Lateline 26 November interviewed Alison Crook AO, spokesperson for a new NSW consortium, Northern Rivers Energy (NRE), which has won a $54,000 grant for a business plan and feasibility study for Australia’s first community-owned energy retailer. They have plans to build, generate and sell renewable energy in the region around Byron Bay and Lismore.
The $54,000 is being made available by the Total Environment Centre, an NGO, and NSW Government’s Office of Environment and Heritage.
Alison, a one-time QANTAS businesswoman of the year, says the Non-Profit consortium aims to be competitive in pricing, to deliver jobs and environmental benefits and it may include ‘looking at the network’.
Giles Parkinson, writing in ReNew Economy, says:
“The plan includes creating a company with both retailing and generation, and an asset management arm that could invest in generation, help finance rooftop solar and distributed generation for poorer households and, maybe some time down the track, even help buy back the grid.
Community owned retailers are common in Europe and the US, particularly in Germany where it is common for retailers and local network operators to be owned by local councils. In recent years, many of the network management contracts have returned to community ownership out of frustration with the actions – or lack of them – of major utilities.
A similar theme is running through Australia, with renewable energy popular with the community, solar penetration running at the highest in the world, and growing frustration with energy retailers.
Alison Crook says community owned retailers are needed because the major utilities are not delivering what the community wants…
“There is no interest whatsoever in getting more renewable energy used in the area. All sorts of disincentives are being put in place … and we are told we have to use gas, and other stuff that we don’t need.
We think if it can be done anywhere, it can be done here…
If we can demonstrate it can work, and there is no reason it shouldn’t because it is working in other countries, then others will follow.
Here in the Northern Rivers we have all the ingredients necessary to demonstrate that communities can meet their energy needs without relying on fossil fuels and can live in greater harmony with the environment, and still flourish.”
Jobs would be a key focus, as would energy storage.
Consortium member Patrick Halliday, director of Byron Bay-based solar installer Juno Energy, says:
“This area will be mostly about energy efficiency, solar hot water, and solar PV. Each home, school and business can create energy and we can assist them to use as little energy as possible.
This is not a battle against the big 3 (retailers). It’s more about a local community that believes in renewables and wants to enjoy the social, environmental and job possibilities that come with it.”
The industry believes the NRE vision is unachievable while there’s an abundance of cheap coal-fired power
Before retiring to Byron Bay, Steve Harris was a senior manager in Origin Energy’s retail business. He has offered his expertise and says:
“I think it’s a fantastic idea. It’s never been done before, but I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be successful.”
Will Brook of Brookfarm (Macadamia Muesli), Byron Bay, says:
“The most important thing is getting everyone involved. Someone’s got to lead the way.”
Brookfarm’s solar array can make more electricity than its manufacturing needs and Steve Harris says a community-owned retailer would aim to pay more for that excess generation.
“Any energy that they export back into the grid, we will give them, hopefully, a much better rate than what they’re currently getting now, because the rate that the current energy retailers are providing is abysmally low. Equally, any energy green power they need to import, we will also hope to be able to give them a better rate than what the current energy retailers are offering.”
Northern Rivers Energy aims to:
Power to the people!