Australia: Securing our energy future: Corrs sits down with Alison Rowe of the Moreland Enery Foundation

In the second article of our series, Securing our Energy Future, we talk to Alison Rowe of the Moreland Energy Foundation. Established 18 years ago, the Foundation began life when the electricity sector was privatised in Victoria. Moreland City Council decided to set up an independent 'not for profit', focussing on renewable energy and climate change. Today, the Foundation is a national organisation with a vision of an equitable zero carbon society. It sees its role as facilitating this transition, to empower communities to take action.

Corrs: Alison, The Moreland Energy Foundation has been around for almost two decades now. How has the community changed in that time?

Alison: I think the biggest thing we find now is we're not debating climate change as much as we used to. It's not a polarised issue and I think despite the lack of energy policies in our market, individuals are getting on and making the changes they need to make themselves. In local and state governments, there seems to be a very strong shift towards independence in terms of energy and control over your own destiny. The community is far more engaged in taking individual action.

Corrs: The foundation's vision is an equitable zero carbon society. How close or how far away are we to that?

Alison: We haven't put a time frame on our new vision as we don't want to be limited by a point in time. We actually want to do everything we can to accelerate the transition. We've three goals that are under our strategic plan. One is that we create, demonstrate and share clear transition pathways to a zero carbon society. The second goal is we increase energy efficiency and investment in renewables within Australia and the third goal is that we are a sustainable organisation ourselves.

Corrs: Let's consider that first goal. How do you see that when the events in Canberra suggest a rather fragmented approach in terms of State and Federal policy?

Alison: What we are seeing is an uprising of local government and community. We've worked with Moreland City Council on their 2040 zero carbon strategy, helping to design that and uniquely we are also helping implement that. That's a community-wide strategy that has had buy-in from the community. Another example is we worked on the Hepburn Sustainable Shire program which again is a community-wide strategy. So what we are actually seeing is, despite a lack of clarity at the Federal level – a very strong ambition in Victoria but as you say, it's different in different States. The role of local government in the community is really becoming leaders around this space.

Corrs: The Foundation clearly wants policy responses that enable emissions reduction through efficiency and renewable energy. Are the mechanisms there in your mind?

Alison: We don't have a good policy and landscape for the investment in renewable energy in Australia. That is a big challenge and we often hear a request for market certainty, which I don't we think actually really get from an actual policy. However, as we go through this transition of the energy system and we increase our renewables, we do require the policies and the frameworks in place to support the market. What happens when the RET runs out, what comes in its place?

Another aspect around policy is making sure that we set minimum standards for new homes and rental properties. We've got a large stock of housing across Australia that's in pretty poor condition from a thermal comfort perspective and that impacts the most vulnerable members of our community. We've just released a leadership paper that addresses this very issue. Are we looking after our neighbours? We've done a study and looked at all the recent recommendations that have come out from AER and ACCC.

There is a real issue in Australia that we have a significant amount of people who are paying over 10% of their weekly take home on an energy bill. This is typically families of five or more who are in low income housing. We're concerned that there has been an increase in people being disconnected and a reduction in people on hardship programs and for us that's not looking after the most vulnerable members of our community.

We're delivering two large State government projects at the moment. One is through the Department of Health & Human Services which is retrofitting 1,500 low income social housing properties. It's pretty devastating the way that people are living in Victoria. The poverty we're seeing around energy is really heart breaking. We've been to one person's home where all the blinds were down. There was no heating, cooling, and lighting. The fridge was unplugged. The only way that the family was eating was by using canned food in the microwave and then turning that microwave off when they were finished. These are the conditions that people are living in and it could be your neighbour. We've also visited another person's home where they have a $10,000 electricity debt and they will never be able to repay that debt - a person in a low income social housing property.

The other big program that we are delivering on behalf of the State government is a program called 'Healthy Homes'. We are looking at another 1000 properties - 800 of those are in Western Melbourne and 200 in the Goulbourn Valley - and this is about connecting the relationship between health and energy efficiency.

Corrs: Let's talk about increasing energy efficiency and investment in renewable energy in Australia.

Alison: We're working with local councils both in Victoria and NSW. We will go and educate the community around energy efficiency. Alternatively, we might do a solar bulk buy for a council, so they can come to us and get a trusted procurement process for solar providers that are all credited with the Clean Energy Council. We also run an energy advice line where we help people with their bills and assess their feasibility for solar, helping them to determine quotes. We're engaging people to support them in that transition around renewables.

Corrs: And, of course, you need to live your own values. So, the third strand of your vision is looking at yourselves internally.

Alison: We need to be a sustainable organisation ourselves. I think it's pretty remarkable that through the last 18 years we have actually been able to survive as a not for profit. We are looking at three different dimensions under this goal. One is that we do all of that stuff around looking after the environment and have accreditation of our offices off-setting all of our emissions - that is a given. But the other aspect is around how do we reinvest a surplus? So we are really focused around making sure that when we do make a surplus we investigate that in the right way for the most impact. The other part is our people, the not-for-profit sector doesn't have all the typical resources of support that other larger organisations do but we absolutely have to look after a diverse and flexible workforce where people are happy to come here and they love coming to work.

That is a real focus for us.

Corrs: What would be your message to communities?

Alison: We have the biggest opportunity to be the leader in the world on renewable energy. We have the most opportunity geographically in terms of our space, in terms of our uninhibited land but we could actually be driving the revolution across the world when it comes to energy. We need to do that in a different way than we have been doing. I am very optimistic about the opportunities, I think there is fantastic new business models that are coming up. I think we have got the technology we have got the will and are already those new business models in the market. I am filled with optimism about Australia's potential. I hope we can take that and be the leader, but we must always remember that we need to look after our neighbour.

We can't leave anyone behind in this big transition.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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