The Finkel Review provided direction from above but it is community groups that are spearheading the shift to renewables, writes Heather Smith.

People should be at the heart of our energy system – not consumers. It’s unfortunate that the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s plan to update our failing electricity system doesn’t acknowledge this.

Yes, the Finkel Review has some great bits; it recognises the importance of distributed energy, or building our energy where it’s needed, and acknowledges that electricity consumers are becoming power producers who should be rewarded for their work. But the Finkel review paints Australia’s energy system as one that is made up of big, multimillion-dollar corporations and individual consumers instead of what we’ve actually got: communities and neighbours joining forces to build and run their own clean energy projects to wrest back control of their power bills and safeguard the environment.

Australia is just starting to realise the potential of community energy, which is going gangbusters overseas. Last year I was fortunate to travel on a Churchill Fellowship to track exciting developments in the United States, Germany, Denmark, the UK and Japan.

It was a small fishing and holiday village on Denmark’s windy west coast that really brought home the importance of putting people at the centre of energy upgrades. In Hvide Sande proposals for enormous wind farms had never been viewed favourably. The town was easily able to get behind redeveloping its harbour, though, so putting three large turbines on the main beach and using the project profits to finance an upgrade of the harbour won community approval. This project, appropriately sized and structured to deliver a benefit to everyone in the community, enjoys overwhelming support.

Back home, community energy is the key to delivering on the Finkel Review’s aspirations to create local energy supply, keep a lid on power prices and cut pollution.

South Australia’s Citizens Own Renewable Energy Network Australia (CORENA) is a pioneer in the sector. It encourages individuals to loan cash to community groups to put solar on their buildings or improve their energy efficiency. Gawler Community House near the state’s Barossa region did both. It replaced halogen security lights with LEDs fitted with sensors and installed a 10kW solar system to help power its yoga classes, community get-togethers, arts and numeracy and literacy courses. The Community House has an extra $1,500 each quarter to hold events and paid back the CORENA loan in less than four years. That money has now been reinvested in projects elsewhere.

Clearsky Solar, in Sydney, matches small-scale investors with businesses who want to go solar. It’s a simple idea that benefits everyone – the business pays the investors for cheap and clean power for a set period until the system is paid off. They get to keep the solar system at the end, which means free power. Throughout the process investors get a competitive rate of return. Investor demand is also off the charts; Clearsky’s investment offers are snapped up within hours, raising more than $100,000 each time.

One of the most interesting community energy groups in Australia is ENOVA in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. ENOVA sells power the way AGL and Origin do but is owned by the people. It’s an Australian first and was created because locals wanted a friendly retailer to make the most of the solar assets in their region. Half the retailer’s profits go to a not-for-profit entity that will provide energy advice to the community, helping people further with reducing their energy bills. ENOVA estimates its community spends $300 million each year on electricity and that it can return up to $80 million to the local economy in the form of profits, jobs and sourcing local staff and suppliers.

Every town, suburb and village, be they on the coast, in our big cities or in the middle of the country, have exciting and unique opportunities to take back control of their power. Double-digit power bill shocks and extreme weather driven by climate change are making this more important than ever.

Finkel is right about our unstoppable move to local power but he underestimates the ways communities can co-operate to deliver what they need.

Why wouldn’t you build more community power projects?

Heather Smith is a 2016 Churchill Fellow and serves on the boards of community energy group CORENA and the Coalition for Community Energy.