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Just add Sunshine – A Bit about Community Owned Renewable Energy Projects


“Tulips are the poets of the garden,

Whispering tales of strength and beauty to those

Who listen with their hearts.”

-Poem by Alice Hoffman

-Lovely flowers by my friend, Fine Art Photographer, Ivy Malkin

As we plunge headlong into winter and our trees have gone straight to brown instead of gold, my friends in the Northern Hemisphere have been sending me pictures of spring flowers. They remind me that even though the world is in turmoil and the future doesn’t look all that bright, there are still things to be grateful for. This was going to be a post for Earth Day, April 14, until other events intervened, but perhaps it will still bring some sunshine into your life.  

Solar Gardens

Have you thought about owning a bit of your own electricity grid? No, I don’t mean rooftop solar. Solar Gardens are for renters and city apartment dwellers who don’t have a roof to call their own. Looking rather like community garden plots and feeding directly into the grid – no new transmission lines needed, it’s a way to take part in the renewable energy transition and still get around $500 off your annual power bill. Quite inspiring really, and a money spinner for owners of the land as well.

One Solar Garden in Grong Grong NSW which takes up an area the size of parking lot, can power around 700 homes, making it ideal for small communities too. Another community owned 1.8 MW facility  in Goulburn, NSW attracted so much investment from locals as well as outsiders last year that it is now planning to add a large battery.

Community – Operated  Grids

If you were wondering what a Brewery in the Macedon Ranges (Vic), an Aged Care Facility in Geelong and an Old Coal Mine in Wonthaggi have in common, it's that they all use locally generated renewable energy which is either wholly or partly financed by the community. Although these are all located in the State of Victoria, they are but three of some 70 projects around Australia helping to make the switch to clean green energy and usually saving their co- owners a bundle on their electricity too. 

 How Community Energy Projects began  

Schönau (pop. 2,500), is a small town in Southern Germany - think Cuckoo Clocks and chocolate cherry cake. In the early 1990's, shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, a small group of anti – nuclear protesters began restoring old hydro schemes and setting up solar installations to reduce their dependence on the main power supply which was partly based on nuclear energy. 
After a lengthy battle against the power company, they formed themselves into a co -operative to supply the entire town. When Germany deregulated its electricity market in 1998, the co -op - became a company and started selling green energy to the rest of Germany. Today it has 5,000 members, employs 100 workers and supplies 170,000 users. It also became the model for similar projects throughout Germany, across Europe and the rest of the world. 

The idea has continued to snowball. By 2014, 50% of Germany’s renewable energy was coming from community owned facilities, helped along by policy settings which supported installation, obliged power companies to accept power generated by them and adapting the grid for that purpose.There are now 900 green energy co -ops in Germany and 10,000 across North Western Europe, especially in Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and the UK.  

Although they now come in a variety of permutations, they must meet at least two of the following criteria. They must have local stakeholders owning all or most of the project, voting control resting with the organisation and economic benefits being distributed within the local community. 

By way of example, the Bath and West's Community Energy co -op in the UK, has so far returned over £200,000 ($US 270,000) to its local community for other sustainability ventures after paying costs and it costs just £100 ($US 125) to become a voting member. Owners of buildings where solar panels are placed are unpaid but receive 10% off their power bill. In 2016 after 6 years of operation, it had 20 projects going and was producing enough to power to run 4,000 homes and was still growing. A homegrown powerhouse.

Now that the EU has adopted its Renewable Energy Directive (April 2024), we can expect to see many more community led projects. Several I MW pilot schemes are already running, especially in Italy where the EU supports community power generation in energy -poor communities along the Mediterranean. It provides technical and legal support and some or all of the funding. Ireland, Bulgaria and Portugal are other beneficiaries.

From Europe to the World

 In December 2023, community owned solar projects in the USA were generating 7.3 GW of renewable energy across 43 states, mostly concentrated in Florida, New York and Massachusetts

Canada also has a large number of projects planned especially in remote communities which currently rely on diesel generators. A 290 KW project in northern Ontario for example, is expected to save the Fort Severn First Nations community approximately 400,000 litres of diesel a year.  

In developing countries EKO Energy customers are funding a range of small community energy projects such as cold storage facilities for medicines in N.E. Syria, electric lighting for three villages in Cameroon, solar powered irrigation in Cambodia, solar powered flour mills in India, clean drinking water in Malawi, Tanzania and Nigeria and cold storage for crops in Bolivia, Liberia and India, something which will become more important as crops fail and the planet continues to warm. 

 Advantages of Community Owned Energy Projects

1.       Almost everyone can take part

Businesses, individuals, Non -Profit Organisations and any other group can build, lease, co – own or participate in such projects through a variety of legal structures -as companies, co -ops or shareholders, which means that practically everyone, even the poorest households can participate by buying a few shares and save money on their power bills as well as contributing to emission reduction generally.

2.       Establishment costs and environmental impact are generally lower than for large solar farms

This is because no new transmission lines are required, little additional land must be purchased, especially when existing buildings are being used such as schools, public buildings, factories and shopping centres. Nor does it necessarily involve a lot of environmental destruction or gobbling up large chunks of farmland, something we’ll talk about a bit more next time.

3.       No NIMBY

Co - owners of community grids don’t complain about facilities being ‘in their backyard’ or on their roof, because they reap the benefits in cheaper power and have a say in decision making – whether any profits should be distributed or reinvested for example, or put towards other community projects. This principle partly underlies the success of Denmark’s windfarms where local residents had to be included as co -owners by law.

4.       Benefits Local Communities

Communities gain more energy security and economic benefits such as local employment opportunities. Money generated by power sales also tends to stay in the community. One German study found that the return to the community from co -op produced power was 10 times higher than that from large scale commercial installations.

Downsides and Challenges 

If Energy Co - ops are such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? Here are some of the reasons:

  • Complex regulations which often vary from region to another
  • Difficulty in raising finance, getting bank loans or attracting sufficient subscribers
  • Having lots of people involved may mean having to deal with many different ideas and make it harder to settle on common goals
  • Technical or other difficulties may cause long delays which will demand long term commitment and patience from participants before they can recoup their costs
  • Unexpected events such as poor weather, changes in the regulatory environment or other factors such as more competition, may affect anticipated returns. Read more here.
Nevertheless, Community Energy Projects are a low cost way to participate in the renewable energy revolution, reduce energy costs and emissions and gain more control over one's power supply. 

How to get Involved

In Australia contact the National Hub for opportunities to invest in solar, become a rooftop host or connect with or find resources for community solar projects.

In Europe it's possible to invest in a wider range of renewable energy projects including Mini Hydro, Bioenergy (for farmers), Renewable Heat Initiatives, Locally Owned Distribution Networks, Eco Villages and Wind Farms. Contact Energy Communities to find out more. 

In the USA, contact Community Solar Basics, at the Department of Energy for more information.

[Thanks to Microsoft Bing AI for helpful links and tips]

  Next time we'll talk about how solar arrays can benefit farmers and the environment