Australia’s Carbon Price Should Support the New Community Energy Sector

Australia is in the global spotlight for passing its new renewable energy package. A few days before the new measures passed, the senate saw a historic moment for community energy with the opening of Australia’s first citizen-funded wind farm.

(Watch the ABC TV story.)

The Hepburn Community Wind Farm (which I am a Director of) sits 10 km south of Daylesford, in Central Victoria and was the perfect venue for a launch festival, with local bands, food and turbine tours. 

The project was declared open when 10-year-old Neve Bosher of St. Augustine’s School in nearby Creswick cut the ribbon around one of the two wind towers. She won this by beating 147 other school children in a competition to choose the best names for the turbines. She chose Gusto and Gale.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was not able to attend but sent a message: “As Australia’s first community-owned wind farm, you’ve set a benchmark for other communities around Australia.”

Gillard also referred to the benefits of distributed generation, “This is how so much of our energy is going to be generated in the future — not in far off power stations but in local communities, capturing the power nature gives us through the wind and the sun.”

The ceremony paid tribute to the founder, Per Bernard, who told the crowd of 750 people,  “In Denmark, where I was born, most wind farms are owned by communities.”

A highlight of the afternoon was the disbursement of the first round of community grants. Earlier this year, the Board created the Hepburn Wind Community Fund and appointed a local community stalwart, Vicki Horrigan, to be the inaugural chair.

Vicky announced grants of $15,000 to community groups for diverse causes: an arboreal tree mammal research project in the nearby Wombat Forest, a community arts project by the Bungal Arts Depot in Ballan, welding equipment for the Daylesford Men’s Shed, and play equipment for the Clunes Playgroup.

The Fund is a crucial element of Hepburn Wind. Most of the 1,900 shareholders come from the local community, so they are keen to put profits back into the local area, as well as getting a financial return for shareholders. Assets for the Fund come from the wind farm’s profits as well as Red Energy, the electricity retailer to which Hepburn Wind sells its output. 

Its dream is for Australia to build dozens of community wind farms and solar parks over the next several years. One of the key measures in Australia’s new carbon price package is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), which has AU$10 billion for renewable energy and “clean” energy finance. Community energy projects should have access to funds from the CEFC, which will rapidly accelerate the growth of the sector.

Professor David Karoly is one of Australia’s leading climate scientists and gave the keynote speech at the launch.  “This project demonstrates that there’s a viable business plan for communities to build wind farms on a small scale all around Australia in rural and regional areas and it will generate income and jobs,” he said.

Simon Holmes à Court, Chairman of Hepburn Wind said, “With the passage of the carbon legislation this week, many other regional communities will benefit from the transformation of our energy sector.”

However, there was a sad note to the day as the State Government of Victoria passed some of the most draconian anti-wind laws in the world. Under these new laws, Hepburn Wind would not have been built. 

This is bizarre, because the project is widely supported as an exemplar of sensitive project design. Indeed, it has seed funding from the state government, through Sustainability Victoria, and was awarded the Victorian Premier’s Sustainability Award.

Community owned energy is the one of the most powerful ways to build the social licence of renewables and counter the extremists. This makes Hepburn Wind an achievement not just for the locals and others directly involved, but for the entire country.

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Dan Cass is strategist at The Australia Institute and an honorary associate at Sydney Business School. He has advised international and Australian energy companies, and is now on the advisory board of Solar Head of State and was a director of Hepburn Wind. @DanJCass

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