A battery big enough to provide power for a whole street – seems like a great idea, hey?  Unfortunately the numbers don’t always stack up, and any installation of a battery ‘in front of meter’ (as opposed to ‘behind the meter’ or at one site only for that site’s benefit) needs to be carefully scrutinised. Our director Rachel is a Board member of Solar Harvest community energy co-operative and has recently been looking at community batteries.

The Community Batteries for Household Solar grants program was implemented as part of the national Powering Australia Plan in the 2022/23 federal budget. It involves a federal investment of $224.3m over 4 years for the purpose of installing 400 batteries which will potentially service 100,000 homes. Community batteries can make energy cheaper and more accessible, reducing reliance on grid electricity, and allow households to achieve greater energy resilience and curb their carbon emissions. This should help Australia to move a tiny bit closer to its Paris Agreement targets and help solve frequent grid congestion issues caused by excess renewable energy production.

It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of the grants at this stage as many projects are not yet complete, and earlier community battery trials in Australia presented mixed outcomes.

  • Narara Ecovillage reported success in emissions reduction and community resilience, however, there were ongoing operational problems.
  • Yarra Energy Foundation found that even with a large grant, the project costs blew out.

Photo David Dodge, Green Energy Futures

Insufficient public consultation is a recurring problem with community battery projects. Most are initiated by service providers (such as SA Power Networks) rather than the community groups themselves, and there is often a lack of transparency. Residents are unsure if the provider is working for the benefit of the community, the environment, or for profit, and genuine collaboration with the community is often missing. In both Australian and European trials, communities often assumed the battery was being installed to reduce grid reliance and reduce their energy bills, but the provider wanted to use the storage to reduce grid congestion, and the energy prices ended up being no better for householders than previously.

Different business models mean that not all community battery projects are economically viable in the long run; in many instances the revenue is too low to make them commercially sustainable. Subsidisation with grants makes community batteries initially affordable, however, the ongoing costs of maintenance and administration, and costs of disposal and replacement at end of battery life can accumulate and be too much for the average community to finance. Service providers looking to install a community battery should present a comprehensive strategy, including funding options, to maintain the project beyond the grant funding period and avoid financial stress on communities leading to early shut down.

Due to the newness of the technology and concept there is not much in the way of legal and financial framework for projects like this and policies can change depending on where you live. Even energy specialists are sometimes unsure of current policy and legislation, and the rules and regulations accompanying the grants offered by the Australian federal government certainly aren’t easy to interpret.

Community batteries may help energy equity, grid stabilisation, and emissions reduction goals, however, grants for large-scale community projects mask the real long-term costs causing communities to struggle financially once the grant has been exhausted. Due to these shortfalls, they don’t really promote community resilience or equity, and therefore, we can’t say for sure whether a grant-funded community battery is a viable long-term solution to current energy issues in Australia. Community consultation must be more transparent in future to ensure that everyone knows the purpose and benefits of each installation and no nasty surprises. Hopefully, the government will learn from these early projects and develop more suitable and supportive policies for ongoing energy projects.