In this Meet the Co-op Farmers episode rural journalist Michael Cavanagh talks to Peter Fraser, President of Community Energy 4 Goulburn (CE4G) and board member of Goulburn Community Energy Co-op. The co-op is stepping up to provide their local community with the opportunity to invest in solar energy, and to become changemakers through community-owned renewable energy.
In this podcast you’ll learn:
- How the local community in Goulburn and its surrounds got behind the vision for solar energy
- Why the co-operative model was the ideal solution for the project
- How the co-op is allowing everyday Australians to invest in and support renewable energy
- Why this project is good news for regional Australia
You can also read about the co-op’s long journey and discover why their powerful vision is becoming a model for other communities.
Melina [00:00:03] Demand for renewable energy is growing from the large energy suppliers to smaller operations. Hi, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals, and I’m back again for another invigorating episode with Michael Kavanagh of Meet the Co-op Farmers. Whether it’s through wind farms or in the case of solar panels on individual homes to large tracts of land with solar panels supplying electricity back to the grid, the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals, Michael Kavanagh has been looking at cooperatives for Meet the Co-op Farmers, ranging from banks to community-owned abattoirs and a department store.
Michael [00:00:48] Yes, Mel, we’re seeing what happens with the growth of community awareness and buying local. We’ve seen it probably because of Covid and people are more and more wanting to see larger operations, commercial operations ploughed back into the community. So we’re seeing that growth of the co-ops and also a greater awareness that it’s not just the farm-owned co-ops, but providing such things as banks and power back into the grid.
Melina [00:01:18] Michael, I mentioned there the demands for renewable energy, and many of us are familiar with solar panels on the roof and heading out to more remote regions, the big solar farms. In one of New South Wales’ oldest cities on its outskirts, there’s a community-owned solar farm.
Michael [00:01:35] Mel, the Goulburn Community Energy Co-operative is a result of a decision made by a, local community association, the project started in 2014. It’s now very, very close to operating, although over the time it’s been developed, as founding member and director Peter Fraser told me, there have been a number of changes along the way, although from the early days the co-operative model was what the community always wanted.
Peter [00:02:15] So CE4G for Community Energy 4 Goulburn and that’s been going for about seven years and I’ve been the president on and off for most of those seven years, so there was a gap when I wasn’t the president, someone else took over and then I’m back in the president again now.
Michael [00:02:27] Peter Fraser, why a community solar farm?
Peter [00:02:31] I think the main reason is because the community here feels that the federal government has been doing very little in terms of renewable energy over a period of time. And when we started this project back in 2013, we felt that there wasn’t enough being done in renewable energy at all and the community here just decided, well, if you know, politicians aren’t going to do anything, then we’re going to have to do it ourselves. So it started with a movement of people wanting to do something and get some work done rather than waiting around for someone else to do it that’s why we got going.
Michael [00:03:6] Were you surprised at the response because often people say, yes, something’s got to be done, and then they start looking over their shoulder to find someone else to do it.
Peter [00:03:14] I guess we were surprised. I mean, our first, our very first meeting, we had a business breakfast and we had John Hewson came and speak at the business breakfast. And he, I think, got people from all walks of life thinking about renewable energy. This was back in 2013, 2014, and that, I think, spurred us on to then apply for a grant from the New South Wales government to do a feasibility study. And when we were doing the feasibility study, part of what we did was to run a community forum to see how much interest there was, and we had about more than 200 people turn up at this forum just to learn about community energy and learn about renewable energy, and that was kind of the thing that kicked us off.
Michael [00:03:58] Now, this all started around 2013 by that time in the Goulburn, Crookwell, Yass, Goulburn area, where it is effectively the region that you’re covering, the renewable energy very much the flavour was for wind energy, why didn’t you go down that path and instead chose solar instead?
Peter [00:04:20] Wind is a lot more expensive, basically, you can build a solar farm of reasonable size for two to three million dollars and a wind farm, you’d be hard pressed to do anything less than $10 million, so that would only get you back, in those days, $10 million would get you probably two wind turbines. They produce more power, wind turbines but it’s a fairly complicated procedure to go through, and it’s a lot more expensive. And we weren’t confident we could raise that kind of money, whereas what we were doing was something that we thought was feasible within our area. At the time also, there was quite a lot of opposition to wind farms, so there were a lot of wind farms being built around our region, but there was quite a lot of opposition to it from some of the farmers, who didn’t like the look of them. But that opposition has really been overcome since there’s been this benefit-sharing process that’s been going on where the community benefits from the wind farms, I should say. But back in those days, I think it was a bit more difficult to win people over where solar was a bit easier.
Michael [00:05:29] So you make the decision to go with solar, primarily driven by cost, why then, did you go as a co-op and not just set up a business?
Peter [00:05:40] Yes, we spent quite a lot of time looking at the different kinds of structures that we could use. We probably spent a couple of years discussing it amongst ourselves as we built the feasibility study. We had a number of people come in and give us presentations about different kinds of entities, and we did have someone, who knew a fair bit about co-ops come and talk to us. And once we started thinking more carefully about co-ops, we thought that would suit our community better. And the reason we went for it was because it’s a more democratic kind of structure, and it meant that each individual member, it didn’t matter how many shares they owned or how much money they had invested, each individual member had one vote, and having one vote meant that people who could only afford to get in with a small amount of money. And we had a minimum of $400 investment, which represented pretty much the cost of one panel. People with $400 or with $40,000 would have the same number of votes, one vote each, and that encouraged people who would otherwise have probably thought, it’s not much point getting in if I don’t get much of a science and encourage those smaller investors to get involved. It also allayed another fear that some people had that the whole project could be taken over by one big investor and start determining the direction of the project whereas when you had a democratic situation where each person gets one vote, it’s less likely that someone’s going to take over the whole show and start pushing it in a direction the rest of the members didn’t want it to go.
Michael [00:07:33] So once they’ve paid whether it be for one share or, as you say, spending $40,000, how then does that person benefit from having a financial stake in the solar farm?
Peter [00:07:48] Okay, so the way we’ve structured it is each person pays a membership fee of $10 a year, and then they have a minimum investment of $400. And once they’ve invested that money, they are a member and then they get a return on their investment. So the benefits to a person investing is that they get a return on their investment, whatever their investment is. The other benefit they get is they get to be part of what we call the renewable energy revolution. So there are a lot of people in our region who really want to push forward with renewable energy. They want to feel that they’re part of that, that they’re part of the attempt to reduce carbon emissions. And so the benefits to them are twofold. There’s a benefit, I guess you’d call it a feel-good benefit where they’re benefiting from their own commitment to a particular way of producing energy and a commitment to doing something about climate change. And on the other hand, they have a financial benefit in that they get a return on their investment. You know, we’ve structured it so that most of the profits will be distributed to the members each year.
Michael [00:09:05] And you say most of the profits, other co-op’s tend to plough our money back into community projects as well, or scholarships for young people in regional areas, have you also got an allowance for that as well?
Peter [00:09:19] That’s kind of the way we structured the business case is there’s quite a bit of money that will be going back into the project in order to take account of the fact that the panels will need replacing not a lot but there’s a degradation of the panels over the life of the project. So there’s money being set aside to replace panels that stop producing or become faulty. But at the same time, we set aside a percentage of the profits to go towards a disability fund in the region, and that fund will basically look after those not so much disability, I guess it’s more people who are disadvantaged. So what we’re targeting is people who have problems paying their electricity bills, basically or their energy bills. So we’re looking for a partnership with one of the major charities in Goulburn, who are going to help us identify those people that we’d call are energy poor in the sense that they are disadvantaged because they’re having difficulty paying their energy bills and part of our profits will go towards a fund, which will be administered separately, which will look after those people that are disadvantaged.
Michael [00:10:34] So with the solar farm, I think of other co-ops, dairy co-ops, they sell the milk elsewhere, not just back to their members and there are other co-ops similar, in this case, you’re still running it as a business. And so you’re looking for customers, not just those people that are residents in the Goulburn and surrounding area.
Peter [00:10:56] Yes, that’s right, a generator, any generator, a big generator can sell energy in a number of ways to the public, so they can just go in the spot market and sell straight into the grid, and the spot market changes every five minutes. So there’s a basically an auction that goes on at the moment for all generators every five minutes and they sell into that auction. They participate in the auction by selling to the grid that way that’s one way you can sell energy. Another way you can sell energy is you can sell it to a retailer. So you can sell it to one of the big retailers, they will purchase the green energy from you, and then they will sell it to their customers, whoever they are. A third way of doing it is to find a larger load, which is what we call them. But a larger customer like, for example, a council or an institution like a university or a big business, and you enter into a contract with them called a power purchase agreement, PPA and that way you sell directly to them. It still has to go through a retailer, but the retailer only takes a very small commission and then you’re basically selling all of your power to one big institution. So there are those three ways. If you sell to a retailer that retailer can sell to your own members then, so the members would effectively be buying their energy from the solar farm through or via the retailer and that’s one way of doing it. We’re not going to do that immediately. We’re going to sell our energy straight onto the spot market and we can investigate whether we go through a PPA or we go through a retailer at a later date. But we’re going to start selling straight into the grid on the spot market. The advantage for the spot market for us is that we’re now putting in a fairly substantial battery as part of our project. And the advantage with a battery is that you can store the electricity when the wholesale market is low, so the prices are very low and you don’t get much for your energy when you’re selling in the middle of the day. You store your energy and then you can sell it back into the spot market late in the afternoon, in the early evening when the prices are much higher. So to give you an example, process can range from pretty much zero to anything up to $14 or $15000 per kilowatt-hour. It’s quite possible that late in the evening or late in the afternoon, I should say, and the early evening, it’s quite possible to get $1000 a kilowatt hour or more just for a short time, maybe for half an hour. But when you’ve got a battery, you can store it when it’s cheap and it’s not really worth selling into the grid, and then you can sell it at a time when it’s profitable, much more profitable. It’s a big advantage. One of the issues is a lot of ordinary old households are putting solar on their roofs, and Australia’s got one of the highest uptake of household solar in the world. And what that’s meant is and it will continue to go this way is that in the middle of the day when there’s lots of sunshine shining, there’s a lot of electricity being put into the grid that’s putting a lot of pressure on the coal fired power stations because the problem with the coal fired power station is you can’t turn it off quickly and turn it on again quickly. It takes hours to turn it off and hours to turn it on again. And in the middle of the day, the price is extremely low because there’s so much household solar going into the grid. The price of the coal fired power generators could get for their electricity is extremely low. So there’s a lot of pressure on the coal fired power stations now to make a profit, particularly in the middle of the day and the uptake of household solar is one of the reasons why batteries are becoming more and more important, because then you can store the electricity. The big advantage with the batteries, it takes a split second to turn it on and a split second to turn it off so you can respond much more quickly to the market compared with a coal fired power station. And you can get your electricity out there quickly and you can sell it at the most financially advantageous time and that’s what we’re doing initially.
Michael [00:15:26] I’m Michael Kavanagh from the Business Council of Co-ops and Mutuals, talking to Peter Fraser, who’s a director and on the board of the Goulburn Community Energy Co-op. Peter, you’re dealing with big energy operations companies. What was their response when you came along and said, oh, we’re a co-op, we’re community-orientated and we plan on being able to supply energy to you in the retail market?
Peter [00:15:55] I think it depends on who you’re talking about, if you’re talking about the big generators, I think that the big generators have seen the writing on the wall for a while now, probably a lot longer than the government has. But they know that once solar and wind come into the market that really disrupts the market. And that’s putting a lot of pressure on, particularly the fossil fuel generators. We’re only a tiny little operation really effectively speaking, our solar farm is 1.4 megawatts, which is small, it’s tiny compared with a big coal fired power generator. But I think the issue really is to do with community energy. Community energy is quite big in Europe. It’s probably close to half of all renewable energy being produced in Scotland, and it’s owned by small communities like us. Denmark is another place where there’s a lot of community energy production same with the United States but community energy as a movement is very small in Australia, and it’s only been going for about six or seven years since we started in fact. Well, there was one other that started before us in Hepburn, Hepburn Wind Farm, but I think probably what’s happening in Australia at the moment is it’s big, the companies that are coming into the renewable energy are big companies, and they’re building big, enormous wind farms and big, enormous solar farms. But community energy is something that’s growing, and there’s more and more of these kinds of organisations like us building what we call medium-sized projects, anything between one and five megawatts. And those community energy projects are starting to take off, and we’re one of the first ones to do it. But there’s quite a few now doing it. And I think that’s probably a threat to some of the really big companies because community energy, communities are prepared to set a lower return on investment than a big company that’s the first thing because the community is really wanting to do something about renewable energy themselves. So that’s a threat to those renewable energy companies, the coal fired generators, they’re under threat simply because renewable energy now is way cheaper than coal. There won’t be any more coal generators ever built, I don’t think, because it’s just too expensive to build them. And then once you build a solar farm or a wind farm, the energy’s free, you don’t have to pay any more for it. The only other companies that are difficult to deal with are the owners of the grid, and that takes quite a lot of technical expertise that we’ve had to bring in from outside to help us negotiate with the owners of the grid because we’re putting electricity into the grid. They have to go through the whole process of making sure that we’re not going to disrupt their particular grid in their area. They have to check out a lot of technical issues to do with electricity flowing in and out that they weren’t used to in the past. So technically that’s a bit difficult and we’ve had to use outsiders because none of us in the co-op are great experts on the technical side of things.
Michael [00:19:01] The time that you started 2013, it’s now nearly a decade, and in that time technology must have changed a lot and you’ve probably had to rethink some of the ideas. What sort of cost and expense do you think you’re going to outlaid by the time that the electricity is powering into the grid and you’ve got buyers?
Peter [00:19:26] Well, the project started off at $2 million and we’re going to produce around 1.2 megawatts. The price of panels has come down enormously. The price of inverters and transformers has come down, and now the price of batteries has dropped enormously. So when we first wanted to build this, we didn’t have a battery in mind at all because batteries were way too expensive back then. But as the price of batteries has been coming down and in the last couple of years, even faster, it’s become much more financially possible for us and attractive for us, financially attractive for us to invest in a battery. So now the project is approaching a bit over four million dollars. We will have a much better kind of revenue base now that we’ve got a battery that can put electricity into the end of the grid late in the afternoon. So the technology’s changed a lot since we first started, and even the efficiency of panels has improved enormously in that period of time and the cost of panels has come down. So there have been a lot of changes over that period in terms of costs and improved technology that’s helped us a lot.
Michael [00:20:40] Well, you got some government funding and initially there’s a lot of enthusiasm as it’s gone on, have you found it difficult to attract investors such as people that are, whether they be Goulburn residents or elsewhere, and they’re not going to be able to put in 40,000 but you want the smaller investor as well?
Peter [00:20:59] We didn’t have any trouble at all. The co-op itself is only about a year and a half old; we had our first meeting in October of last year so just over a year ago. We had a town hall meeting where we got everybody together and we had it online as well. And this is when we first did the pitch and we said to people, okay, here’s the project. We’ve now got $2 million from the New South Wales government, which was a handy grant on the condition that we put a battery in. And within two weeks, we’d raised about 800,000 and within a month and a half, we’d raised close to 1.4 million. So it was really fast. We were kind of a bit overwhelmed because we didn’t think it would take such a short time to raise this amount of money. We were expecting it to take three to four months. But we had the majority of our money within about six weeks. And then the last week just trickled in and it’s still coming in. So we had our annual general meeting a week ago. We put to them that we now want to have a larger battery than we originally envisaged. We said that’s going to cost an extra 600,000 something in the vicinity of that. And we said, well, we’re opening up existing investment just to our own members. We’re not going to open it up to the public first. We’ll just see how much money we get from our own members. And within a day, we raised another 100,000. So it was incredible how easy it was for us to raise a significant amount of money from this local community. There’s probably no one more than 100 kilometres away from us who just put money to it. Virtually everybody is much closer even than a hundred kilometres. It’s mostly our own community here that’s raised all that money. So we expect by sometime next year or early next year, we’ll raise a significant amount more. And then if we haven’t raised the whole 600,000, we’ll open it up to people outside the membership at this stage and non-members in the region. And then if they still need some more money, we’ll open it up to people in New South Wales but that’s as far as we can to open it up to.
Michael [00:23:07] Peter Fraser is the director and board member of Goulburn Community Energy Co-op. I’m Michael Kavanagh for the Business Council of Co-ops and Mutuals. Peter, there are wind farms all around the Goulburn area and they really stand out whether you be driving down the highway or on the back roads. They are certainly in your face. You’ve actually chosen a site in the old highway coming in from the northern entry to Goulburn. People see it but I must say when I first learnt where it was, I never thought of that being a site for solar farm but you actually consciously went ahead with that site, partly for economic reasons and also to really, I suppose, for want a better term, to raise the profile.
Peter [00:23:53] Yes, that’s exactly right so it’s in a kind of a, it’s not an ideal site, that’s for sure, because the best shape is basically a square, whereas this is more like a triangle. It’s not exactly a triangle, but it’s a bit more like that. It’s an old industrial site that’s been damaged in the past so that the actual that if someone wanted to develop it for some sort of industrial use, they’d have to do a lot of cleanup on it because it’s fairly polluted, but it doesn’t really impact on us so much. The advantage with it is it’s between the road from Sydney and the railway line. So in terms of exposure, its got really good exposure for people who are coming into Goulburn. It’s good exposure for people who live in Goulburn, and it’s good exposure for people who are travelling on a train between Melbourne and Canberra and Sydney. So we wanted to find somewhere that made a clear statement to the people in Goulburn and to people visiting Goulburn that this city is a city concerned with renewable energy, concerned about climate change and wants to make a difference and wants to show people that we can make a difference by building something that the community actually owns and partakes in. So it was kind of like a site that was good for the image of Goulburn, if you like, because we wanted to demonstrate that side of Goulburn population that we are a community concerned with these issues. We’re not just a farming community; we were a farming community that’s concerned with these issues.
Michael [00:25:35] You mentioned how larger businesses you would deal directly in effect with, and the actual broker would just take a small amount. What about if you’re a householder, whether you be a shareholder in the co-op or just a person living in Goulburn or in the surrounds and they say, I want my electricity from the Goulburn Community Energy Co-op, is that possible?
Peter [00:26:01] Well, yes, the only way they could do it is if we sell to one retailer and the retailer and they sign up with that retailer so they would have to become a customer of that retailer and that retailer would be purchasing the power from us and that’s possible and that’s a model which we may pursue, but we haven’t made a decision on that. The irony of it is that probably everybody in Goulburn right now, whether they like it or not, are getting electrons from renewable energy because there’s so much wind around here that the wind farms are generating electrons and those electrons are flowing into Goulburn before they fly anywhere else. So whether people know it or not, they are probably powering their houses with renewable energy. Even though that’s not the way the market works, the market works for you having to make a decision to purchase renewable energy from your retailer. But in terms of the actual scientific reality in terms of physics, yes, most people would be buying electrons that are coming out of the wind farms around here and will be getting their electrons from our solar farm as well, whether they like it or not, just the reality of, you know, a reality of the way the whole grid works.
Michael [00:27:19] You’re dealing with a consortium, if I recall, one regional from Wagga and then from Sydney, was that a conscious decision to try to get as much Australia-made or because they were the only ones that had the technology and the experience to do something about this?
Peter [00:27:37] No, what we did was we put out a tender about eight months ago, I suppose, we put out the parameters for the build of the farm and then we assessed the tenders that came in. One of the criteria for the tender was that as many local jobs as possible would be used in the construction and in the maintenance and running of the solar farm after it’s built. So that was included in the tender documents that they had to demonstrate that they would be using local jobs, local employers as much as possible, the actual hardware, very little of it is made in Australia. Australia has only had one manufacturer of solar panels, and those panels are designed specifically for household use. There are no other solar panel manufacturers, and there are no inverter manufacturers that fit the bill. So in terms of a lot of the equipment, it’s actually produced overseas because Australia just doesn’t manufacture this stuff. But when we put out the tender, the consortium that won the tender, it was actually three companies together a Sydney-based company, a Wagga-based company and a Goulburn-based company. And the Goulburn-based company is a solar installer that does a lot of larger scale solar installations around Goulburn. They’ve just finished doing the big modification to the swimming pool here, the indoor swimming pool. So they’ve got quite a good track record in local stuff. The Sydney-based company has done some really big stuff right around Australia, and the Wagga company has done some quite significant sized stuff in regional Australia that we specifically wanted someone local to be part of that consortium and that’s what we’ve accepted that they were the most suitable tenderer for the job.
Michael [00:29:35] In starting it up, it’s a bit like mining in the fact that there are always a lot of jobs in start up. Once it’s running a solar farm, it’s almost as, it strikes me, there is on the side of the road, the panels, the wires going from it, what sort of employment once it’s up and running would continue?
Peter [00:29:56] Yes, not a lot. It’s not huge. So we’ve got some things like security. It’s a security company that will be doing some stuff. There’s some maintenance crowd that would be doing anything when there’s a panel that fizzles out, whatever it does if it doesn’t work. There’ll be someone coming in and replacing that particular panel. If there any sort of civil works that have to be done that just need maintenance, there’ll be some of that. But yes, you’re right, there are quite a lot of jobs in the construction and it’s the same with wind farms and then there’s not a lot of, there’s not a huge amount of employment after that. So there’s a continuing employment, but not a lot. And that’s part of the reason why renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel stuff because you’ve got to keep having people dig up coal and ship it off and then you’ve got to have people shoveling it in the furnaces and all this kind of business. You actually have a lot of labour with a traditional fossil fuel generator, but with renewable energy, you’ve got free energy once you’ve built it. They are pretty good for maintenance, you know, it’s like solar panels on people’s houses. You don’t do really a lot to get them, you know, you might clean them every now and then you might, if something goes wrong, get an electrical contractor going to have a look at it. But pretty much once you put solar panels on your roof, they just sit there and generate electricity and it’s free and that’s pretty much the same with this.
Michael [00:31:18] You’ve got some medium range businesses, either already on board or you’ve targeted them to buy the electricity, what sort of response are you getting from the councils in the area because ironically, because councils many years ago were involved one way or the other in the generation of electricity, are you finding it easy to sell to them the idea?
Peter [00:31:42] It’s actually interesting, I mean, Goulburn started off having its own coal fired power generator in town and the whole town was powered by these coal fired power generators to bring the coal in from Wollongong and run this thing here. And I don’t know whether the council owned it, I assume they did. Yes, we’ve talked to the council here. They’re supportive of the project. It’s a question of whether we want to enter into a PPA with them and that comes down to price. It’s very simple. It comes down to how much do we need for our electricity to make a profit and how much do they want to pay for it? So at the moment, they’re in a consortium with a number of other councils, and so they are both buyer and they buy at a pretty cheap price. We’re confident we can beat that price and give them a better price and a better deal than they have at the moment that’s a question that we’ll continue to raise with them next year. We’ve had a couple of meetings with them. They are interested, but you know, it’s just a question of negotiating a price that will work for them and for us. And it might work and that would be a PPA again. And we may sell all of the electricity to them, or we might just sell some of it and keep some of it on the spot market. We can do that kind of thing so we can mix and match how we sell the power.
Michael [00:32:55] Peter, you mentioned before the site that you’ve got is not ideal, but it’s also good for the profile of the operation. People in Goulburn know that area quite well, and it’s probably not going to be developed for anything else. Are you, though, at the point where you’re saying this is going to be the size of the solar farm or are you already looking and thinking, well, if this works, will it be more than capable or will you probably have to look at further solar panels in another location?
Peter [00:33:30] No, this will work, and we’re not going to not pursue it. We’re going to pursue it. And the simple reason is it takes a hell of a lot of effort with all the different authorities to get permission to build the thing. So we wouldn’t want to start that process again, because normally just getting permission with someone like Essential Energy will take 12 months. So it would put the project back enormously if we decided to shift. No, we’re not going to do that. However, we have been exploring other opportunities to do the same thing again and replicate it in other areas within the Goulburn area. And we’ve identified some other locations that we might look at once we get this project up and running. But our priority right at the moment is we’re halfway through getting all the permissions from all of authorities. We’re not going to step back from any of that. We’ve got the engineering designs almost complete. We’ve done most of the hard yakka for this particular site, so we’re going to stick with that. But then we, you know, depending on how things go and how enthusiastic our investors are, we can then look at a couple of other sites that we’ve identified as being good places to do a similar kind of project that’s down the track, we’ve got to get this one up and running, which we hope will be generating by halfway through next year. And then we’ll look at how things are going.
Michael [00:34:56] You talked about the enthusiasm and people being involved. Co-ops go back 400, 500 years and they’ve been in the Australian primary sector since effectively European settlement. At the same time did you find that you still had to explain to people the concept of a co-op?
Peter [00:35:19] Yes, people have heard of it, maybe Norco or some of the banks, you know, some of the banks are co-ops and some of the regional banks of co-ops. People have heard, of course, but they really had no idea how they worked. Once we explained the whole idea, the democratic nature of the co-op, the fact that the size of the investment didn’t give you any greater power, depending on how much you put in there. Once we explained that to people, it was a really attractive model for them to use and as a board and as a committee in the CE4G, we thought this was a really good model to use for the community energy. And we’ve been talking to other community groups who are looking at building similar sized kind of projects. And we’ve been saying, look, we think the co-op model is the best model to use. Some of them have been playing around with other models, but I think most of them now are becoming much more attracted to the co-op model because it’s such a useful model for communities in particular. And I think that’s probably some of this is going to grow in Australia. I think one of the frustrating things initially was that when we did some investigation, we found that there weren’t national rules for co-ops so it was in a bit of a mess. And, you know, you had to you didn’t go to ASIC, you went to Fair Trade to get your authorisation and that was a bit of a surprise that it wasn’t a nationally regulated system. But in the end, we were able to navigate the Department of Fair Trade, and we’re happy with the way it’s going.
Michael [00:37:00] It seems at the moment that co-ops are enjoying a resurgence and they seem to be either you and I have mentioned Norco, the dairy co-op as an example, and there’s a large meat processing works on the north coast of New South Wales as well, that’s a co-op. Then you’ve got a place like Hastings Co-op, which started off as a dairy co-op, has no involvement in dairy but has hardware, farm supplies, those sort of things, and they’re doing just as well. Are you in any way thinking, well, if this works really well, we might and as you said, there’s been people showing interest in what have you. We might expand our co-op or it’s just going to be energy supplier solar.
Peter [00:37:43] No, it’s anything to do with renewable energy. So there are other areas that are worth exploring in the future. But we haven’t, I guess what we just really focused on what we’re doing at the moment, and we want to make sure we get that done properly and well and demonstrate how the projects can work, how communities can get involved in renewable energy and they can do it successfully and they can do it through a co-op entity as the way they do it. And we just want to do that first and make sure we’re doing it really well and successfully. Once we’re successful with this, once we’ve got this thing up, once we can see the panels, once we can see the electricity being generated and we can see the income coming in, yes, then we’ll look at some other areas of interest but it will always be in renewable energy one way or the other, and it may be in different kinds of products for households to reduce their energy consumption. There’s a whole kind of range of things that we could do, but it’s one thing at a time for us at the moment, and we want to really stay focused on this one job.
Michael [00:38:45] In the near decade that you’ve been working to get it up, we’ve seen different shifts by governments regarding renewables. Private enterprise is taking it up. Is it easier now? If you were starting up now, would there be anything different that you would go about setting up a community solar co-op.
Peter [00:39:07] The first thing is we just wouldn’t beat around the bush and try and figure out which is the best entity. We just go for a co-op because I think that’s the best entity. There’s a lot of stuff that we did in the early days, which they were a waste of time. And part of that was because we weren’t sure of the technology. We looked at a whole lot of different kinds of technology, whole different ways of putting the panels up. There wasn’t the kind of battery technology that ran in those days, so we weren’t even sure back in those days in what we do. Now, if we’re starting right from scratch, we would go straight. We’ve got a much greater knowledge of how to do it. We’d certainly find the right site. The right kind of wires are running through the site, basically, you’ve got to find a site that’s got the right kind of wires that are running through it so you can hook into the grid, those sorts of considerations. You know, we’ve also been talking with a couple of what we call behind the meter organisations big users of electricity that have either a big roof for or whole spare land. And in those cases, you can build a community-owned power station that just house that one entity behind the metre, which means you don’t go into the grid at all, just like a house, it will just go straight in your house. You can build a fairly big behind the metre set up. Bunnings are doing that, for example, they’re putting solar panels on their roof and just powering their own warehouses behind the metre. And that’s even more profitable for the owner because they get even cheaper electricity and it’s a good way to do things. So it’s down the track that we may even go down that track because we’ve already talked to a couple of fairly big loads about doing some behind the metre work with them.
Michael [00:40:43] We’ve seen Glasgow and they talk of zero emissions, your Co-op, in that time and the other changes, and we’re seeing big business themselves going into having targets of zero emissions, is it easier to be getting the door opened to deal with those mid-range operations because you’re coming in and you’re saying, look, we’re going to do renewables and we’re a co-op, but we think we can deliver the solar energy that you require for electricity.
Peter [00:41:18] Yes, I think it is, I think there’s been a huge shift in people’s understandings and it’s a different environment now in Glasgow, you know, it wasn’t what everybody hoped for and certainly the Australian response was not what everybody hoped for. But outside of the federal government in particular, the state governments and big business are all getting behind renewable energy because they just see the writing on the wall. And it’s inevitable that within the next 20 years, there’ll be very little fossil fuel generation anywhere in the world because everybody is understanding the damage it can do. And economically, it’s just so much cheaper to build solar and wind now than it is to build coal. The government is having to fork out $600 million to help build a gas fired power station, whereas building solar and wind can be basically done without any government help at all. And that’s what companies are now doing, and it’s profitable. It’s profitable to build this stuff, and it’s easy to run it, and there’s a lot of community support right across Australia, there’s a lot of community support for renewable energy.
Michael [00:42:29] That increased interest, business still has to run at a profit, at the same time, do you find that they almost get a warm feeling, thinking, well, we’re dealing with a community-owned and run entity.
Peter [00:42:45] It’s huge, I mean, we’ve had, once we announced that we were going to do this, we’ve just had so many of the bigger companies that are in this industry, approaching us and wanting to be part of it simply because for them, it’s good PR that they’re doing something for the community, that they can feel, yes, this is a useful way of them being involved in renewable energy by supporting communities to do their own thing. So it’s been an enormous amount of, huge number of people approach us all the time, still approaching us, wanting to be involved because I can see it as, it’s a positive thing to do for the community and for themselves.
Michael [00:43:28] As a co-op, do you make sure that you’ve got that name of Goulburn up there in front of everybody because like all country towns and in fact cities as well, there is that parochialism. Do you make sure that that name of Goulburn is out there as a co-op as well?
Peter [00:43:44] Yes, sure do, it’s a great place to live and it’s a great community here. It’s very positive. It’s a very positive-minded community. And it’s and it’s a really good place to live. I lived in Sydney for 50 odd years of my life and then moved down here, and I’d much prefer to be living in a regional community than I would put back in Sydney because I go back there and, you know, everything’s horrendous. Driving around there on the weekend was just horrendous. So I love being here and the people here are real. It’s a real sense of community and that I think it’s part of what drives the whole co-op thing that there is this whole sense of being belonging and belonging to a group of people that have a positive view of themselves and a positive view of where they live.
Michael [00:44:29] Well, Peter, you’ve chosen a town that, let’s face it, can be bitterly cold in winter. The wind howls through the air, which I can understand why there are so many wind farms, but therefore you are not going to want any failure in these top end batteries that you’re putting in for the power generation by the co-op around the district.
Peter [00:44:51] And so, it’s no colder than Orange. It’s no colder than Canberra. This is just, you know, anything above 500 metres; it’s cold in winter. It’s windy here, but it’s windy as you know, they’re building wind farms all up and down the great dividing range, right from up in Barnaby’s electorate, up in Tamworth and Armidale so there’s plenty of wind up there as well. But yes, I think people think it’s windy because they drive from Sydney to Canberra and they take a break in Goulburn and think, oh, geez, it’s cold and windy here, but it’s no colder than Canberra.
Michael [00:45:21] I mean, it’s surprising to see a solar farm.
Peter [00:45:23] Yes, it’ll be great; it’ll be fantastic when they see a solar farm. They can see all the wind farms around the place even Joe Hockey, he saw some wind farms on Lake George and didn’t like them, but there’s plenty of them. But now there’s going to be a solar farm, and I think people will, yes, they’ll be surprised, pleasantly surprised.
Michael [00:45:43] Well, Peter Fraser, as the director and board member of the Goulburn Community Energy Co-op, I suppose you’re only looking for a bright future for the solar farm.
Peter [00:45:55] We sure are here and we’re looking forward to raising some more capital, which we’ll be doing over the next few months and putting in a much bigger battery, which is going to be a real big plus for us. I think we’re feeling very positive about it.
Michael [00:46:09] Peter, thanks for your time.
Peter [00:46:10] Thanks very much for your interest.
Melina [00:46:15] Peter Fraser, founding member and director of Goulburn Community Energy Co-operative with Michael Kavanagh. Michael, I understand we’re heading off to South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula for the next Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals podcasts for Meet the Co-op Farmer.
Michael [00:46:31] Mel, we’re going on about the grain handling co-op and you just immediately think of grain, and the Eyre Peninsula is a massive producer of grain. But this co-op, which is still in its infancy but really growing, has got itself involved with the local indigenous groups and also and we see the tension between farmers and miners. In this case, the co-operative is also working with one of the larger resource operations in the region, and they look as though they’ll all be working together and coming up with green products as well.
Melina [00:46:53] I hope you enjoyed this latest episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers. If you’d like to know anything about setting up or running a successful agricultural co-operative, you can find out everything you need to know at the Co-op Farming website that’s www.coopfarming.coop that’s right coop for co-operative. Please share this with your mates. If you enjoyed this story, we really do want to get the great stories of farming cooperation out there and remember in a troubled world with all of the challenges, but also the opportunities we have, we really are better together. I’m Melina Morrison and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers.
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