Independent MP proposes $483 million Local Power Agency to anchor benefits of renewables in regional communities


Today, independent MP Helen Haines will introduce a private member’s bill to Federal Parliament that seeks to establish, as she said this morning, “a new relationship with energy for regional Australians”, by setting up a dedicated Australian Local Power Agency to support community-owned renewable energy projects.

Haines argued on ABC Radio National this morning that although new renewable projects are being built “at a lightning pace in Australia” and almost all are based in regional Australia, local communities often miss out on the full economic potential of those investments.

The Member for Indi said that the current methods of funding, including investments made by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) have proven highly effective in propagating Australia’s renewable energy boom, but tend to favour larger corporations and investors, “We don’t see those local communities having direct buy in; they’re inactive bystanders, mostly passive consumers of energy.”

Technical assistance complements financial support

The Australian Local Power Agency would enable community participation and ownership or part ownership of projects via three avenues:

  1. It would offer a program set up through 50 or so regional hubs, to provide  technical support for communities to develop local projects, such as microgrids comprising rooftop solar installations, that allow them to share energy throughout communities.
  2. It would offer underwriting of new medium-scale locally owned renewable energy projects, with a proposed budget of $50 million over the coming 10 years.
  3. And community ownership would become a requirement of all regional renewable projects. That is, the new Federal agency would mandate that developers of large-scale projects “offer at least 20% of the value of their projects to local residents to invest in,” said Haines this morning.

Asked by ABC Radio host Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast this morning whether there was interest from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor in her proposal, Haines said she had spoken with both men and “They’re really interested in what I’ve put forward.”

Importantly, she said she is also rallying the support of her colleagues across the parliament, particularly regional MPs: “I’ve said to them, as regional MPs we need to find new ways to develop regional Australia. Right here in front of us is this renewable energy boom. We need to be part of the action, make sure that our local communities really see the benefit.”

Money for fossil fuels, why not money for revitalising local renewable projects?

Haines has previously expressed her dismay and frustration at the Federal National Party pushing legislation to underwrite new coal and gas projects. “My Bill would extend that same underwriting support to locally owned renewables projects,” she said.

The Bill itself has been developed out of Haines’ Local Power Plan, launched in September last year after consultation with communities and energy experts, including Juliette Millbank of Totally Renewable Yackandandah, Ben McGowan from Indigo Power, and Marnie Shaw, a Research Leader in the Battery Storage and Integration Program at the Australian National University.

Haines says there are already more than 100 community energy groups in Australia, “and 13 in my electorate”, many of whom were represented in the Local Power Plan.

Surf Coast Energy Group in Torquay, for example, was quoted in the Plan as saying, “Renewable energy will play a key role in the resilience of our community as it responds to converging crises in ecology, economy, equity and energy.”

The North East Track Local Learning and Employment Network in Wangaratta, expressed the conviction that establishing regional renewable-energy development support hubs woud “also provide information and resources for young people to learn about the career opportunities in the renewables sector”.

“Renewable energy provides jobs and career paths to depressed rural communities,” said the Manilla Community Renewable Energy Group, which added that renewable projects are “Essential in providing jobs and training in rural Australia. It’s an activity for the benefit of the community and it gives people a feeling of control over their future.”

A sunbelt of locally owned renewable power stations

Haines’ broad vision for the agency is to establish a potential “sunbelt of 10,000 locally owned renewable power stations stretching from Esperance to Carpentaria bringing … an infinite supply of cheap, clean local power to regional Australia”, as the Local Power Plan’s website describes it.

Her legislation tabled today is expected to be seconded by Zali Steggall, independent MP for Warringah, who last year proposed a Climate Change Act that would see Australia commit to a zero emissions target by 2050, and the establishment of an independent Climate Change Commission to advise government and monitor progress towards that goal.

Haines has said that the new agency could use its proposed budget to support more than $4 billion of new clean energy investment over the coming ten years, while providing measurable outcomes in rebuilding and re-energising local communities.

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