At the early stages of developing a community energy project it’s important to define why you are undertaking the project, as different technologies at different scales are more appropriate in some cases.
As discussed in the article Benefits of Community Energy Projects, there are many different types of community energy projects and many different reasons for developing such projects.
Main topics covered in this article include:
Reducing carbon emissions
If your town or region is focussed on reducing carbon emissions, then the first thing you should do is look at ways to use less energy. This is by far the cheapest way to lower your carbon footprint. There are various ways to go about this including basics like changing lightbulbs and turning appliances off at the wall and slightly more advanced measures like insulation and solar hot water heating. There is plenty of information on reducing energy use available online. A good place to start is the Federal Government's Your Home website.
Once you think your town or region is using as little energy as they can (and as a result creating as little carbon emissions as they can), it's time to consider building renewable energy infrastructure. An important consideration in choosing the technology is the amount of energy you'd like to produce. This could be limited by budget, available space, or other factors.
Offsetting total energy use
Offsetting your town or region's total energy use is a similar goal to reducing your emissions, described above. However, you'll need to figure out how much energy you need to produce first. This involves deciding whether to offset just stationary energy or stationary and transport energy.
Types of energy use
Stationary energy is a term that describes energy used in the production and use of electricity for buildings like houses and industrial factories. Stationary energy also includes gas for cooking and heating as well as other uses.
Figuring out stationary energy use for your town is complicated but you can get a reasonable estimate by looking at power bills for a few 'typical' households and multiplying it by the size of your town or region.
Transport emissions come from the use of petrol, diesel and other types of fuel used in transport. If your town or region wants to go totally carbon neutral, you might want to offset transport energy use. This is complicated but can be simplified by making some assumptions that you are happy with, relating to what type of transport you will offset, and how much per household.
If you include transport energy use then you will need to export electricity equal to your transport energy use. Exporting significant amounts of electricity can be more difficult in terms of grid connection options, which is worth keeping in mind.
Larger projects obviously have the potential to replace more fossil fuel generation than smaller projects. Given these considerations, large wind turbines are the best choice for offsetting energy use for a town or region as they generate a lot of energy and have a relatively short pay back period. More detail on large wind turbines is included in the article dealing with wind turbine technology.
Creating a sustainable income for the town or region
Some projects are undertaken to provide direct investment in a community, while for others the most important factor is returning dividends to investors. Different renewable energy technologies are currently more cost effective than others; that is they have a higher ratio of profit generated over the life of the project compared to capital outlay and operational costs. Typically larger renewable energy projects generate more profit due to economies of scale. Many elements of a project’s cost are fairly independent of project size, such as developing a share offer document and feasibility studies including an environmental impact assessment.
Again, large wind turbines at an adequately windy site often provide the best financial returns. This is in part due to the fact that the wind industry is more developed than many other renewables industries and manufacturing has reached economies of scale, such that the price of turbines has come down. It should be noted however that the economic returns of large wind turbines will be out of reach of some communities due to the size of the capital investment.
Local job creation
Small-scale wind and solar PV projects typically employ local people in the installation phase of a project. There are an increasing number of people across Australia who have the necessary skills; and community energy projects would further enhance this potential.
Larger scale projects (in the order of megawatts) often use local contractors for generic work such as building construction and earth works. However, the majority of the installation work is undertaken by specialist outside companies, of which there may be only one or two in the whole of Australia. In some cases specialist installation workers are flown in from overseas.
Jobs in the ongoing operation and maintenance of a project are perhaps the most valued as they are permanent and local.
- Solar panels require very little ongoing maintenance, and the ongoing employment opportunities are low. A solar farm with tracking devices would require more ongoing mechanical work.
- Large wind turbines and solar thermal plants are highly specialised and frequently will include a (1 to 5 year) maintenance contract with the installer. In some cases the installer will train local electricians and fitters in the ongoing maintenance work.
- Biomass and hydro systems use more generic equipment and as such can be maintained with only some additional training by those with a standard mechanical or electrical background.
- Biomass creates additional local ongoing job opportunities in harvesting or collecting, treating and transporting the biomass.
Renewable energy education and awareness
Community energy projects can educate and empower local communities, foster local skills and build a sense of belonging to a common cause; however they do not always do these things. The potential for a community energy project to produce these benefits is strongly related to how the project is run and less dependent on what technology is used.
There are many educational opportunities, from open-days, public meetings, stalls and the share-offer in the development stage, to site visits and talks when the project is up and running. However, the visibility of the project, its proximity to the community and the level of ongoing involvement of community members in the day-to-day or month-to-month operations also has an educational effect.
When considering the education and development outcomes of a project it is important to engage widely in consultation to find out if the community favours any particular technology and whether there is any significant or widespread opposition to any particular types of technology.