Community-owned renewable energy (CRE) projects are on the rise across the world, including in Australia. This article applies a STEEP (social, technological, environmental, economic, political) analysis to CRE case studies to elucidate the opportunities, benefits and limitations for CRE in the rural Australian context. While CRE is a new sector in Australia, many opportunities exist for it to contribute to addressing climate change, community development and rural economic health. Case studies indicate, however, these benefits will be difficult to realise on a large scale without a supportive state and federal government policy context.
Keywords: community development, community renewable energy, climate change, resilience.
Rural Australia is blessed with some of the best renewable energy sources in the world, particularly solar and wind. But how do we make this potential accessible to communities that they may reap the greatest benefits? This article outlines the benefits and limitations of a community approach to renewable energy development in rural Australia.
Currently, climate change is compelling us to reconsider our relationship to energy on a national scale. The climate change discourse is driving new energy policy measures that will significantly affect rural Australia. For example, under the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target the Federal Government has set a national goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020 and rural Australia will be the site for much of this new energy infrastructure. However, as international examples show us, there is also the potential for discourses of community and rural development to drive energy policy to maximise opportunities for rural areas.
WHAT IS COMMUNITY RENEWABLE ENERGY (CRE)?
Internationally there are hundreds if not thousands of operational 'community' renewable energy projects. In the UK, the Community Carbon Network identifies over 150 CRE projects (Rural Action UK, 2010). In Denmark, community wind guilds are credited as one of the key factors in the rise of Denmark's world-leading wind industry (DWTOA, 2009a, 2009b). In Germany and Austria, citizen wind farms and bio-energy plants are becoming increasingly common, with over 200 bioenergy villages in operation or development in Germany alone (Interviewee G4). In North America, citizens and farmers now own 20% of installed wind turbines in the country (Lantz & Tegen, 2009).
In Australia, there is much interest in CRE, but the sector is still very new. Australia's first wind co-operative, Hepburn Community Wind Park in Victoria, became operational in June 2011; the Denmark Community Windfarm in Western Australia (WA) now has full development approval is selling shares; and several others are in earlier stages throughout the country (for example New England Wind Farm, New South Wales, and Mt Alexander, Victoria). There are also two CRE support organisations, Embark and the Community Power Agency, established to support local groups to see their CRE visions to fruition. Further, there are countless local initiatives responding to the climate change challenge, from small renewable energy businesses to climate action groups, transition towns, Landcare and farmer's associations; 36 of these are actively considering developing CRE projects (Holmes a Court, personal communication, 16 June 2011). The rapid growth in such initiatives tells of the increasing desire by members of general public to take action on climate change (Climate Movement, 2008; Transition Towns, n.d.).
The emergence of the international CRE sector has its roots in the normative activist discourses of the 1960s and 70s (Dunn, 1978; Lovins, 1977 in Walker & Cass, 2007), neo-communitarian discourses of local participation and empowerment (Vertical Project, 2001; Walker & Cass, 2007) and discourses of environmental sustainability (Vertical Project, 2001). Despite or perhaps because of their diverse roots and increasing abundance, the definition of community renewable energy projects is contested. …