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Crowd-Funding Could Resolve Energy Poverty

Originally published on RenewEconomy.
By Emma Fitzpatrick.

A clean tech expert is hoping to tap into crowd-funding and community ownership models to help install solar energy and address the soaring costs of dirty fossil fuels in remote Western Australian communities.

Peter Hansford of Regional Cleantech Solutions, recently hosted a community solar forum at Notre Dame University in Broome. It attracted  110 people and $120,000 in pledges for community solar projects.

Hansford in confident that such a model can be used to harness the plentiful solar resources of north-western Australia and he has spoken with five separate indigenous communities in the Kimberley region about such projects.

In the Kimberley region, the average daily usage by household is 34 kWh, compared to 16 kWh across the nation, and can be as high as 50 kWh in the wet season. The cost of energy – mostly sourced from diesel trucked in from regional centres – is also high. Hansford said that in some communities truck in costs and energy bills can reach up to $11,000 per household per year.

Jarlmadangah currently spends around $209,000 on diesel per annum for its town of 70 people, a small school and health clinic. The community of Yakanarra is said to have five months of diesel stockpiled – around 300,000 litres, equating to $600,000.

Looma, just eight kilometres away from Jarlmadangah, has a weekly ‘truck in’ money fund that each working community member must contribute to, totalling around $35 per person, per week.

The Kimberley area also receives a larger than proportional amount of ‘Hardship Utility Grants’ to assist with paying bills, mainly energy bills. Although the Kimberly holds only 0.16% of the Western Australian population in 2010 they received 0.37% of these allocated grants, in 2011 it was 0.30%. These figures are almost two to three times the state average.

Hansford says not only are communities paying huge prices for energy, they are at risk of losing power completely when roads are impassable to diesel tankers.  “It is criminal to have so much of the power generated from the burning of gas and diesel when solar power is so much cheaper and so abundant,” he says..

“Politicians from all the major parties recognize the jobs and energy savings that can be achieved by community solar projects but thus far have lacked projects to support.

Hansford is hoping his projects can link up with larger providers like Horizon energy with a buy back scheme of around 50 cents per kilowatt. Over ten years, costs will most likely be around 12 cents a kilowatt leaving a large gap for community profit in between.

Hansford hopes that the projects will be able to deliver long-term benefits to communities through the re-investment of profits into community facilities such as basketball courts and men’s sheds.

Not only will communities benefit from re-investment but they will also rely less on larger energy providers and local governments and communities can be more self-sufficient and contract only local employees.

Hansford has also been in talks with Broome aquatic centre about how solar can dramatically reduce their electricity bill, which currently stands at $130,000 a year. The office, squash courts and pool facility is on board with the project but does not necessarily have the funding for the start-up capital costs and is now looking at community funding through Hansford.

Currently, 62 per cent of Broome residents and local businesses rent their accommodation and therefore have little incentive to install solar on rooftops. Tenants have little say in how their electricity is generated and a community switch to local powered electricity could reduce electricity costs dramatically.

Hansford, who previously worked for the Victorian Government on their clean-tech projects, says the idea for community generation comes from the direction for the new economy.  “For many of these regional communities an entrepreneurial approach to projects is a real hedge against these large agricultural and resource industries” that reap benefits,” he says. Coupled with the higher dollar and lower tourism numbers these projects could solve not only a lot of energy issues for households, but also for business owners.

Hansford is currently exploring grant possibilities with the major government and non-governmental organisations, with the hopes to have a strong business plan finished soon.

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