Community solar is fighting the good fight against gas fields in NSW’s Northwest


pv magazine Australia: Although the Federal Government has approved Santos’ gas fields in NSW’s Northwest, many in the area have not given up hope of putting this stranded-asset-in-waiting to bed. Geni.Energy is one company that knows the only way to kill off fossil fuels is renewables like solar (look at Bluewaters in WA).

What is Geni.Energy doing to secure the future of the Northwest?  

Geni.Energy: We’re creating a renewable energy future for the Northwest maximising local benefits. Our rural communities do need jobs and new investment, and renewables can bring exciting, sustainable jobs to our region.

While the New South Wales (NSW) and Federal Governments recently gave the green light to the project (Santos’ gas fields), this has not dampened our mission to transition our region to renewables. More short-term fossil fuel projects, like the Narrabri Gas Project, is not something our region, or the planet, needs.

These community-led initiatives create local benefits by introducing long-term employment and skills to the region. Some modelling work done by the University of Technology Sydney found that the Narrabri Shire could create at least 622 MW of solar and 175 MW of wind generation, creating up to 500 construction jobs and estimates that by 2030 the Narrabri Shire would need around 430 solar and 50 wind workers.

Why is it so important to switch retailers?  

Switching your retailer is the simplest and easiest way to send a clear message to your energy retailer that you do not support a future led by fossil fuels. People exercising their power through their purchasing choices has long been a powerful way to enact change. Energy retailers are particularly susceptible to what their customers are thinking. You can let your energy provider know that you don’t support their ownership of the Narrabri gas project, or that you do not support the use of domestic gas, or that you want your electricity sourced from renewable energy.

Fortunately, you do have a low carbon emission option now thanks to our partnership with Enova Energy.  Our Switch For Narrabri campaign lets NSW residents make the switch to an energy retailer whose energy is sourced sustainably through renewables. Enova Energy, who are also a community-led organisation, currently source over 60% of their energy from their own customers’ rooftop solar and purchase carbon credits for the rest of their energy as they work towards 100 percent renewables.

By making the switch you are also helping our not-for-profit too. We receive a commission on all switches to Enova through our website. So you will be directly supporting a renewable future for the northwest at the same time as changing to Enova.

You can help create the future that you want to see us living in. This is not something remote, you can make choices that mean renewables are our preferred source of energy.

The NSW Government’s new energy roadmap sets out five Renewable Energy Zones (REZs), but stressed that these are just the ‘first five’. It is my understanding that you guys at Geni reckon the Northwest has all the potential of an REZ-in-waiting?  

The Northwest of NSW is planned to become a NSW Regional Energy Zone in 2030. But to be honest, we can’t wait that long.

The Northwest Renewable Energy Precinct that Geni.Energy is creating does not need to be part of a REZ. It utilises the current network poles and wires, creating energy that can be used locally, without the need for expensive transmission upgrades.

Our Virtual Power Plant (VPP) allows households to generate excess electricity, stored in hundreds of small batteries to be used by our neighbours when it is needed. Our community is already deciding that they want to be a REZ and we invite the government to come along with us sooner than 2030.

Part of the potential of the Northwest Regional Energy Precinct is, as you said, that it doesn’t require major infrastructural upgrades, how can this be done?  

That’s right, the Northwest Regional Energy Precinct utilises current technologies and current infrastructure.  Stage one engages local homeowners in the VPP, with Stage Two looking at larger scale generators.

We currently have a project in Walgett, to the west of Narrabri where the local Aboriginal Medical Service is installing 143 kW of rooftop solar in partnership with Planet Ark Power. This project will save the community around $1.5 million and 4,500 tonnes of CO2 over the 25 year life span of the panels. Generators like this, use the energy themselves during the day and provide it to the VPP on weekends.

Renewable Energy technologies give us these wonderful opportunities towards energy independence. Meeting our own needs first and foremost, and our neighbours needs secondly, means we do not need major infrastructure upgrades.

The renewable industry has the potential to create some of the same negative impacts that our communities are suffering from due to fossil fuel projects. These are massive projects with massive impacts, and yet the majority of good they do is toward international companies or city-based executives.

But, renewables also have the potential, if done right, to create significant local benefits. Part of that is about appropriate scale – 100 small scale generators can create the same electricity as one large scale generator.

Geni.Energy prides itself on being a community-owned not-for-profit business, how is Geni integrated with the community?  

Geni.Energy was birthed from the community need for jobs, balanced with the community need to protect our water and land resources. It is a not-for-profit entity and we are powered by a range of volunteers and community members.

Being motivated purely by community benefit has allowed many doors to be opened to Geni.Energy. We have been able to swiftly develop trust with other organisations in the not-for-profit space such as Enova Community Energy and Planet Ark Power.

We have partnered with Enova Energy to provide retail energy services to locals.  We partnered with Planet Ark Power on our project with the Walgett community as they move towards a low carbon future.

A large portion of our team is also made up by some generous volunteers who have lent their hands and knowledge – with a few already from off-grid systems. We regularly hold information sessions and events such as our recent People Powering People night for our Geni.Mates. Geni.Mates are those who have shown support through various methods of volunteer, community engagement and staying up-to-date through constant involvement with our organisation. You can sign up to become a Geni.Mate too!

It is crucial that our community takes a seat at the table on this transition to ensure the benefits stay local.

Geni.Energy has a range of solar + battery options. The main hindrance to energy storage uptake in Australia is still the long payback times on batteries, is this something your customers are concerned with? Or do other advantages of owning a solar + battery systems obviate the concern for payback time?  

Very few customers are concerned with the payback period – which is only going to get shorter! We start by undertaking a thorough analysis of each customer’s bills and current energy usage.  We are then able to design a solar + battery system that is right for their needs.

Through assessing their energy, we can estimate their pay-back period. Some customers have as short as a four year payback period, with many others having a five or six year payback on their system. Our partner, Enopte, who supplies the batteries, provides a 10 year warranty so our customers are already ahead. The design of the batteries is highly modular, making gradual replacement over time possible.

Our system also includes an Energy Management System that gives the customer a high level of control over their energy consumption and how and when they charge their batteries.  They love the feeling of independence this gives them.

Our batteries allow customers to keep the lights on during blackouts too, another great incentive in areas like ours where we get quite a few blackouts.

Ultimately, each customer has their own reasons for investing in a battery – whether that be to save money, control their energy use or reduce their carbon footprint, their concerns with payback periods will differ.

Obviously the Northwest has a lot of farmland, is rooftop installation the most popular? Or are customers installing ground-fixed systems in spare paddocks?

There is a lot of interest in ground mounted systems and how farms can best utilise solar. The challenge is that farm energy use is highly seasonal, with irrigation highly tied to the availability of water.  So that is why our regional approach is so crucial, so when the energy is not needed on farm, it can find a home with other businesses or homes that need it.

What does 2021 hold in store for Geni.Energy and the Narrabri Renewable Energy Precinct?  

2021 is going to be huge! Our VPP pilot phase will launch in March and we expect to go full blown in July, which is when we will really start to see the benefits flow.  Part of our outcomes include the growth of skills in the region, so creating a constant flow of new solar + battery installs will see those people being attracted to the region.  We are looking forward to helping our agricultural industry maximise the benefits of cheap green energy too!

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