South Australia is among a group of global leaders with a high proportion of renewable energy generation. Solar homes and wind farms will soon provide 50 percent of the state’s electricity needs.
This renewable energy leadership is not limited to forward-looking governments and businesses: The community is also an active player.
The not-for-profit initiative, Citizens Own Renewable Energy Network Australia (CORENA), is harnessing strong public support for renewable energy and setting a new standard in community investment.
The humble South Australian organisation pools together donations and directs them into renewable energy projects across the country. To date they have funded over 11 projects and abated over 137 tonnes of carbon.
In a state currently plagued by the fossil fuel lobby anti-renewables spin, CORENA’s Margaret Hender is one of many community members who’s ready to defend renewables.
Yes 2 Renewables decided to pop over and have a chat with Margaret to learn more about this trail blazing group and their perspective on South Australia’s energy future.
How and when did CORENA get started? What was the rationale behind setting it up?
CORENA arose out of conversations between some of the people on the Walk for Solar in late 2012, from Port Augusta to Adelaide. We were conscious that lots of people want to do something about the climate emergency, and replacing fossil fuel generation with 100 percent renewable electricity is essential if we want a chance of a safe climate.
What if there were a mechanism to enable those people to pool their resources and fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that otherwise could not happen? Not only would such a scheme achieve tangible reductions in carbon emissions, it would also be empowering for people who want to tackle the climate emergency.
For those who don’t know, what does CORENA do?
We set up a non-profit financially transparent mechanism that funnels donated money into practical solar and energy efficiency projects for non-profit community organisations that otherwise would not be able to afford to reduce their carbon footprint.
We pool the money donated to our Quick Win fund and use it to give interest-free loans to approved projects. Loans are repaid just out of the resultant savings on power bills – the solar panels and energy efficiency measures ‘pay for themselves.’
The recipient organisations reduce their use of grid electricity without ever being out of pocket, and once the loan is fully repaid they also enjoy lower operating costs.
Can you tell us about the perpetual fund? How does it work?
The money donated to Quick Win projects is never ‘used up.’ Quarterly loan repayments from completed projects go straight back into the revolving funding pool and help fund subsequent projects. CORENA is entirely volunteer-run, so there are no overheads.
Our first project almost three years ago was funded entirely by donations, but since then each new project has been funded by a combination of donations and loan repayments from completed projects. The more completed projects we have the quicker we can fund new ones.
Donors might feel like they are only donating to one project, but anyone who donated $100 to our first project has already achieved over $200 worth of climate goodness.
Some of their donation has already been used many times. A bit of their money would have been in the loan repayments that helped fund Projects 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, and 14, but in addition, some of it was part of the loan repayments from all those projects too.
Where else can you double the value of your money in less than 3 years, and still have it continuing to work for the common good forever?
What are some of the key projects that you’ve go up and running in South Australia and elsewhere?
CORENA is a national group with members and donors in all parts of Australia. So far we’ve had Quick Win projects in all areas except NT, and we hope to have one there soon.
In SA we have had two solar and energy efficiency projects for community centres, at Gawler and Camden Park, and two for community child care centres, at Warradale and Parkeholme.
Projects in other states and territories have been for more community centres, several disability-related services, a Montessori school, a community garden, a community-owned hospital, and a community arts centre.
The last SA project had to be just an energy efficiency project due to demand tariff regulations introduced by SA Power Networks.
Any small business account that has a 3-phase power supply is now forced on to a demand tariff if they need a new meter, which of course they do if we fund a solar PV project for them.
This regulation makes it extremely difficult to reliably estimate the effect solar PV, in combination with the tariff change, will have on future electricity bills, and in any case, it makes installing solar PV much less cost-effective. Accordingly, future Quick Win projects in SA are likely to be energy efficiency projects rather than solar PV ones.
Have you estimated the carbon reductions from CORENA Projects?
We have quite accurate estimates of the amount of grid electricity avoided via our projects, by each project individually and the total amount across all projects. The amount avoided so far is automatically updated daily via our Impact Calculator.
Our carbon reduction estimates are less accurate since our projects are scattered across all parts of Australia. In some areas one MWh of grid electricity equates to more than one tonne of CO2, and in some areas less than one tonne.
We have assumed one tonne per MWh for all projects for the sake of simplicity. On that basis, the carbon reduction from all Quick Win projects is 147 tonnes to date, with 35 tonnes of that being from our earliest project and smaller amounts so far from recent projects.
What’s your vision for South Australia’s energy future?
I’d like to see the South Australian parliament declare a climate emergency and adopt a policy of ‘no more bad investments.’ This would include bans on any public or private investment in projects that we know would exacerbate climate impacts, such as new coal, oil, and gas projects.
The state government itself could invest in solar thermal with storage and off-river pumped hydro to increase the state’s grid storage capacity, thus making 100 percent renewable electricity viable. New wind power developments should be in locations that take advantage of wind patterns that differ from those of existing wind farms to improve consistency of wind generation and minimise the amount of storage needed.
New wind and solar projects would flock to South Australia under a ‘no more bad investments’ policy.
What do you make of the fossil fuel lobby’s recent attacks on renewable energy?
The fossil fuel lobby’s arguments that renewable energy is forcing up electricity costs is not only wrong, it is also irrelevant if we treat the climate emergency as the existential threat that it is.
Every day that we continue to produce electricity from coal and gas causes more deaths from climate impacts and more ecosystem destruction. There is an ethical imperative for phasing out fossil fuels as rapidly as we possibly can even if it does increase costs in the short-term.
Your also involved in the climate emergency declaration, what are you trying to achieve?
The goal of the climate emergency declaration campaign is for governments to declare a climate emergency and mobilise society-wide resources at sufficient scale and speed to protect civilisation, the economy, people, species, and ecosystems.
Climate impacts are already dangerous, but we know that governments can mobilise resources and restructure economies amazingly quickly and effectively when faced with an existential threat.
During WWII all sides of politics worked together to tackle the common threat, and big changes that would normally not happen were implemented for the duration of the emergency. For example, the US stopped making cars for three years and instead redirected all those resources and skills towards the war effort.
At one stage over 40 percent of GDP was allocated to winning the war. If anything, the climate emergency is an even greater threat to us all, but we know that society can rise to the challenge and achieve quite remarkable things extremely quickly once an existential threat is honestly acknowledged.
CORENA’s success demonstrates that communities are taking the lead when it comes to transitioning Australia towards renewable energy.
It’s this community leadership that we implore Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Minister for Energy Josh Frydenberg, and SA opposition leader Steven Marshall to acknowledge.
Politicians have a choice to make: Will they back the communities vision for a renewable-energy powered future? Or will they succumb to the fossil fuel lobby’s anti-renewables agenda?
Either way, the community’s watching…