Community Energy in a Rapid Transition to Renewables

Jan Kucic-Riker considers whether a community-led transition to renewable energy is possible in Australia to better support environmental and social justice, and to ultimately reclaim public control over the sector.

Image by Eric Muhr on Unsplash

Community energy

Is a rapid transition to renewable energy without a community energy component possible? For my purposes here, community energy refers to a project where a community group develops, owns, or benefits from a renewable energy resource or energy efficiency initiative. This definition draws on understandings from the Victorian Government’s inquiry into community energy, the National Community Energy Strategy, and the recent Local Power Plan instigated by Helen Haines, MP. While this definition represents my best approximation of community energy in Australian political discourse, I do not claim that this is the only way to define community energy nor that it is the most accurate or complete definition.

So, with this definition in mind our question becomes: is a rapid transition to renewable energy in which communities do not develop, own, or benefit from these resources possible?

Existing evidence suggests that at the very least it is possible to organise a fossil fuel-based energy system in such a way. Compared to fossil fuels however, renewables offer many perceived advantages including the relative availability of distributed renewable resources, the access to and modularity of their enabling technologies, and the potential for new forms of ownership. All these features seem to indicate that a rapid transition to renewable energy in which communities develop, own, or benefit from these resources is in fact possible, but this neither guarantees that such a transition will occur nor does it imply that a transition without these elements is untenable or even unlikely.

It is certainly possible to have a 100% renewable energy system in which the hidden infrastructures, privatised decisions, and distant consequences of our current system remain in place. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)’s integrated system plan which provides a roadmap for the development of Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) does little to check these impulses or provide a framework conducive to community energy. Though the various scenarios in the Integrated System Plan trace different speeds of transition, they all work from the assumption that the market is the basic organising mechanism to enable changes in the energy system. This poses a problem for community energy, however, because its unique value is neither in providing energy at the lowest cost nor in creating the largest returns for investors — in fact, community energy’s value is precisely in subverting this market relation.

The case for renewables

Despite Australia being the worst performing country on climate policy and effectively lacking a national emissions reduction framework, the NEM is set to exceed a 26% reduction on 2005-level emissions by 2030 under even their most pessimistic scenarios. Admittedly, this says more about the lack of ambition tied to Australia’s Paris targets than it does about aggressive decarbonisation within the NEM as the energy sector is both disproportionately responsible for emissions and disproportionately capable of reducing them.

The rapid uptake of distributed energy, and particularly rooftop solar, mean that Australia is tracking towards 50% renewables by 2030 even without any new federal energy policies. While the precipitous growth of renewable energy in spite of the Australian Government’s interventions to prop up fossil fuels is welcome news, renewables, unless they displace fossil fuels, do not directly reduce emissions. As such, the major factor dictating the speed of the energy transition in Australia is not so much the rate at which renewables are deployed but the rate at which coal and gas exit the system.

“The major factor dictating the speed of the energy transition in Australia is not so much the rate at which renewables are deployed but the rate at which coal and gas exit the system.”

Emissions reduction and Australia’s footprint

The usual detraction to community energy, or for that matter any energy development pathway that begins, rather than ends, with swapping out fossil fuels for renewables, is that given the urgency and scale of the challenge there is no time for partial conflicts and discussions which divide the forces that should actually be united in this one overarching struggle against emissions. In essence, any objective that is peripheral to emissions reductions is at best dispensable or at worst a distraction. Community energy can offer a rejoinder to this claim by drawing attention to opportunities to simultaneously build greater resilience, robust local economies, and more equitable access to energy.

However, without any significant interventions targeted towards fostering community energy the sector is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on Australia’s emissions footprint. This does not mean that community energy can’t or won’t have an impact on accelerating the transition to renewables by brokering partnerships with energy retailers and developers or setting benchmarks for commercial actors to earn social license to operate.

“Community energy holds the promise of reversing the literal and figurative control over power held by a small group of actors.”

These aims are laudable and worthwhile, and I support the community energy groups working to achieve them. That said, I feel this framing both depoliticises community energy and detracts from its potential to transform existing relations of energy production. Community energy holds the promise of reversing the literal and figurative control over power held by a small group of actors. Reducing the concept to a means of expediting the deployment of renewable energy threatens to sacrifice this promise when it need not be lost. While a rapid transition to renewable energy without a community energy component is possible, such a transition does little to tackle the root causes of the ecological crisis. My concern here is that attempts to integrate community energy into the existing institutional and economic framework, predominantly as a tool to reduce emissions, will transform a matter of environmental antagonism into a motor force of economic development that while providing some benefits to communities further entrenches the power of the incumbent energy regime.

The future of community energy: energy as a commons resource not a commodity

The need for community energy does not end with 100% renewables. Rather its import lies in ensuring that the transition occurs in ways that resist the dominant fossil fuel agenda, reclaim social and public control over the energy system, and restructure the sector to better support democratic processes, environmental sustainability, and social justice and inclusion (Burke & Stephens, 2017).1

This means reconceptualising energy as a public good or commons resource rather than as a commodity. It means aggressively promoting energy conservation and the protection of functioning ecosystems. It means working to keep financial resources within communities by establishing clear links between local energy generation and local use. It means reversing privatisation and corporate control. It means protecting workers’ rights and generating secure and meaningful work. It means building shared ownership and community-based resources rather than facilitating the private accumulation of wealth. It means shifting control over all stages of the energy sector from production to distribution, and extending to infrastructure, finance, technology, and knowledge.

Building acceptance and support for renewable energy and accelerating a low-carbon transition are part of this agenda, but I want to underscore that they are just that—one part of a broader a program. I do not mean to suggest that incorporating each of these elements into every community energy project is feasible or even desirable and the reality of negotiating these demands is often complex and messy given the very real constraints that community energy projects face.

The task for the community energy sector in Australia therefore is not to lose sight of these demands and continue to build structures outside the dominant institutional and economic framework in order to support the more direct and substantial involvement of citizens in the development, ownership, and control of renewable energy resources.

1. Burke, M. J., & Stephens, J. C. (2017). Energy democracy: Goals and policy instruments for sociotechnical transitions. Energy Research & Social Science, 33 , 35-48.

Jan Kucic-Riker is a PhD student at the University of Sydney Business School where his research examines the role of community-owned renewable energy in Australia’s low-carbon transition. His work considers the relations that govern the ownership and use of renewable energy as well as the tensions that exist between competing understandings of community energy. He is particularly interested in issues of political economy and how environmental crises interface with sufficiency-based ideas like the movement for degrowth. Jan has written on the challenges to building post-capitalist alternatives and reimagining wellbeing as separate from economic growth in the context of globalization.