Group of people holding pinwheels with wind turbines in the background; Group of people holding pinwheels with wind turbines in the background;

'Community' energy a circuit breaker?

A viable energy future is one that is owned by all of us. Exploring and further opening up the potential for a substantial level of community ownership will not only move us towards an energy system that is just, sustainable and prosperous for all, it will also accelerate the energy transition. 

Around the world, the idea that communities install, own, and enjoy some of the benefits of renewable energy is growing fast and has underpinned the energy transition in countries like Germany, Denmark, the UK and the US. In Germany for example, over 50% of renewable energy being installed is in community ownership. 

Another community energy success story is the Danish power system, which has moved from a 98% reliance on imported oil in the 1970s, to currently sourcing close to 60% of its electricity generation from decentralised renewables, predominantly wind power. The Danes have even invented a word to describe the basis of its energy transition, the ‘commonity’. The commons are used to serve the community, with regulations ensuring community support, including at least 20% of ownership in a wind farm is offered to local residents. 

In many countries however, political stalemate, energy incumbents and public opposition provide road blocks on the path towards a low-carbon energy system. Take Australia for example. Community energy is still on the fringe but it is starting to gain momentum in spite of slow moving legislation and government intervention in an energy market struggling to cope with the pressures of population growth and ageing infrastructure. Solar panels have long been a common sight in Australian suburbs, but these provide energy to independent houses. 

Now we are seeing a strong bottom-up approach to community energy taking shape where an apartment building, a neighbourhood or an entire town band together to generate energy that benefits the whole, not just the individual. The numerous paths taken by Australian communities can surely serve as inspiration for communities across the globe, with models ranging from:

  • traditional co-operatives where people come together to jointly invest in and seek funding for a solar, wind or bioenergy project to power the local community,

  • not-for-profit community organisations using economies of scale to make rooftop solar and storage easy and affordable for the community through bulk-buys,

  • solar saver’s programs, where vulnerable communities are able to access solar through rate financing from local councils,

  • solar gardens, shared solar arrays with grid-connected community subscribers, billed through virtual smart net metering via so called peer-to-peer trading,

  • digital solutions opening up solar power for renters through a scheme that divides the savings between landlords and tenants; to 

  • whole neighbourhoods or towns coming together towards a transition to 100% renewable, locally generated energy in a micro grid.

There are so many options to embark on a renewable energy future for communities, and I would encourage each and every one to start exploring what could be possible for you, in your context, to take charge of the energy transition. 

With the arrival of economical battery storage solutions and smart technologies, communities have the potential to take ownership of their energy and greatly reduce their reliance on, or even switch off, the conventional grid. 

But there is so much more to community energy. It brings people together and creates opportunities for conversation and relationships. It builds community. So this Earth Hour, let us all get together and switch off the grid for the future.

What can you do in your community, or in your profession, to support energy independence?