Enova Community Energy in New South Wales (NSW) is beginning to transform the face of electricity production and distribution in Australia, becoming the country’s first community owned renewable energy retailer when it began operation in 2016. Enova explores the opportunities offered in a deregulated energy market, rethinking commercial success in relation to other achievements, including the promotion of renewable technology and community empowerment.
When interviewed, one of the people involved in Enova observed that:
part of the climate response is around distributed everything, distributed energy, water, waste management, transport, jobs, whatever it is, finding this ability for people to self-organise, and be more locally self-reliant and locally-based.
The idea for Enova first emerged as a result of an ill-fated government plan that saw solar installations in New South Wales receiving an exceptionally high input tariff for the energy that they generated. Consequently, the uptake was high, with the government ultimately having to cancel the scheme. As this was happening, concerns in the community were rising regarding the environmental risks of resource extraction. In the context of this changing cultural climate, the idea for a community energy retailer began to take shape with the support of stakeholders such as the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney. As our interviewee suggests, we can see this as a sign of changing societal priorities, with communities moving towards a preference for resources that are both renewable and local.
Enova emerged in this gap between State policy and community concerns/aspirations. As an energy retailer, it offers customers a range of power plans and a competitive feed in tariff for solar, but also advice on energy use reduction and brokerage for solar and battery storage technology providers. In their own words (2018), “In the past, community-based renewable energy projects struggled to find a retailer who would purchase excess energy – the large companies just haven’t been interested. Enova will not only buy this power we will also work with communities to help bring their renewable energy projects to life”.
Given this vision, it is unsurprising that a key aspect of their operation focuses on engaging and inspiring the community. Our interviewee recounted the efforts that were expended, when the project was in its infancy, to obtain initial capital funding, with those involved going to social gatherings such as music festivals, Country Women’s Association meetings and farmers markets to find people who were interested and willing to invest. Through these efforts $4 million of shares were sold between August and December 2015, harnessing the growing enthusiasm in renewable energy while enabling the community to accept agency in their attitudes towards power. This effort demonstrates the importance of diverse networking in the transformative process, spreading knowledge and building relationships with those who have shared concerns.
While climate change mitigation is a central tenet of this venture, an interviewee noted that people cited other reasons for their enthusiasm in Enova, including an interest in solar power and the employment the project could bring to the area. In seeking further investment, Enova highlights its commitment to returning many of the benefits that it generates back to the community, with 50% of profits going into their not for profit, Enova Community. The activities of this arm include fostering partnerships to help the vulnerable and low income in the community, investing in energy education, helping people transition to renewable energy and making solar power more attractive to owners of rental housing.
As our interview related, the story of Enova demonstrates a new dynamic that involves the “melding of public and private, and partnership, and innovation, and social enterprise”.
While the production of local, renewable power that is commercially viable is at the centre of Enova’s mission, the company also seeks to scale up, influencing the political landscape by demonstrating the direction in which it believes Australians want to move in. They believe that as more Australians choose to adopt renewable energy and demand rises, governments will adjust to fulfil the evolving needs of society, creating a new definition of what normal power generation and provision looks like.
As Enova continues to successfully operate in an energy market dominated by large entities, it becomes more likely that the venture will influences others, leading to replication across a wider scale. An interviewee noted that the spread of Enova’s model was an important consideration, with the organisers looking to scale out by partnering with groups in other areas of Australia that want to realise their own community run power production ambitions. Enova’s licence from the Australian Energy Regulator means that they also have the capacity to open further branches within NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). This raises the possibility that community supplied power will become at least part of a new normal in which sustainability becomes a priority.