
Was it a bit of a shock, founding your own organisation compared to your other work in the sector?
Definitely, but we set it up very slowly. We were both working part-time jobs for the first four years of founding CPA. We started as two sole traders, and then as we proved to ourselves that it was something we really wanted to do, became more established, and realised there was more work to be done, we were getting expressions of interest from people who wanted to come and work with us.
If someone would have said that in five years time, you’ll have four other staff, be doing projects across the country and will understand how complex insurance and tax issues work, it would have felt really overwhelming. But you just do it one step at a time.
Do you think there is enough of an understanding of what the benefits are of community energy?
This is certainly the case for the people we work with. The communities who want to work on renewables are usually motivated by a whole range of social, economic, and environmental factors. A lot of what community energy seeks to do, is to benefit the broader community through energy education, or directing some of their surplus towards a community grant fund or other initiatives to help with all sorts of energy related ventures. It’s definitely not just carbon reduction, or a return on investment.
Is this the most effective way to get people motivated in renewable energy projects?
Community renewables is a fairly general term, it refers to a whole bunch of projects. They vary by sale and size, and their ownership structure. But fundamentally, they are seeking to decentralise energy production, so it’s produced closer to where it’s used, and to democratise energy governance. It’s also de-carbonised, and we aren’t relying on fossil fuels, we are demonstrating that it can be done without it. I think community energy has a real role to play in the energy transition for all of those reasons.
We’re going through a really big change, which isn’t just about how we think and use energy, but the landscape as well. As new solar and wind farms are developed, people need to understand that change, they need ways to positively integrate that into their daily lives and the way they see the world so they feel comfortable and confident embracing the change.
Do you think attitudes are changing in a positive way for renewable energy?
Time and time again, studies have proven that Australians are really supportive of renewable energy. The thing that makes a big difference to people supporting the developments in their local area, is when they have some power in the process, and they have a benefit from it.
Community energy obviously does both of those things really well, but I think corporate developments are finding good ways of sharing the benefits, from larger scale wind and solar developments to things like giving local communities the opportunity to invest in those projects. I think community energy plays a really important role in the energy transition, but there are also other ways that local communities can really be involved in larger corporate developments as well.
The recent IPCC panel’s findings on climate change were dismissed by a number of Australian politicians and policy makers. Does that make you frustrated?
It’s just ludicrous. They’re in no position to pass judgement on the work of our best scientists. That’s why we have that panel, they were literally the best people qualified to be giving us information about climate change, and what a politician’s opinion about it, is irrelevant. Their job is to take what the scientists are saying, and figure out how to respond. I think it’s very disappointing to see the lack of leadership Australian politicians have shown towards taking climate change and renewable energy seriously. If we choose to take action on climate change, and really choose to push renewable energy, we are only creating a positive future. We know the build of wind and solar is cheaper than building coal and gas. From a purely economic perspective it makes sense. The sooner we can get on with it, the better. For me, one of the big questions is not whether or not we are going to transition, it’s whether or not we can do it fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change, and whether we will be transitioning in a way that’s fair, and enables people to participate and benefit, rather than simply giving a few corporations the control.
Are you hoping that by empowering whole communities, you can push politicians and policy makers in a renewable direction?
Definitely. We are already seeing the impact of community energy projects, who are able to build their membership awareness of renewable energy, around the policy issues around energy and to mobilise them into action. For example, Hepburn Energy, has over 2,000 members, and they have encouraged their members to participate in both of the recent renewable energy target reviews, and that resulted in unprecedented levels of citizen involvement. To an extent, the regulators were really surprised when they received the number of citizen submissions they did, and during the last review, because of this, they had to include a panel hearing specifically about community energy, and the impact of the renewable energy target, and potential changes on community energy.
We are seeing as people become more engaged and educated about renewables, they are becoming a political force.
What are you guys working on at the moment?
We were recently down in Phillip Island, working with a really diverse range of stakeholders to set a vision for being an 100 per cent renewable island, which is really exciting. We are also working on a model for people who can’t install solar on their own roofs, either because they live in an apartment, or have a shaded roof, or they rent. It would enable them to buy shares in a solar farm somewhere else, and then the electricity generated by their panels would be credited directly onto their energy bill. It would open up solar ownership to a third of current households which are locked out.
We have four trial sites, and have partnered with a combination of an energy retailer, a community energy group, a local council and a social welfare organisation.
Why have you partnered with a social welfare organisation as well?
We have such an opportunity to recreate our energy system that’s so much more sustainable both socially and environmentally. We wanted to find ways to support low income people to also get the benefits of solar PV. When you install solar, you are basically securing your energy costs, and as long as you make the most of that solar, and use as much as you can, you are able to drastically cut your energy costs. We need that benefit to be accessible to those most vulnerable to electricity price rises.
How has this experience changed you?
It’s really reinforced that sense that we need to follow our passions, and do what we can do, and try and contribute to the world. We also learned to take risks and do the scary things and learn along the way. I think everyone has the potential to make change, and that’s what the world needs now, we need businesses that have ethics. That’s the way of the future, and I can really see that movement building across lots of different sectors and that’s really exciting.