While the debate rages on in Federal Parliament over energy policies for affordable electricity, one South Australian regional council has quietly taken action – delivering immediate, long-lasting relief, especially to low income families who are most affected by rising energy costs.

Port Pirie Regional Council has initiated their own Community Power Network, enabling residents to install solar panels and batteries with no money up front. With drastically reduced electricity bills, residents are expected to save between $500 and $1500 per household every year – after making repayments on the system.

This is a significant net economic benefit to the local economy. Rather than money going towards paying electrical bills, residents have more disposable income for the local economy, which is currently on track to be over $250,000; a substantial sum for such a small community.

If other local councils across Australia were to generate a similar benefit for their community, the overall positive impact could be tremendous, easily numbering into the hundreds of millions of dollars becoming available for local cafés, shops and services.

Port Pirie is an ideal testing ground to create a solution that can work anywhere in Australia. Across the council area, the median weekly household income is $875 compared with a national average of $1438.* With electricity costs 30-60% higher in South Australia than elsewhere across the country,# Port Pirie residents are paying a much greater proportion of their income on electricity. The key has been to deliver a solution that is affordable for low income families, yet uses the highest quality technology.

Its tangibility could have some influence on inspiring uptake. Successive governments’ responses to escalating power bills have been to suggest shopping around for a new retailer, install solar panels or reduce energy use. This is easier said than done.

Community Power Network's remarkable savings and industry leading technology were enthusiastically welcomed by the Port Pirie Community – with the rollout making prime-time news.

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Former Mayor John Rohde, residents Gordon and Lorraine Williams, council members, Alan Zubrinich and James Holyman, and Community Power Network Founder, Glenn Morelli.

 

When you are on a low income, being energy wise can be a bridge too far. If your washing machine has broken down, how can you save $730 for the 4-star one, let alone $400 for a less efficient model? Should you adjust your fridge temperature to warmer and let your food spoil sooner? Do you limit your TV viewing at night because that is when power prices are at their highest? Similarly, with falling feed-in tariffs reducing the returns on solar panels, will the savings be enough to justify the outlay?

Port Pirie’s Community Power Network is a first for an Australian council. Giving people access to technology that they are typically deprived of through financial circumstances is a game changer. From being at the mercy of electricity retailers, they are now the ones with the control, generating and storing their own power. Alongside the economic impact, the emotional impact of this should not be ignored.

This is precisely the motivation behind the initiative says James Holyman, Director Corporate & Community at Port Pirie Regional Council.

“The people who need solar the most are the ones who can least afford it. We have now changed that. Many of our local residents are under a lot of emotional stress with uncertainty for the future of electricity pricing. Further, high electricity prices impact the entire community and drain money out of the local economy – it reduces the household capacity to pay for basic things, such as to go out and socialise, which harms our social fabric and business confidence.”

The cost to participating households starts at just $19.20 per week over four years. That means that the most vulnerable, low income residents gain access to relief from electricity pricing. This gives them a 2kW system of world-class, Australian-made Tindo Solar panels. The low price for the high quality system is due to the bulk purchasing power; so far, over 200 households have signed up.

Households are of course free to access larger and more sophisticated systems, including the use of German made Sonnen battery storage, which can also be used for grid stabilisation.

In practical terms, one of these larger 5kW systems produces around 20kW of power each day. According to the Australian Government’s Energy Made Easy website, a typical four person household in Port Pirie consumes uses around 18.1kWh per day across the year. Based on this, not only will residents be requiring almost no extra power from the grid, it is possible they will be earning a credit instead.

When the system is paid off, residents will effectively be paying nothing – or close to it – for electricity for years to come, with the panels performance warrantied for 25 years and the battery for 10 years.

Port Pirie Regional Council has taken a wholistic approach with the solution. In addition to putting the project out to tender to ensure the maximum long-term benefits for residents, they engaged Jon Dee, founder of Planet Ark, to educate residents about saving energy when using solar and mains power. As James Holyman says, “If you use it inefficiently, you are still going to buy off the grid.”

While Port Pirie Regional Council is taking a position of leadership for its community, it is unlikely to be an outlier for long. Other councils, such as Darebin City Council and City of Adelaide, have implemented their own successful projects in recent years. Although without the inclusion of batteries, these projects have offered smaller financial benefits and significantly longer payback times.

With Community Power Network as the model, councils have a ready made solution for a problem whose impact is rippling out through communities across Australia.

Individuals are also joining nationwide, eager to realise the benefits.

There's no obligation to accept any offer. Joining is a simple first step to knowing how worthwhile this can be for you.

 

* 2016 Census
# https://www.canstarblue.com.au/electricity/electricity-costs-kwh Retrieved 24/10/18