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Community-Owned Utility Plans To Lead Solar, Storage Revolution

Originally published on One Step Off The Grid

Steve Harris has had a long history as a senior executive in some of Australia’s major electricity utilities. Now he is looking to help turn a decades-old model on its head by building something Australia has not seen before – a community-owned retailer that taps into the energy revolution taking place in our homes and businesses – and the community desire for change.

 

Enova_LogoType_TagLine2.jpg-960x1482This week, Harris and fellow directors will sign off on a prospectus for the Byron Bay-based Enova, before embarking on a four week road-show around the Northern Rivers region to try and raise $3 to $4 million. It is also launching an ad campaign based around the concept – “Meet your new energy supplier – You”.

Harris – who came out of retirement to help spear-head what has till now been a labour of love – says the money raised in the prospectus will be used to for the start up and operating costs for the business, including hiring and setting up systems.

If $3 million is raised, then Enova will need to have 5,000 customers within three years to be viable. It hopes to begin operations by the end of the year.

As those figures suggest, Enova is not about to challenge the big three utilities. But it does intend to tap into a growing movement towards local generation and renewables that – if replicated across the country – could have a profound impact and provide the “glue” between new technologies, the grid and the community.

Steve Harris with fellow director Alison Crook and technology head Patrick Halliday.

Steve Harris with fellow director Alison Crook and technology head Patrick Halliday.

Harris says Enova intends to tap into deep community interest in renewable energy, and the opportunities afforded by the plunging cost of solar PV and the onset of battery storage, and do what he says bigger companies will struggle to do – adapt to change.

Enova’s main business will be as a retailer – selling renewable-sourced electricity to its customers. But it will also act as an asset owner, installing solar and storage in homes and businesses, and will even provide a service to help customers going off-grid if that’s what they choose to do.

The key to its success, Harris believes, will be its connection to the community and its ability to be nimble and innovative. New technologies are bringing dramatic change and opportunities, and he believes the big utilities don’t have the capacity to react quickly enough.

“We want to be part of that revolution,” Harris says. “We are going to be there to provide a service for the community to do what they want to do.”

The Northern Rivers region is already a hive of activity. It has one of the highest rates of adoption of rooftop solar, a lot of houses off-grid, and numerous community-based and council-led initiatives for local solar generation, including from Byron Bay, Lismore, Mullumbimby and surrounding towns.

“At end of day it is about renewable energy, cutting greenhouse emissions, giving customers opportunity to be involved in doing something, changing source of energy, offsetting, developing local renewable generation plants, a creating new model.”

Harris says that idea of local distribution is one that will take hold in the community, rather than relying on (fossil fuel) generation up to 1,000kms away.

“That’s why you want to encourage local generation in this area. The tide is now turning – it’s a good timing for us, because we are there to help individuals who feel frustrated that there is no leadership in Canberra. That is our role – to facilitate the desire to take local action.”

enova-meetHarris says Enova will look at a whole bunch of different models for local generation, community facilities, shared output, and looking at the models for rented homes and offices.

This includes concepts such as virtual net metering, which the local Byron Shire Council is pioneering. This allows the output from solar installations on one facility – in this case a sporting centre – to be used in an energy-hungry neighbouring facility without solar, in this case a waste treatment plant.

“We are a community owned business – we are sourcing labour and resources locally, we are contributing back to local economy. Profits will be returned to investors, and to the local community through the not for profit arm which will invest in community education, energy efficiency, and helping those that less able to participate in solar revolution. The rental market is very good example.”

Enova has no plans to move beyond its local area, but it does believe that if it’s model can work, then it can be adapted in other regions. And he says there is plenty of interest.

“Our primary goal is to get more renewables into the system and to lower emissions. We will do it for this region, and if we can replicate that 20 times over in other areas, that’s where the mass starts to grow.

“The political message is – if Canberrra is not going to take lead on this, the communities will. It really is sending message to government that these communities want to do something.”

But he does see signs that at least the network operators are starting to shift.

“If the networks persist with the old models of doing things, they will lose customers. The community will make changes, and they are going to be left behind.

Rather than being seen to be stopping progress, there is an opportunity for them to be part of the change. My sense is that networks have copped a fair caning over last few years due to increase in network charges. I think they sitting out there fairly exposed on to what going on.”

 
 
 
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Written By

is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

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