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The rural towns harnessing the power of community energy

November 24, 2021
June 17, 2019
For drought-affected communities in New South Wales, rising energy prices are a huge problem. But one Sydney-based community energy organisation is helping change all that – one solar system at a time.

“Brewarrina is a special little community,” says Uncle Isaac ‘Ike’ Gordon, a Nyemba Elder from Brewarrina, New South Wales. “It’s a beautiful place. People do care about one another, and I think it’s a fair way in front of a lot of other communities. Our little town is rising above.”

Uncle Ike loves where he lives (his people have been there for thousands of years, after all). But Brewarrina, a small town in northwest New South Wales with a population of a little over 1000 people, is not without its struggles. Like the rest of Australia, energy prices in Uncle Ike’s part of the country have been gradually (and at times, no so gradually) increasing for years – far outpacing wage growth. In fact, for towns like Brewarrina, it’s the number one cost-of-living issue they’re facing.

And then there’s the drought. In a region in which agriculture is the main source of income for many, the New South Wales drought has left many Brewarrina locals out of work. “You feel terrible inside,” says Uncle Ike. “You can’t give families what they truly need, because you’re too busy trying to keep a light on in the house.”

Things were looking pretty bleak for Brewarrina, and other New South Wales towns like it, until they thought up a solution to their energy woes: solar. “It’s common sense, I tell ya,” says Uncle Ike. “We probably have less than five days a year that are covered in cloud, and the rest is all sun.”

Enter Pingala, a community energy organisation founded in 2013 by a group of volunteers from Sydney. Since its inception, Pingala has taken it upon itself to do whatever it can to put power, quite literally, into the hands of communities in Sydney and other communities around New South Wales. Communities like Brewarrina.

When The Valley Centre (TVC), a charity based in the Hawkesbury,  was invited on country to work with Uncle Ike’s community, Brewarrina’s extreme energy poverty became immediately clear. “We spent two weeks out there and when we came back to Sydney, we worked out how best we could help them,” says Pingala co-founder April Crawford-Smith. TVC then invited Pingala to be a part of an energy research project that enabled the two organisations to work with Brewarrina.  “We went on a huge journey from then – we looked at all the issues in terms of infrastructure, wiring, energy consumption, and so on. What came out of it was that the community said they want to own and operate their own solar projects.”

And that’s exactly what they helped Brewarrina do – but the community didn’t want to rely on government handouts. They wanted to be empowered, and to own their own systems. “But the cost of a big solar system is generally $5000 – $6000,” says April. “And if you add in a battery, that’s another $10,000. So how do they access $15,000?”

After a lot of time spent talking to retailers, government departments, social impact investors, philanthropists and network companies, the organisations decided upon an innovative new type of funding model known as a ‘rolling fund’. It works by taking in large sums of money, which will be used to install solar and batteries within a community, and the community then pays a small amount back each week. The kicker? “That money goes back into the fund, which goes towards installing other projects,” says April. “So the communities love that by paying for their solar, they’re actually helping pay for the next one, and the next one, and the next one.”

Recipients of a Bank Australia customer grant in 2018, Pingala used the money to produce a three-minute short video (featuring Uncle Ike) that documents the town’s journey towards a sustainable future. According to April, the video has been “a critical part of our fundraising toolkit”, and has helped TVC and Pingala do a better job of sharing their mission with potential partners.

To date, Pingala has installed a 5kW solar system and a 10kWh battery in Brewarrina, and is nearly ready to install on the next 10 houses (along with The Valley Centre, Pingala has also assisted on installations for many other communities around Australia). Their mission, from here, is simple: more community energy, for more communities. “We believe Australia’s energy industry is inherently unfair,” says April. “It’s owned by a very small group of people and producers. We believe it should be owned by lots of different people – household scale, community scale, medium-scale. They’re the things that have been motivating us for the past six years, and will continue to motivate us.

“There are so many communities that are desperate for a solution across New South Wales and indeed across wider Australia, we’re trying to work as quickly as we can so that the communities can see the results they’re hoping to achieve,” April continues. “Energy empowerment, jobs and training, self-sufficiency and lowering the energy burden on households.”

Thinking of the bigger picture, April is positive about Australia’s potential to be a world-leader in the sustainability space, and believes it’s time for all Australians, who have the means, to get to work. “These problems are too great to not work on them and try and resolve them,” she says. “It’s too hard to walk away from communities who are suffering from these kind of energy injustices. I believe we can live in a safe and sustainable and creative world – and this energy question is the first step.”

For Uncle Ike, who now has a solar system installed on his property care of the good folks at TVC and Pingala, keeping a light on is no longer an issue. Now, he’s excited to be contributing to the rolling fund that will help others – in Brewarrina and beyond – access fairer, cleaner energy. “Even a blind man could see that solar power is the way to go,” he says. “I just can’t wait to see the next power bill!”

Watch Pingala’s stirring video and learn more to help others like Uncle Ike access fairer, cleaner energy.