At its core, the story of community renewable energy is a story of empowerment; bringing together a group of ordinary people and giving them the tools and technologies to build build their own sources of cheaper, cleaner energy.
But for the people from The Valley Centre in NSW – who have been working with Aboriginal communities across the country on getting their ”power“ back, both literally and figuratively – the level of empowerment renewable energy technologies like solar can bring to community goes much deeper than that.
“Renewable energy is the catalyst to re-empower community,” said TVC’s Tracey Cooper in an interview with One Step Off The Grid. “Even as late as 60 years ago, many communities were completely resilient, completely sustainable.
“When big utilities and agribusiness came in that power was taken – in a metaphysical and literal sense. The heart and souls of communities were taken, too.
“We got really seduced by technology.”
Established in 1992, The Valley Centre’s stated mission is to bring sustainable technology to communities – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – by “building resilience, empowerment and self-determination to secure our future.”
More recently, in partnership with Pingala – Community Renewables for Sydney and with the support of a NSW government’s Office of Environment and Heritage grant, TVC has worked with three Aboriginal communities, focusing on building the resilience, self-determination and sustainability in north-western NSW.
In this task, energy plays a key role. For Cooper, who along with April Crawford-Smith is a key community facilitator at TVC, this much became clear when the two went “on country” to work towards sustainability microbusiness projects, and the challenges these communities are facing including impacts of climate change, of lack of employment and extreme costs of living.
“The most critical challenge was the power bills,” said Crawford-Smith, which were reaching an eye-watering level of $2,000-$5000 a quarter – a cost that was “literally strangling the families,” she says.
As it happens, this is an issue close to both women’s hearts, seen in the work they do with Pingala, which we have written about before on One Step here.
“What we did is to bring the sustainable resilience building technologies. The first thing that the communities identified as critical was the solar,” Cooper told One Step.
And the effect this had was immediate. For the community, she said, it lifted “a massive layer of oppression”, allowing the people to see what else was possible. For TVC, it again reinforced the realisation that there was a huge opportunity here for an incredible empowering process.
Of course, on this point as on many others, Australia is behind the global pace. In Canada, Cooper notes, as much as 70 per cent of renewable energy is owned and managed by the nation’s First Peoples.
As one indigenous Canadian activist put it in an article published by Reuters in October last year, “any way that communities can produce energy at a local level produces independence” – not only by giving them more freedom from the state, but by helping to revive ancient cultural practices, and allowing them to doing their part to combat climate change, which, the article notes, is hitting them particularly hard.
Now, The Valley Centre is hoping to use the latest round of energy technology to enable the communities themselves, on their own terms, to fix what is broken.
“If we can change this and demonstrate how simple and economic it can be, families will have the option to move back on country, re-empowering community and making life simple, sustainable, resilient and self-determined once more,” Crawford-Smith said.
To achieve this goal, TVC has been taking its process of relationship building and trust, moving onto the community developing it’s own ideas and plans for a more sustainable way of life, to communities across Aboriginal and rural Australia.
In late June, Aboriginal community Elders and a collection of TVC experts and project partners will come together in Sydney in a first meeting of its kind – a “linking together” of community, says Crawford-Smith, “the likes of which has not been seen before” – to streamline the rebuilding of communities.
As well as experts in renewable energy technology, the meeting will host representatives from sustainable food production, waste management, transport technology, water purification, eco affordable housing and funding organisations.
Even the venue itself is a functioning model of modern sustainability: The Valley Centre’s Eco Training and Research Centre – a 170 hectare facility on the Hawkesbury River, one hour from the Sydney CBD that Cooper calls an “Eco-Wonderland”, which showcases a variety of state-of-the-art technologies.
“It’s a place for kids to envision the future and a showcase for what’s possible” says Cooper.