The last drop of water in Broken Hill

“YOU’RE under five metres of water right now,” Barry Philp says. “Hard to imagine, isn’t it?” I look through the windshield of his four-wheel-drive. The sky is blue and empty and the land is dead flat.

We’re rattling along the gray clay bottom of Lake Menindee, several kilometres from its shore. Three years ago the lake was full. Together with surrounding lakes, it held five times the water in Sydney Harbor. Rainfall in the past three years is tracking lower than the worst on record. The lakebed is now bone dry.

Read the full article in Nautilus Magazine

The "line of lode" overlooking Broken Hill

The “line of lode” overlooking Broken Hill

Bob Pascoe has 64 rose bushes in his front yard in South Broken Hill

A car with stickers saying "Don't Let the Darling River Die"

Locals protest against water policy decisions by way of the “WE WANT ACTION” page on Facebook.

Lake Menindee is dry

Lake Menindee. The white marks on the tree trunks show where the water level once reached

What’s left of Lake Pamamaroo.

The bore drilling team is working on the enormous dry bed of Lake Menindee.

A geo-hydrologist inspects earth samples from the test bore on Lake Menindee, while water begins to be pumped from the well.

Totally Renewable Yackandandah

WHEN Frank Burfitt was planning the new Men’s Shed at Yackandandah, he struck a problem – its electricity supply. It required a costly new connection from the road, traversing the hospital grounds.

So they did something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago: bypass the network altogether. “We did it cheaper than connecting to the grid,” Burfitt, a retired electrical engineer, explains.

“We got the first juice about a month ago and we’ve been using the power to fit out the shed. We’re proud we could do something visionary.”

The solar panel and battery system at the Men’s Shed is connected with a bigger initiative: Totally Renewable Yackandandah. A group of residents want the north-eastern Victorian town to produce more electricity than it uses, by 2022.

They began working on their scheme twelve months ago, and already the number of solar households in the town has jumped. Now, one in every three houses has solar power, more than double the national average.

Matthew Charles-Jones, from Totally Renewable Yackandandah, says they’re surveying local residents and working on their grand plan, with the help of a council grant. In the meantime, new solar panels, like those on the brand new Men’s Shed will make it easier to reach the target.

Yackandandah is one of three Australian towns plotting to become 100 per cent renewable, along with Newstead, in central Victoria and Uralla in northern NSW. Newstead was recently awarded a $200,000 grant from the state government to develop its plan.

Nicky Ison, director of Community Power Agency, says the technology is the easy part. For larger-scale renewable energy schemes, however, funding remains a challenge. That means starting small and growing.

“These towns first need to do widespread energy efficiency campaigns, and look at household, business and community solar,” she says.

In Yackandandah, the community centre has set the example. Its old brick-veneer house has been transformed, with the help of a state government grant. Local tradies installed a large solar photovoltaic system, insulation, double-glazing, shading and efficient air conditioners for heating and cooling. Electricity bills have plunged by three-quarters.

“We’ve had some really cold days this week,” says Ali Pockley, the centre’s manager. “But you come in here and it’s just toasty. It was hopelessly inefficient up until the retrofit, no doubt about that.”

Ison says that while the idea of “energy self-sufficient towns” is unfamiliar in Australia, it is well established overseas. Last year, she organised a visit by Arno Zengle, the mayor of a village in Bavaria called Wildpoldsried, which produces more than four times the electricity it consumes.

Matthew Charles-Jones heard Zengle speak and was inspired by his message, because Yackandandah is about the same size as Wildpoldsried.

Although going fully renewable is an ambitious goal, the town has form: a decade ago, residents bought out the local petrol station, which was closing down. Now it’s a thriving community-owned business, encompassing hardware and farm supplies, with an annual $3 million turnover. It hands out $20,000 in local grants each year.

It also boasts a large solar photovoltaic array, funded in part by the local folk festival.

Charles-Jones says Totally Renewable Yackandandah is propelled by concern over climate change, but also – as with the petrol station – by a desire to strengthen the local economy.

“We’re not inventing anything new,” he says. “We’re just being smart about the way we’re doing energy.”

Read an edited version of this article at The Age online

Electric vehicles lead the charge

WHEN Justin Harding accelerates silently out of a carpark, passers-by do double-takes.

“People wonder what on Earth is going on with that mysterious car that seems to go without starting its engine,” he says, happily.

His number-plates reveal the secret: ELCTR0. Harding, an engineer from Blackburn, finished converting his Mitsubishi Lancer to battery power two years ago.

Tomorrow, he’ll drive it to Hawthorn for the annual Electric Vehicle Expo at Swinburne University, from 10 am until 4 pm. The free event is coordinated by the Alternative Technology Association.

There’ll be electric bikes and factory-line electric cars from Tesla, BMW and Nissan, as well as several models converted by tinkerer-enthusiasts.

Credit: Justin Harding

Electric cars have been slow to take off in Australia. Figures compiled by bloggers suggest that five years ago, there were just over 100 around the country.

By the end of 2014, the number had only risen to 1900 (including plug-in hybrids). But most of those – nearly 1200 – were first registered last year.

Next month, luxury electric carmaker Tesla will open a showroom and charging station in Richmond. The company launched in Australia in December and has announced plans to open charging stations spanning the route from Melbourne to Brisbane by 2016.

There are already 23 charging stations around Melbourne, many of them free. The City of Moreland built the state’s first fast-charging station at the Coburg civic centre in July 2013, and there are now 6 across the municipality.

The council’s climate change officer, Stuart Nesbitt, oversees its electric vehicle program. “One of the barriers to buying these cars is the perception that there’s not enough public charging infrastructure,” he says. “Where possible, we’re trying to expand it.”

There are two electric cars in the council’s fleet, but that number will increase, Nesbitt says. New research conducted for the council shows that electric vehicles can be cheaper over the life of a typical lease, because of their low running cost.

For his own commute, Nesbitt – a former diesel mechanic – has traded in his car for an electric scooter. He fits the demographic for electric vehicle enthusiasts in Australia: they’re often well educated middle-aged men, early adopters of technology, who have solar panels of their own.

But Nesbitt thinks it won’t stay that way: “Electric vehicles are now where mobile phones were with the Motorola brick in the 1980s,” he says.

Credit: Justin Harding

Harding’s car cost about $20,000 to convert, mainly in batteries. In 2009, when he began the project, DIY was the only option. Now, every major vehicle maker has electric cars in planning or production, and their price has fallen significantly.

“The more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that electric vehicles are the way of the future,” he says. “It’s just a more sensible way to power transport, rather than burning fossil fuel and capturing explosions. The simplicity and efficiency of an electric motor wins hands down.”

Read this article at The Age online

You can never have too much garlic

Around Melbourne, a bunch of first-time farmers are sowing their cloves.

Em Herring has grown garlic once before: in an old tyre on her grandpa’s beef cattle farm in Gloucester, NSW, when she was only 8 years old.

“He said to me, ‘Emily, if there’s one crop you grow when you’re older, it should be garlic’,” she recalls. “It’s funny that I’ve come full-circle.”

Herring is now 25, a tertiary-trained musician living in Northcote, and she’s turning back to the land.

She’s one of a dozen people – overwhelmingly young women – who are taking part in the inaugural Pop Up Garlic Farmers program, run by a group called Farmer Incubator.

From left, Paul Miragliotta, Emily Connors and Em Herring, with Age photographer Simon Schluter. Credit: Farmer Incubator

The fledgling farmers have each sown 500 cloves, at four different donor farms around Melbourne – in Coburg, Keilor, Ballan and the Mornington Peninsula. They’ll take the crop all the way from seed to market, harvesting in December, and learning about sales and marketing along the way.

“It’s a way to engage people in the city with farming,” explains Paul Miragliotta, from Farmer Incubator. “There are lots of positive things you can do in agriculture, like regenerating the land and growing local food systems. But getting into it is quite daunting if you’re not from a farm, or don’t have much money.”

The 32-year-old is in a similar situation himself, having recently taken his first lease on a small farm in Keilor.

He says garlic is the ideal crop for the experiment: it grows slowly over winter, which eases the pressure for watering; and it stores well, so the farmers won’t have to sell on a deadline.

“We’re also trying, in a small way, to bridge the gap between imported, supermarket garlic and boutique, farmers’ market garlic,” Miragliotta says.

Before Pop Up Garlic Farmers began, he interviewed six experienced growers for their tips. Number one is to avoid a “weedy nightmare”, he says. “Weeds are like street fighters and garlic can’t compete with them.”

Emily Connors hasn’t grown garlic before. She grew up in Sandringham, without a veggie patch. She always shopped at supermarkets and had no understanding of her food, how it was grown, or by whom. “I went to an all-girls Catholic school and I don’t remember a seeing a farmer at the careers nights!” she laughs.

She now works at CERES in Brunswick East, often labouring at its Harding Street market garden in Coburg, where she recently sowed her first garlic crop. The site has been a market garden since the late 1800s, when Chinese migrants began farming on the banks of the Merri Creek.

“I feel like I’m part of that rich tradition,” Connors says. She hopes the coming months will help steer her towards a market garden of her own.

“We have a food system dominated by companies which are profit-driven, rather than focussing on nurturing people and land,” she says. “This a perfect way of countering that system, and connecting our community with our food.”

Read this article at The Age online

Renewed interest in renewables

WOODEND residents are staging a renewable energy revival, spurred by the incoming state government.

The local sustainability group is launching two green energy projects: a new solar energy scheme and the resurrection of a longstanding plan for three community-owned wind turbines.

Today, at the Sustainable Living Festival in Woodend, Energy and Resources Minister Lily D’Ambrosio will announce a $100,000 grant for a 30-kilowatt solar farm.

The panels will be installed at the old timber mill, where the tenants’ ongoing electricity bills will be reinvested in further solar panels. It will create a “perpetual fund” for community renewable energy, says Ralf Thesing, president of the Macedon Ranges Sustainability Group.

Last week, D’Ambrosio announced a $200,000 grant for the central Victorian town of Newstead to become fully powered by renewable energy.

She says the new government will “support and stand alongside” communities such as Newstead and Woodend, who are planning “to better control how their energy is made and where it comes from”.

“Everywhere I go, whether it’s metro Melbourne or regional and rural Victoria, people love renewable energy,” D’Ambrosio says. “That’s why we’re seeing many communities coming up with plans to make renewable energy part of their everyday life. They’re bottom-up approaches and they’re a terrific boon for local jobs.”

The Andrews government is preparing a “renewable energy action plan” and finalising the guidelines for its $20 million “new energy jobs fund”. It will also release a discussion paper on community-owned wind power.

For the clean energy advocates in Macedon Ranges shire, the election result was transformative. “It changes our situation completely – from being banned, we’re now unbanned,” says Barry Mann, who is helping coordinate the wind power project.

In 2010, under the previous state Labor government, the group was awarded a $50,000 grant for a wind monitoring mast. But the funding wasn’t finalised until after the Liberal party won the election. Within three weeks of handing over the cash, the new government had imposed a wind power “no-go” zone over the entire region.

“It was pretty clear to me that the policy wasn’t based on any evidence or community consultation. It was a purely ideological thing,” Mann says. “Now it’s a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’. We’re back to where we were four years ago.”

Within weeks, the monitoring mast will finally be installed at their preferred site, in a pine plantation about 5 kilometres from Woodend. The proposed turbines would produce enough electricity to offset the annual consumption of Woodend, Macedon and Mount Macedon combined.

“Just because our project was banned didn’t mean we would disappear, because we know it’s got too many benefits for locals,” Mann says. “I think most Australians get the fact that climate change and cheaper renewable energy aren’t going away.”

The Andrews government has promised to scale back tough planning restrictions on wind farms. Under the changes, only residents living within 1 kilometre will retain the right to veto projects – down from 2 kilometres. The planning minister, rather than local councils, will be responsible for deciding applications.

The controversial wind turbine “no-go zones” – which include the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road – will stay, but community-owned turbines in the Macedon region will be exempt.

Planning minister Richard Wynne says he expects to receive final advice on the planning amendments within a fortnight.

“We want to encourage more of these community wind farms, because this is about communities taking ownership of climate change in a very practical way,” he says.

The outlook is not so promising for large-scale wind farms. Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council, says that while the industry is pleased the planning rules will be relaxed, investment in big projects has stalled, pending a decision on the federal Renewable Energy Target.

The Abbott government has yet to announce its stance on the RET, after its review panel recommended the target be reduced. Subsequently, a further review by the Climate Change Authority recommended the target be maintained.

“The RET is the main driver to investment and, at the moment, the biggest barrier,” Thornton says. “Until the federal situation is resolved we’re not going to see a big rush in large-scale projects in Victoria.”

Leigh Ewbank, from Friends of the Earth’s “Yes to Renewables” campaign, says that if the federal government continues to hold back investment, state policies should fill the gap. The ACT government has legislated a 90 per cent renewable energy target for 2020.

“The ACT policy is driving construction of renewable energy projects,” Ewbank says. “Victorian policy makers can take similar action.”

The Victorian Liberal party appears to have had a change of heart under the leadership of Matthew Guy. For the first time, the state has a “shadow minister for renewables”, David Southwick. He says Victoria has the opportunity to be a leader in renewable energy. “We want an industry that can deliver more clean energy and clean energy jobs.”

Southwick says his party is seeking a “positive outcome on the Renewable Energy Target that supports local jobs in Victoria”.

Read an edited version of this article at The Age online

Reviving the race on a cleaner Yarra

LAST year, Matt Stewart rode along the Yarra every morning, from his home in South Yarra to his work at Melbourne University. As he pedalled, he wondered about the condition of our river. Could it be improved?

He began researching the Yarra’s urban history. “I found a story from 1932 which spoke about an iconic race where 100,000 people lined the banks,” he says. “It was the biggest open water swimming event in the world.”

With a group of friends, Stewart resolved to revive the “Race to Prince’s Bridge”.

Their organisation, Yarra Swim Co, is aiming for the race to begin again next year. “It’s ambitious,” he says. “We want to inspire people to see the river as a place for recreation, where we can swim permanently in the future.”

The 3-mile swim was first held in 1913, from the Twickenham Ferry – now the site of the MacRobertson Bridge, in Burnley – to (the then) Prince’s Bridge, near Flinders Street Station.

Coburg swimming club members who took part in the 3-mile swim, c1937. Coburg Historical Society.

In 1929, it set a world record for the number of competitors and 100,000 people lined the banks to watch.

Footage of the 1932 race is on YouTube: a reporter asks the female winner of the race – “Miss Gill, of Hawthorn” – how she found the Yarra. “Pretty dirty!” she laughed.

The Race to Prince’s Bridge ran annually until 1963, when it was cancelled because of concerns about water quality. The race was revived, and then canned again, in the late 80s.

During summer, the EPA and Melbourne Water monitor water quality in the river and display the results on the Yarra Watch website. This week the water was suitable for swimming at Kew, Warrandyte and Launching Place in the Upper Yarra. It is illegal to swim in the Yarra downstream of Gipps Street, in Abbotsford.

For the last three years, Dr David McCarthy, from Monash University, has been studying the microbes in the river that could affect human health. His research won’t be complete for another year, but he says water quality deteriorates after rain, when stormwater flows into the river, bringing contaminants from our streets. In very heavy rains, the sewer system overflows into the waterways.

Dr McCarthy says one long-term solution to poor water quality is better stormwater treatment – to capture and treat rainfall where it lands, before it is released into the environment.

The Labor government has proposed new legislation, the Yarra River Protection Act, to guard against overdevelopment along the river’s banks.

Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly says the new approach must be broader than planning alone. “The river falls on the edge of many people’s responsibilities but not right in the centre for anyone.”

He is hopeful that the new wave of interest in the river will help the Yarra’s cause. On Facebook, 13,000 people have promised to take part in an “inflatable regatta” on the last Saturday of March. The blow-up boats will launch at Abbotsford and land at Bridge Road in Richmond.

Read this article at The Age online

An enterprising lot

It’s the buzzword across the community, corporate and government sectors, but what is social enterprise? And are those doing good just do-gooders?

PLAZA Palms was once part of the Cairns Colonial Club Resort. Its 71 units, with steep pitched roofs, are clustered on a large 10,000 square metre property, complete with a resort-style pool, only a few kilometres from the Cairns CBD. By 2010, it had fallen into disrepair and disrepute; it became a backpackers’ hostel, then accommodation of last resort.

“I’ve got numerous stories about people who came to this property and never escaped it – never escaped the system,” says Janet Guthrie, its new proprietor.

When Plaza Palms came on the market, Guthrie and her friend Stuart Wright saw opportunity. Both had worked for more than two decades in Aboriginal health and welfare, for government and for non-profits. They’d had enough. They wanted to risk something different.

“What I see is a very tired and lethargic homelessness sector here in this region. In Cairns, the rate of homelessness has increased,” Guthrie says. “I’m like: ‘Sorry, government, your plan is not working’.”

So, in 2011, Plaza Palms became Three Sistas, a for-profit business dedicated to providing affordable crisis and temporary accommodation. Over 270 people, including 44 kids, now live on site. Almost all of them are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Many, Guthrie says, are people “regurgitated through the system”, or mob from Cape York, who’ve come down for hospital appointments “and get trapped here for a number of reasons”.

There’s a café, a convenience store, a coin-operated laundry and a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility. A bus service takes kids to school – but it’s a service for which the parents must pay. Tenants are on six-month leases; as part of the deal no alcohol or drugs are allowed on site and visitors mustn’t stay past 10 pm. Three Sistas employs seven people, each of whom had been long-term unemployed.

This year, construction will begin on 20 new units to serve as patient travel accommodation – for that, Three Sistas has partnered with Indigenous health organisations in the Far North.

“We don’t receive any government funding,” Guthrie explains. “We don’t want any, simply because we see what happens to organisations that do. We never want to become complacent. We know we have to work hard everyday to produce income to keep our model alive.”

Three Sistas is a social enterprise.

It’s one of a growing movement. At a time when corporate capitalism roars as the engine of catastrophic inequality and environmental degradation, social enterprise has moved beyond buzzword to great hope. Here’s an answer for our throbbing mess: business for good.

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish,” said Bill Drayton, social entrepreneur, academic and founder of the Ashoka Foundation. “They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.”

Drayton, an American, did more than anyone to popularise the concept throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and his is one of the most cited quotes about social enterprise. But his choice of analogy prompts reflection, for aren’t the oceans already overfished? And in whose interests would a revolution be – the industry or the people? Can it be both?

*

Jo Barraket had been an environmental activist until, in the early 1990s, cooperatives caught her interest – self-funded, they seemed better able to pursue their own ends than the grant-driven organisations she’d worked with. Later, Barraket switched to academia and wrote her PhD on the social and political dimensions of the cooperative movement. She describes coops as “the original form of social enterprise: they’re member-owned businesses that exist to meet some unmet need”.

So began Barraket’s “research fascination” with all kinds of social enterprise. She emphasises, however, that she’s not a wide-eyed advocate. “Just like any other citizen, I think some forms of social enterprise are fantastic, and some are frankly not my cup of tea. I do think that needs to be acknowledged.”

She waited ten years for the sector to collect some information about itself; until, impatient with waiting, she did it herself. The research, conducted in 2010 with Social Traders, suggested there were about 20,000 social enterprises in Australia, working in every industry of the economy.

Professor Barraket, now director of Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact, is updating that study. While it’s too early to interpret the data, she will venture that “social enterprise is alive and well”.

But – ahem – what exactly is a social enterprise?

 It’s a matter of debate. British social enterprise expert David Floyd cites folklore that Londoners are never more than six feet away from a rat. Likewise, he says, at a social enterprise conference you’re never more than six minutes away from “the social enterprise definition debate”.

Prompted by her Australian research, Professor Barraket adopted a big tent approach: social enterprises are organisations that exist to serve a public benefit, trade to do so, and plough a substantial part of their profit or surplus into fulfilling their mission. That might include charity op shops, community-owned wind farms, or cafes waited by refugees; fair trade chocolatiers, healthcare cooperatives, or recycling businesses staffed by people with disabilities.

She notes that her interpretation is broad enough to include Sanitarium, the large food company wholly owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“Just being a social enterprise does not indicate that it’s more socially progressive than the thing next door,” Barraket says. “One person’s social purpose might be seen by another as quite regressive, depending on what their values are.”

The Big Issue – which is one of Australia’s best known social enterprises – employs a stricter definition: social enterprises should be not-for-profit and create work for marginalised people.

“There can only be one first principle – either shareholder return, or social benefit,” explains The Big Issue’s CEO Stephen Persson. “We all know businesses that will jettison environmental, social, or employment outcomes to ensure they deliver the profits that are expected.

“Our first obligation is not to make more and more profit, but to deliver a social return – and not go broke in the process,” Persson says.

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, based at Oxford University, takes another line. It holds a torch for the entrepreneurs, not the enterprise. Its director, Dr Pamela Hartigan, is adamant that the two are different. A social entrepreneur pursues transformational change. A social enterprise may or may not; it could just chase money to support a charity’s existing programs.

Recently, Floyd, the British social enterprise blogger, has written that the definition debate has migrated upstream, to the academics and investors. Practitioners are too busy trying to keep their businesses afloat. But by anyone’s definition, more people are trying – and talking about – social enterprise.

Professor Barraket links its popularity to the rise of ethical consumption and the desire, especially among younger people, for workplaces where you don’t have to check your values at the office door. Social enterprises have also been “manufactured” by governments, she says, as they shift to market models of governing: outsourcing and devolving services to private providers. Traditional charities, too, are seeking new ways to secure their funding.

“We’re experiencing a contraction of resources relative to social demands in most societies in a complex world,” Barraket says. “That environment lends itself towards new thinking about social interventions and about business models.”

In this territory the role of social enterprise becomes fraught, liable to accusations of complicity in creating the disadvantage it seeks to address. In the UK, Conservative prime minister David Cameron has championed social enterprise as part of his vision for “Big Society”; it’s a key plank in his plan to slash budgets. Local governments’ discretionary spending will fall by two-thirds by 2020, leaving civil society to pick up the slack.

Persson foresees a similar situation in Australia: our aging population means fewer tax dollars will support growing social need. “The government should and will, I hope, always provide these services in part, but the economics will be really challenging. Unless we come up with different methodologies to deliver services sustainably, we’re leaving those people on the margins in a desperate situation,” he says.

As well as supporting street vendors to sell magazines, The Big Issue runs women’s subscription and school talks programs. One of its latest initiatives is The Big Idea, a competition in which university students spend a semester developing a business plan for a social enterprise. This year’s winners, from Central Queensland University, were Angus Hughes, Jessica Kahl and Mattison Rose, engineering students who devised The Shelter Project, flat-pack emergency housing made from pallets.

It’s one of several such incubators, including programs run by the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Impact Academy and Social Traders – where every month, about two-dozen people attend introductory workshops. “The first message we communicate,” explains Mark Daniels, its head of market development, “is that if you’re not prepared to run a small business, which involves worrying about wages and taking a risk, then social enterprise probably isn’t for you.

“People fall in love with the social side, but our key advice would be you’ve got to be really good at business to run one of these.”

His organisation founded the Social Enterprise Awards in 2013, and that year, the prize for “Youth-led Social Enterprise of the Year” went to Thankyou Water, a bottled-water business that devotes its profits to water aid projects. It has expanded into muesli, soaps and hand creams.

For Daniels, Thankyou is the perfect example of scalable commerce. “Now they’re in Coles and Woolworths they’re reinvesting millions every year, because they built a really strong business proposition,” he says.

Bottled-water is popular, but it’s a dubious product, banned in one Australian town, as well as a few schools and campuses. Its production and distribution wastes water and energy; its consequences are more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more plastic in the oceans. Consumer advocate Choice estimates that it is almost 2000 times more expensive than tap water.

The business has reverberations, but measuring them makes for a difficult and contested calculus. While it is a brave observer who casts judgement, there is certainly cause for contemplation, not only celebration.

Throughout 2013, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council coordinated a seminar series called Reconstructing Social Enterprise, presented by experts with “a critical yet sympathetic perspective”.

In the first seminar, Pascal Dey and Chris Steyaert, from the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, called on academics to ditch their “rose-tinted view” and instead, to provoke and intervene: to engage in “myth-busting” about the connection of “social enterprise to system-wide social change or to the sweeping eradication of the intricate problems of our era”; to interrogate failures; to question how social enterprise is used by people in power; to analyse how it contributes to the common good – are market solutions the best way to solve the ills of a market society?

Alan Greig has spent decades investigating and championing all kinds of ways to do business for good. Among other roles, he’s a director of Social Business Australia. With long experience, he’s both enthusiast and cynic.

Social enterprise can be part of the mainstream economy, he says. “It’s not your everyday business of empowering and enriching the individuals who set it up. It’s about empowering and enriching communities.”

As an advocate for cooperatives, and employee- and community-ownership, however, Greig is sceptical of the notion of an entrepreneur as a lone social hero – as in Bill Drayton’s quote about fishing and revolutions. “It attracts a certain kind of determined individual wanting to change the world by ‘doing good’,” he says. “But I’d like to see more emphasis on group enterprises where the focus is more economic – on tackling inequality by using business ownership to share wealth more broadly, for instance.”

Greig is also a member of a working group charged with investigating legal models for social enterprises here and overseas.

In the United States, registered “benefit corporations” have a special legal status recognising that there’s more to their business than the bottom line. There’s a similar model in the UK, called “community interest companies”. Both enshrine the businesses’ social and environmental purposes and guard against mission-creep. In the UK, they can sell shares, but the company can’t be wound up or merged for the personal gain of the shareholders.

“There are massive reforms happening in all the Anglo countries,” Greig says. “Australia is just very backward with these things.”

*

In October, Three Sistas became a certified ‘B Corp’, a voluntary, international standard for good business practice. There’s no special legal status attached and not all B Corps would be considered social enterprises, but for a fee, you can be assessed for social and environmental performance. Three Sistas’ score placed it the highest in Australia and among the best in the world.

And yet, it has not been received benignly: Guthrie says they’ve been criticised by other service providers, accused of profiteering from poor people. She sought B Corp status to help demonstrate their accountability to their community.

Their enterprise is still young, but Guthrie is ready to offer a verdict: “It works”. From their experiences, she and Wright spied a business opportunity to answer a social question: a way to make a living and a difference.

She believes there’s no contradiction, in their case. In fact, the nature of social enterprise will help it succeed: while government contracts and handouts breed complacency elsewhere, she says, Three Sistas’ tenants are free will vote with their feet. She has to do a good job.

“We’ve got skin in the game. Everything I own is tied up in this business. If this fails for me, there goes my children’s future,” Guthrie says. “It’s a case that it won’t fail, because I can’t allow it to.”

 

An edited version of this article was published in The Big Issue, No. 476.

Decisions by the people

It was a bold experiment in democracy: asking 43 citizens to help shape the Melbourne City Council’s $5 billion, 10-year financial plan. How did it go?

WHEN Shuwen Ling received the letter from the City of Melbourne, she thought it was spam. Or maybe it was a fine? “It was on good quality paper,” she explains. “But when I read it carefully, I thought: ‘This is pretty cool’.”

Ling is nearly 20 years old and it’s three years since she left her hometown, a few hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She studies finance and civil engineering at the University of Melbourne and lives in an apartment near the Vic Market.

She was one of 6,500 people who received the letter, 600 who responded, and finally, 43 who were randomly selected to reflect the city’s demographics. Their task? To make recommendations on the council’s budget for its first ever 10-year financial plan – spending that is worth, in sum, up to $5 billion.

It’s an experiment in “participatory budgeting”, a subset of the political theory known as “deliberative democracy”.

Citizens’ juries, such as this one, are being used increasingly often around the world. They’re another kind of representative democracy, one that steers policy making away from the entrenched positions of political parties, lobbyists and squeaky wheels, and towards the considered voices of ordinary, well-informed citizens.

In Melbourne, the “People’s Panel” was coordinated by the newDemocracy Foundation, a not-for-profit research organisation that says it’s aiming to move our democracy out of “the continuous campaign cycle”.

The panellists were posed this question: “How can we remain one of the most liveable cities in the world while addressing our future financial challenges?”

I spoke with five of them, including Ling, from the panel’s inception to its aftermath. The process began in August, and in the following weeks, they spent six Saturdays hearing evidence from councillors, staff and experts of their own choosing. They read reports, did sums, asked questions, and wrangled over the answers. It was a bigger commitment than they’d expected, but most poured themselves into the challenge. Would the council act on their recommendations? 

Councillor Stephen Mayne is the chair of the city’s finance and governance committee. He says there’s a “genuine malaise” in our democracy, one we suffer in our municipalities just as much as in the state and federal arenas. “People are jaundiced about politics. There is quite a bit of disengagement and a lot of negativity. This is a model that potentially rebuilds trust and engagement.

“As long as I’m on council I’ll be pushing to implement a credible amount of the recommendations,” Mayne said, before the panel had finished its deliberations. “I think that if you give 50 people a lot of information, just like with juries, they’ll usually get it pretty right.”

*

When Maria Petricevic entered the first session, she felt a little intimated. Dr Petricevic is a Collins Street dentist – her practice overlooks the town hall. “I was scanning the room and thinking: ‘Are other people better informed than I am?’”

She is enthusiastic about Melbourne – throughout university, for seven years commuting on the V/Line train from Geelong, she dreamed of one-day moving north. “I just love this city,” she says.

By the second session, she felt more confident about her ability to contribute, but slightly overwhelmed by all the information. “It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Petricevic said in the lunch break. “I just have so much more insight into how much goes into operating a city”.

It was a bright Saturday in September and the panellists were gathered in a grand room on the lower level of the Melbourne Town Hall. Through the windows, you could see the legs of pedestrians and the bodies of trams passing by on Swanston Street.

The City of Melbourne’s chief finance officer, Phu Nguyen, gave the group a rundown on the current budget, and its longer-term projections. “We’ve reached a level of what I call ‘Peak Parking Revenue’,” he said. “People are complying more than they used to.”

He laid out the broad challenges for the city over the coming decade, all with implications for the bottom line: rapid population growth, climate change, technological transformation and economic uncertainty.

The renewal of the Queen Victoria Market site could cost up to $250 million, and serious upgrades to infrastructure and facilities will be required. On current estimates, he said, the council will fall short of cash.

The panellists split into small groups for a “speed dating” session with councillors and senior staff. With the weight of town hall above them, and established voices in their ears, it was hard to imagine the panel’s advice straying too far from the status quo.

But one of the panellists, Hani Akaoui, an architect with a thin moustache, a considered manner and an office at the top end of Bourke Street, noted that his fellow citizens weren’t shy about asking critical questions. “We want to be informed,” he said.

Cr Mayne used the speed dating to pitch his agenda, including rate rises, more efficient staffing practices, and selling Citywide, the council’s wholly-owned waste service company. “I can see the potential political power of the recommendations, so I was very keen to push them to focus on the big material issues,” he said later. Some were swayed, others irked; all noted his forceful approach. (The panel recommended against selling Citywide.)

For the third session, the panellists were able to request any experts they wanted – among those chosen were demographer Bernard Salt and climate scientist Graeme Pearman.

In the break, Bruce Shaw, a barrister who lives in Southbank, expressed his scepticism about the ubiquitous cheerleading for the city: “If I hear one more person say Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city, I’m going to scream.” (Later, he did – quietly.)

While they aren’t hemmed in by party politics, the panellists do bring their own concerns. Shaw thinks our public transport is poor, especially the sluggish trams, and must be made more reliable. Ling was interested in high-rise developments – her dad is a property developer in Malaysia. In Melbourne, she thinks, there are too many new towers, too tall and too small inside.

Renee Hill recently moved to Kensington with her partner. She works in marketing in the finance industry, and her primary worry is about how the city is promoting sustainability and preparing for climate change. “If we don’t start planning now, we won’t be in a position to deal with it,” she says. “That’s really top of mind for me.”

This represented one of the main struggles for the panel. The council’s powers are constrained. Decision-making on critical issues such as public transport, planning for big buildings and systemic responses to climate change all rest elsewhere.

“We always have to remember that the purpose of the exercise is to improve the budget of the city,” Akaoui says. “It’s not theoretical, and it’s not master planning; it’s literally financial.”

An annual budget of $400 million takes some reckoning. Can the hoi polloi analyse it? And can they do it on Saturdays?

Professor John Dryzek, from University of Canberra, is one of the world’s experts on deliberative democracy. He says there’s been an “explosion” of citizens’ forums in the last decade, and experience has proven lay people worthy of the task.

“All you need to do is give people time,” Dryzek says. “Give them access to information, enable them to ask questions of the experts and people really can get their head around incredibly complex issues.”

The Danish Board of Technology has been running these juries for 20 years, seeking citizen’s views on controversial issues such as genetically modified food and electronic surveillance. Recently, South Australian premier Jay Weatherill has convened deliberative panels on questions of how to reduce alcohol-related violence and how motorists and cyclists can share roads.

Participatory budgeting, too, has a rich recent tradition. It began in 1989 in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, where thousands of citizens participate in directing an average of about US$70 million from the city’s budget.

Earlier this year, the Darebin City Council in Melbourne’s north convened a citizen’s jury to direct $2 million in spending on community infrastructure. The residents returned with eight recommendations, including a new neighbourhood house, exercise equipment and sports courts.

Dryzek says citizen’s juries are a way of refreshing our political realm and injecting qualities otherwise in short supply, such as listening and reflection. “Australian parliament in particular is unremittingly adversarial,” he says. “People are interested in scoring points rather than really seriously reflecting upon the issues.”

Each jury requires careful planning and hard decisions about demographics. The task of making the panel demographically representative is not straightforward. Age and gender splits are obligatory, but what about wealth, ethnicity or sexuality?

In Melbourne, there are over 116,000 residents and nearly 18,000 businesses, but two-thirds of rates revenue comes from the latter. The facilitators, newDemocracy Foundation, recommended that the People’s Panel should comprise an even split of residents and non-residents (both business owners and workers). As a consequence, 60 per cent of the panellists were male – a proportion said to reflect the over-representation of men in CBD businesses.

Professor Dryzek describes the high proportion of non-resident panellists as “very unusual”. Iain Walker, the foundation’s CEO, says representation among the 40-odd panellists is descriptive rather than statistically exact. “The test for the community is: ‘Do I see people like me involved?’”

*

On the fifth Saturday, the citizens deliberated. But they didn’t finish, so they had to return for an unscheduled sixth day. To pass a recommendation, the panel required 80 per cent agreement. Each person was given an electronic voting paddle and five options from “Love it” to “Loathe it”. The results flashed on the projector screen immediately.

This process – the jury’s deliberation – is the system’s promise, its claim to legitimacy. For outsiders, however, its merits were impossible to judge. The panellists had resolved that in order for everyone to feel comfortable venturing their opinions, they would close some sessions to observers. And so, whenever they were debating or voting, they excluded their fellow citizens.

Shaw maintains that when the room was closed, no one dominated. “The word ‘democracy’ describes it well,” he says. “Whether or not the council will regret it is another thing.”

Ling observed that some people who came with strong opinions softened them, or compromised significantly. The facilitators instructed voters to apply the following test before spiking a proposal: “Can you live with it?”

For the most part, agreement came easily. “There’s been a lot more consensus than I expected,” Hill reflected.

On the final day, as the clock ticked, the pressure rose. “The people who were pushing wacky ideas saw that the game was up,” Shaw says. “We finished up with a good report, with a realistic number of ideas presented fairly.”

Their 11 recommendations, released in mid-November, include proposing rate rises each year of up to 2.5 per cent above inflation, more spending on mitigating and adapting to climate change, extra bike paths, selling “non-core” properties, reducing new capital works and pressing the state government for a higher tax on developers.

*

There’s a pitfall common to many of the citizen’s juries, however: their recommendations are often ignored. In this case, the council promised the People’s Panel a formal response at its meeting on November 25. At the council meeting, Mayne was effusive as he presented the official reply: “I think they’re excellent recommendations,” he said.

The councillors postponed their response, however, and instead, referred the proposals to staff for analysis and modelling. When the council’s draft 10-year financial plan is released in April, the panel’s report will be included in its entirety, along with an explanation about whether or not each recommendation has been adopted.

Hani Akaoui was in the gallery – he’d returned early, especially, from a business trip to Sydney. He was pleased with the outcome. On the question of rates, he believes increases are reasonable. “The overall mood of the panel was that the council is doing a good job. We’re happy with the city and we want to keep it at the forefront.”

Among the panellists, the process engendered loyalty and pride – and, also, not a little chagrin that they weren’t given more time. But they had an opportunity to participate, deeply and meaningfully, in civic debate.

“You really should know that people have been so passionate and committed to participating,” Maria Petricevic says, citing evidence: one man sent his views by text message from hospital, where his wife was in labour; another woman was undergoing chemotherapy, but continued to attend.

Petricevic feels like she has made a contribution to the city she loves. She’s also gained trust in the council for its commitment to community engagement. “Other levels of government could take a leaf out of that book,” she says.

Ling will – “probably, hopefully” – still be here in a decade, but if not, perhaps her younger brother will instead. She, too, feels she’s made a contribution to the community, and it has kindled her interest in the affairs of her adopted city.

Now this panel is over, Akaoui believes others should begin. “I think this shouldn’t be done once in a blue moon,” he says. “It should be done every year.”

Read a version of this article at The Age online

 

 

Interview with Kevin Anderson

LAST weekend, the G20 leaders agreed to increase economic growth by an extra 2 per cent or more. It’s a strange promise – if it was in their power to increase growth by that much, I’m sure they would have been doing it anyway.

It’s also strange because of the troubling relationship between economic growth, as we know it, and carbon dioxide emissions.

So with those conundrums in mind, here’s an edited version of an interview I did early this year with climate scientist Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. I interviewed him for a newspaper article that was scrapped before I’d even finished my research, so I never got to write it up.

Anderson wrote a blog late last year stating that if we’re to keep a good chance of staying within 2 degrees warming, rich countries need to cut emissions by up to 10 per cent per year. Reductions of that magnitude are likely to require economic contraction, or degrowth – at least temporarily.

I asked him about that blog:

KA: It caused quite a stir. Almost everyday I get someone responding. I think it’s opened a dialogue which I think was being held back before. It came out of the climate change data and the maths are so blatantly obvious that people cannot argue against the simple numbers: the industrialised countries require degrowth strategies for 2 degrees C. There’s no way out of that.

“We have an inevitably radical future”

My own judgement now is that a lot of people don’t like the conclusions, but don’t necessarily disagree with the analysis. That is not a good enough reason not to have it as part of the debate.

This ties into an already existing language and literature, whether it’s from ecological economics or Herman Daly with his steady state economics and so forth, there have been a lot of people talking about these things for decades. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get ripped to shreds by people for even discussing it. That still happens, but nevertheless, I think there is now sufficient momentum to allow it to actually become part of the discussion – although very much a minority part of it.

MG: Your carve up of the carbon budget requires rich countries to cut emissions deeply – by 8 to 10 per cent per year.

KA: The important thing about those reduction rates is that they work if we start doing it immediately. Ideally we should have started some little time ago. It’s a few years out of date, but we know that we’re always further along the line than we were when the data ended. Every year we fail, that percentage rate goes up.

MG: And of the rich countries, Australia would be at the upper end of that scale, given its high per capita emissions?

KA: I think you can make quite a good set of reasoned arguments as to why some of the high emitting countries on aggregate – the US, Qatar, Australia – would have to do more than the others. Australia would be at that end, at least.

MG: One reason the rich countries need to cut emissions so fast is that you assume China will peak later – in 2025 – than most of the other modelling does, including that by the Climate Change Authority here in Australia. Is that unrealistic? Do we need China to do more to cut emissions than you’re suggesting?

KA: Realistic is a word we use that applies to the thinking of the last century. We hear that all the time: ‘This is clearly impossible.’ Well, oh fine, we’re in an impossible world now. Can we deal with 3, 4 or 5 degrees C? Well almost certainly not in any reasonable fashion. Can we mitigate for 2 degrees C? Well if we have the same mindset, then certainly not, either. In that sense, I would argue the future is impossible. It’s unrealistic.

We should have done something about that earlier. But we are where we are now and we have to think differently. The argument I often make is that we have an inevitably radical future. Now, whether it’s radical because we’re doing radical mitigation and we have some control over the levels of climate change we are going to see, or whether it’s radical because we just carry on doing what we do now and we have to reap the repercussions of rapidly changing climate, both of them are radical futures. Both are unrealistic with the current mindset.

On China – I think it’s more realistic to say the wealthy parts of the world should be looking to radically reduce their emissions rather than to expect China to peak before 2025. You have to bear in mind that a lot of the emissions attributed to China and others of the industrialising countries are actually the responsibility of the west, from a consumption perspective – and I’m sure this goes for Australia, because it also imports a lot of manufactured goods.

Really, China should be permitted even longer to peak, but we cannot apply a fair and equitable system because we’ve got to the point where it is inevitably unfair and inequitable.

The historical legacy is such that Australia, the EU, the US, we still owe a huge amount because of what we’ve done. Although China’s emissions are heading in our direction now, if you look at the cumulative emissions per capita they’re much, much lower than the west, and that feeds into development and so forth. So it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to just look at instantaneous per capita emissions and then say China should be peaking earlier. They are clearly still a poor country in terms of development. Their GDP per capita is still much lower and their purchasing power parity is much lower than Australia or the EU.

MG: The world’s governments have agreed to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees. In Australia, we continue to claim that’s our aim, but we also promise very limited emissions reductions. How do we make sense of that contradiction?

KA: That same gap is occurring everywhere. The EU here has just agreed a 40 per cent reduction target by 2030. It then claims that is consistent with a 2-degree trending for the EU, which it isn’t at all. What’s required is nearer 80 per cent. We probably have more appropriate rhetoric here than you have. But the action isn’t any better.

MG: Do we have an idea of what would be necessary to reduce emissions so rapidly? What’s life like for a human in that society?

KA: It’s inevitably a woolly discussion about what that sort of future would look like. But I think you can start to hone it down a little bit in terms of the internal equity within countries. One of the arguments I’ve made repeatedly is that even within nations, the differential in our emissions is absolutely enormous.

So we are not necessarily saying everyone in the UK or Australia has to reduce at that rate. Those people who are the major emitters, they are the ones that need to make the lion’s share of the change. It may well even be, even within a country that is having rapid reductions in emissions, that some of the poorest people may still see no change or even perhaps a rise in their emissions.

The scare tactic is to say that this will apply to everyone, so even if they’re in fuel poverty, they’re going to have to cut back or see dramatic increase in the price of their fuel. As academics in the UK, we’re getting paid three or four times the low salary. It is people like us who have to make the radical changes, not the poorest 20 per cent of our societies.

MG: What kind of policy measures might be necessary to reduce emissions by up to 10 per cent a year?

KA: I think it’s unlikely you can deliver these rates of change with a price mechanism. I would go so far as to say there is no evidence to suggest it’s in any way possible with price, because the price would have to be so high. For those of us who are the main emitters, we are effectively inelastic to the price of energy. The poorer people in our own communities and the poor people globally are highly elastic to it and if the price of energy goes up significantly because of a carbon price, they will be in even more dire positions than they are today. In countries like the UK won’t be able to heat their houses or drive at all.

“We can do things that are seen to be radically different”

I think the price route is going to be re-thought. The argument we’re making is that we need a regulatory framework, maybe complemented with prices as well. From a UK perspective, that sounds like a throwback, but we have to think about regulations differently. They’re about standards, not about picking winners. It isn’t the role of policymakers to say which technology; they usually get that wrong anyway. They set the standards and say you can use whatever technology you want as long as it meets these standards.

The work we’ve done at the Tyndal Centre here with some of my colleagues has been very much at a sectoral level, without looking necessarily at the whole economy. But it does suggest there is huge potential for emissions reductions.

In the UK, 80 to 90 per cent of all kilometres are travelled by cars that are 8 years or under old. So within 8 years you can change virtually the whole fleet. That’s a very quick turnaround time. So what can you change it to? Using existing cars, in the UK there are now around 300 models available with emissions below 100 grams of CO2 per kilometre. The average car in the UK is something like 168. If you had a standard that said no car beyond 2015 that was more than 100, then you would have about a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in car emissions within about ten years. With no new technologies, no new infrastructure and no additional price in the system.

You’d get a much bigger saving in places like the US and Australia because you start with cars that are much more inefficient. That’s an example where we could carry on doing exactly what we’re doing, with existing technologies, existing skill sets, and see radical reductions in emissions. You can do it with refrigerators too. Within 8 years you could change out most of the fridges in UK homes and radically reduce our emissions from refrigeration. There are no price premiums on these things.

There are lots of reasons we’re not doing it. In the UK, it’s this old concept of choice: we cannot interfere with the market. As long as we put a label on it, people can choose what they want. And that mindset means that we cannot set standards, we cannot use a regulatory framework to drive down emissions even using existing technologies.

MG: But is efficiency enough to get the kinds of emissions reductions we need?

KA: No, nothing like it. But the demand side is really important and generally gets missed because people talk about wind turbines or tidal schemes or solar or nuclear power. They always talk about these big schemes, but they will take a long time – decadal penetration rates really.

All I’m saying here is the demand technologies penetrate the systems much, much quicker and can deliver huge savings, but only if we can overcome the rebound effect. What policies we can put in place to ensure any savings we make are not just squandered by us then using the money for more consumption? That’s really important. I think those policies will vary depending on the cultural framing of each country.

It wasn’t that long ago that we bathed once a week in the UK. We then started to shower two or three times every week. We now have power showers and people use power showers often twice a day now. We moved towards showers partly for energy reasons many years ago and actually our showers now use far more energy than our baths ever used. We’ve normalised the idea we have to shower once or twice a day, which means we have to buy more clothes, we have to wash our clothes more often, so you get a whole suite of things that build up. These practices are things that are normalised and we say we can’t change them. We need to actively think about the practice we’re embedding in our societies, particularly for poorer parts of the world who can avoid locking themselves into some of the more stupid things we’ve got ourselves locked into.

MG: We don’t seem to be anywhere near having that kind of public conversation. There are all sorts of issues with degrowth we aren’t delving into, right? Like what would happen to our debt-based financial system?

KA: I wonder if we use those things as an excuse for not having bigger discussions. We’re looking at climate change now against the backdrop in which many industrialised countries are having to do things quite differently anyway, because of the economic situation we find ourselves in.

Unfortunately, we tried to resolve what were the biggest banking issues since the 1930s with the same sets of tools that brought about the problem in the first place. We could have retrofitted every single property and to a very high level for the money we gave back to the banks. That would have helped with employment; it would have helped with reinvesting the money back into the economy; it would have helped with resilience to the changing climate; it would have helped fuel poverty. There’s virtually nothing that doesn’t get a tick on that. And yet what we did is we gave the money to the banks.

We are having to think differently in the environment we’re in today, even about our established organisations, so why not think a bit more differently about how we actually deal with these issues? When people say these things are impossible, it at least gives us a chance to turn around and say, ‘Well they weren’t impossible when we had to deal with it from a banking point of view’.

We can do things that are seen to be radically different. I think the agenda is moving. It is moving on to allow us to think about things that were previously just dismissed out of hand. Where people would once say this isn’t possible, I think now the analysis is being undertaken to say: ‘Well, what could be achieved?’

You can find more of Anderson’s work on his website. Or, see the recordings from the Tyndall Centre’s Radical Emission Reduction Conference last December.

Renewable energy: power to the people

Locally-owned renewables are shaking up the energy market. Will government and industry join the party or try to shut it down?

CHEWTON Primary School – student population 40 – perches on a hill above the houses of the small Central Victorian town, which borders on Castlemaine.

Before the year is out, its red tin roof will be home to solar panels facing east and west, positioned to best offset its demand. The school is crowdfunding for a renewable energy system, by way of a new scheme called The People’s Solar.

“Our savings won’t go back into the big bucket,” says principal Julie Holden. “They won’t be used for staffing and books.” She’s promising to fund environmental initiatives by students around the town instead, as well as more energy efficiency improvements for the buildings.

Modest though its goal sounds, Chewton Primary is one front in a revolution.

In a speech in mid-October, Michelle Groves, CEO of the Australian Energy Regulator, described the coming change in the electricity industry that way: “a revolution”.

Revolutions can seem threatening at first, but they also present opportunities,” she said.

In her speech, delivered to the Energy Users Association of Australia conference, she was discussing the rise of “prosumers” – consumers of electricity who are now also producers. Over a million households have installed solar panels in the last few years, she said, and that’s a good thing: along with smart appliances and batteries, this wave of solar generation is increasing both customer choice and the resilience of the electricity network.

But she warned that if existing networks resist these new, competing technologies, “there is a risk that a significant number of consumers will ‘walk away’ from the network”.

That is, they’ll leave the grid altogether, in favour of their own generation and storage, leaving its fixed costs to be defrayed among fewer users. “This would have major consequences for many consumers and for the efficient operation of energy markets,” Groves said.

Solar photovoltaic panels are booming for good reason. They’re a consumer item of malleable meaning, alluring for stubborn individualists and climate change activists alike.

But for a growing number of people, renewable energy promises something even more: an opportunity to rejuvenate communities and create local jobs. All around the country, volunteers are planning energy systems that will be owned by their community, covering a scale from single rooftops to entire towns.

“The buzz phrase is that solar power is democratising the energy market,” says Tosh Szatow, the founder of the People’s Solar, as well as a consultancy called Energy for the People. “But the democracy we’ve got isn’t serving our interests. This is something more – it’s energy owned by people, serving interests defined by those communities themselves.”

Around Castlemaine and districts, in particular, the solar citizens are rallying.

It’s a cloudless Sunday morning at Chewton Primary. Szatow explains the People’s Solar to his audience: “If the community gives the solar panels once, those panels will give back to the community for 25 years. So we turn $8000 of donations into $25,000, or more, of reinvestment in the town.”

Szatow is wearing a blue t-shirt bearing the slogan: “Stick it where the sun shines”. The event is called “Going off the grid” and it’s doubling as a fundraiser for the primary school’s panels. The People’s Solar has already overseen the installation of community-funded panels at Taradale Primary and Castlemaine Childcare Co-operative.

The region is becoming a hotspot for grid-connected solar households. In August, over 300 residents signed up for new rooftop systems by way of a not-for-profit, bulk-buying scheme called Mount Alexander Solar Homes.

Beforehand, Castlemaine already boasted nearly double the statewide proportion of solar houses, says the scheme’s coordinator, Neil Barrett. Because the new systems are much larger than most pre-existing ones, in total they’ll lift the shire’s solar generation capacity by up to a quarter. “It’s been a ripper,” he says. “It’s employed a lot of people for four or five months. We’re taking expressions of interest for a possible second stage.”

Volunteers with another organisation, the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group, are investigating renewable generation on an even larger scale. They’re scoping a range of options, including a solar farm, small-scale hydro and biofuels generation, which would account for a quarter of the shire’s total electricity consumption. They are planning to establish their project as a co-operative, majority-owned by locals.

The group has adopted the same model used by Hepburn Wind, a community wind farm that has been generating power since 2011. Its two turbines feed enough electricity into the grid to more than match the needs of nearby towns Daylesford and Hepburn.

Taryn Lane is the community officer for Hepburn Wind. She also works for its spinoff, Embark, which was founded to help similar projects start up. Right now, she says, the best option for community groups is solar, because there are several viable models, from bulk buys and donations, to investing in powering the local pub. There are at least ten community groups across the state working on it, from the Surf Coast to East Gippsland, and fifty around the country.

The outlook for wind, however, is grim. The federal government’s decisions to scrap the carbon tax, and review and reduce the Renewable Energy Target have slashed the co-operative’s earnings.

The Victorian government hasn’t helped. Its sudden blanket ban on wind power in the Macedon Ranges (among other locations), imposed in 2011, scuppered locals’ plans for three turbines in a nearby pine plantation. Previously, the community group had received a government grant for a wind monitoring mast.

“It’s a bit of a mess isn’t it?” says Lane. “It shouldn’t be this hard.”

She argues that the state government should exempt community-owned projects from the wind “no-go zones”. It should also introduce a state-based renewable energy target and establish a feed-in-tariff for community-owned solar – policy measures that have already been adopted in South Australia and the ACT.

But as the state election approaches, there’s no sign of change. In mid-October, the Napthine government released its energy policy. Renewable energy wasn’t listed among its seven priorities. The state Labor party has promised to review the wind no-go zones and other planning restrictions, and also, to expand renewable energy, but hasn’t announced how it’ll do so.

North of the Murray, the signs are more encouraging. The New South Wales government, also Liberal, has emerged as an unlikely champion of community-owned energy.

Last Thursday, Rob Stokes, the NSW environment minister, will launch the “Repower One” project, a 99 kW solar array on the roof of the Shoalhaven Bowling and Recreation Club.

He also announced a new round of grants worth $700,000 for community energy projects. Last year, the NSW government awarded $411,000 to nine different community-owned wind and solar farms.

The solar panels on the bowls club are an initiative of volunteer group Repower Shoalhaven. On the strength of countless volunteer hours, they managed to locate a profitable oasis in the regulatory morass, explains Chris Cooper, the group’s founder.

They raised $120,000 in ten days. More than half the investors are locals and Cooper says it’ll deliver them a good commercial return. The bowls club, too, stands to come out several hundred thousand dollars ahead over the life of the system.

Repower Shoalhaven is planning on doing it again and again – cuts to the RET notwithstanding. Already, they’re in discussions about rooftops on local universities, high schools, ambulance buildings and water authorities. “We hope to get another one up by Christmas,” Cooper says. “Every three months we aim to get another project out to our members and investors.”

Elsewhere in NSW, the government is sponsoring a project to establish Australia’s first “Zero Net Energy Town”. The winning town, somewhere in the northern inland region, will be announced in mid-November. It’ll be funded to develop a blueprint and business case to switch to 100 per cent, locally generated renewable energy.

The scheme’s coordinator, Adam Blakester, from Starfish Initiatives, a charity that works on regional sustainability, says the public shouldn’t underestimate the scale of projects, and the ambitions of those involved.

“Most people think community and they think cute and little,” he says. “People haven’t yet understood that this is about serious projects with serious engineering, money, law, governance and marketing. And it’s got to be one of the most professionally overqualified sectors I’ve ever worked in – it’s a long way from the lamington drive part of the community sector.”

All that knowhow goes only so far, however, because the challenge isn’t only technical; it’s also regulatory. Now, over half our electricity bills are consumed by distribution, he says, and the regulated charges are the same no matter how far the electricity travels. Local energy systems, especially in the regions, have the potential to cut those costs – if they’re allowed to.

“Until now, regulation has been about ensuring the generators and network operators don’t go bankrupt and we always have electricity,” Blakester says. “When you want to fiddle with it, you find out it’s very complex – and you bump into some of the most powerful vested interests in the world.”

Earlier this year, Blakester helped found a peak body, the Coalition for Community Energy, to help lobby for regulatory change. In June, it held a conference in Canberra. One of the speakers was Arno Zengle, the mayor of a village in Bavaria called Wildspoldsried. Last year, the village produced more than four-and-a-half times the electricity it consumed.

“In Germany there are more than 300 towns that have achieved zero net energy status,” Blakester says. “It’s like another planet compared to the centralised energy oligarchy we live in.

“Can we do it in Australia? It’s too soon to be confident the answer is yes. Technically it’s doable, but whether it’s culturally and systemically possible, well, that’s up to us.”

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THE chasm in thinking about our energy future can be traversed in just 12 kilometres in Central Victoria, between the towns of Maldon and Newstead.

Late last month, the state government announced that Maldon, a village of 1500 residents only a short drive from Castlemaine, is going to get gas – by the end of 2017, approximately.

It’s part of the “Energy for the Regions” program, first announced in 2011. The state government’s latest tender, worth $85 million, will fund gas connection for 11 towns across Victoria by way of “virtual pipelines”. Compressed gas will be trucked to a station on the outskirts of each town. From there it’ll be distributed throughout the streets via a brand new pipe network.

The successful contractor, TasGas, a subsidiary of Brookfield Infrastructure Group, says the rollout will cover 12,500 homes and businesses.

In the middle of next year, the company will go on a “roadshow” of the towns, says CEO Roger Ingram, to explain its offer and pitch residents to connect. TasGas is still finalising its numbers, but Ingram estimates that the virtual pipeline will deliver gas 40 per cent cheaper than LPG.

Tony Wood, the energy program director at the Grattan Institute, thinks it will be a hard sell. The institute’s latest report, Gas at the crossroads, speculates that households will, if anything, begin switching away from gas. In the last 5 years, retail gas prices have risen by more than one-third, and they’re expected to rise significantly more. The wholesale price is tipped to double in the next two years.

“If gas prices go up as much as they might, a lot of customers aren’t going to connect after all. Or if they do connect, they’re going to be really pissed off. How would you feel if you connected and gas prices went up by 50 or 100 per cent in a very short space of time?” Wood says.

He describes the government’s spending on Energy for the Regions as “mindboggling”.

The $85 million amounts to a subsidy of $6800 for each house and business that could connect. But in reality, it’s much more. At the take-up rate estimated by TasGas – between 15 and 30 percent over the next decade – the government is shelling out somewhere between $22,667 and $45,333 a pop.

“I’m sure governments must have made worse investments, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head,” Wood says.

The residents of Newstead, 12 kilometres south of Maldon, want something different. For four years, the volunteers comprising “Renewable Newstead” have been working on a plan to become completely powered by renewable energy.

The group began by offering energy audits, which were taken up by 8 out of every ten residents. Then they began looking into creating a local micro-grid, fed by banks of solar panels.

“Our main interest is community building,” explains Geoff Park, from Renewable Newstead. “We’ve got the complete spectrum of views about climate change and sustainability. The number one priority for us is that whatever we do needs to add to the social capital of our community.”

Park anticipates that the scheme would offer electricity to locals at a slight discount from current prices, while also generating cash for to spend elsewhere in the community. And unlike gas, they don’t need the government to pay. A small grant would help scope a plan, but otherwise, it would be a commercial proposition.

Two years ago, when Park contacted the Liberal state government about the idea, he didn’t even get a reply. The group has had similar trouble dealing with the network distributor, Powercor.

Tosh Stzatow is advising Renewable Newstead on its plan to go 100 per cent renewable. He notes that if the money being poured into “Energy for the Regions” – $6800 per house – was spent on solar instead, it would cut an average household’s electricity bills close to zero for over 20 years.

“We really are at a crossroads,” Szatow says. “Every dollar we spend in centralised gas and electricity infrastructure takes us down a road to rising energy prices, non-renewable fuels and extractive business models.

“The other road is locally-owned and managed renewables, with stable or declining energy prices. That’s the one we want to walk down.”

Read this article at The Age online