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Scaling Up: Transforming Equity-based Community Pilot Projects into Region-wide Solutions

Session leaders

  • April Crawford-Smith, Convenor, Pingala Community Renewables
  • Rob Law, Project Manager, Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action (NAGA) (Presentation)
  • Tom Nockolds, Secretary, Pingala Community Renewables
  • Steve Williams, President, Constructive Public Engagement


In this session, two Australian case studies and Socio-Technical Systems Theory were explored. Claire Havens opened the session with an overview of the Australian energy context:

  • 70% of Australia’s electricity is generated by aging plants powered by coal, which are primarily fueled by lignite.
  • 1.1 million households in Australia has solar power.
  • The Australian Capital Territory set a 100% renewable energy target, which it expects to meet in 2018 through reverse auction.
  • South Australia is meeting 50% of its energy needs using renewable sources.

Offering a regional perspective, Rob Law of the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action (NAGA) in the State of Victoria, Australia, described his group’s approach to replicating and scaling up local projects across the northern region of Victoria. Solar Savers, for example, is a project developed in the City of Darebin through which zero-interest loans are provided to low-income households to install solar PV systems. The loans are paid back over 10 years through rate charges and the overall results include reductions in energy costs, emissions, and vulnerability to grid interruptions. NAGA developed a business case to solicit funding built on: having positive cash-flow from day 1 of the project; providing 10-year loans at rates less than 5%; and economies of scale captured through sharing resources. This work also involved collaboration with all levels of Australian subnational governments. The program is currently being run by 22 local councils and is continually expanding.

Coming from another region of Australia, representatives of Pingala described a community solar project they developed in the City of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. April Crawford-Smith and Tom Nockolds brought community members together to install solar PV panels at a local micro-brewery, Young Henrys, with the vision of more equitable ownership and control of the energy system. They stated that solar is important in the context of a federal government that lacks political connection to renewable energy and described community energy as a way to allow renters, students, and vulnerable community members to influence the system. Investors were invited to subscribe through an equity-crowdfunding platform and the shares were sold out within 7 minutes of opening the offer! In this co-operative model, the microbrewery rents the solar panels from owner, which in this case is Pingala Co-op, and the shareholders earn the value of the energy savings. 

Wrapping up the presentations, Steve Williams introduced the concepts behind Socio-Technical Transition (STS) Theory (pdf ). Figure 1 shows how STS merges niche innovations with socio-technical regimes and contextualizes them within the socio-technical landscape. In other words, STS helps figure out how individual projects can be or are being dealt with by various regimes and also how the context influences them. Socio-technical regimes include policy and market structures and cultural narratives. This theory posits that when niche innovations align they put upward pressure on socio-technical regimes, which leads to changes in the system (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Multi-level perspective on transitions

Whereas traditional system change theories typically analyze system elements in isolation, STS can capture the benefits of the system as a whole (e.g. the impact of relationships between the system elements), which are greater than the sum of its parts. For designing change systems, STS can be used to open spaces for learning and experimentation, develop networks of people working across all three spaces (niche, regime, and landscape), and amplify the dynamics between transition levels.


Participants were tasked with exploring the NAGA and Pingala examples through the STS lens and asked to identify opportunities to scale up each project. At the socio-technical regime level, they suggested that persistence of the coal market, the cost of solar panels, and legislative barriers impact the potential to change Australian energy systems. Participants learned that the “Solar Citizens Group” lobbies the Australian Government to reduce regulatory barriers in the way of solar projects.

With respect to the Pingala project, participants identified crowdfunding and the co-operative model as niche innovations whose combination allowed for development of a local market for investors. Participants pointed out that community energy providers and the co-operative model make an ideal combination because they succeed through mutual support by members.

The STS analysis showed participants that Pingala Co-op shifted its interaction with the socio-technical regime by changing the financing model, although interpretation of the impacts of that shift varied (see Figure 1). One group characterized the relationship as supportive, suggesting the state-level feed-in-tariffs (FITs) reduced installation costs and improved solar uptake, bringing success for the co-op. The second group suggested FITs were established in response to upward pressure from niche innovations, like Pingala’s solar project. Through the lens of STS, participants observed that co-op models are more robust than using FITs because they release the project from influences coming from the socio-technical landscape—this demonstrated the utility of STS.

The question was raised as to whether the Pingala model would be transferable to markets with different solar costs, such as in Canada, and whether community members would be ready to invest. Participants were directed to several North American co-operatives, including: Solar Share, Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative, and Alberta Solar Co-op. A final observation was that scaling up was a common theme at the Global Learning Forum and that it would be beneficial to discuss breakthrough moments that opened opportunities to scale up. Steve Williams addresses this question in a pending publication.


Participants provided feedback to the session leaders to help them further the success of their respective projects based on the principles of STS. To scale local or pilot projects up to scales on community or city levels, participants suggested the following:

  • Leverage “solar citizens” and community energy advocacy groups and engage champions of disruption, such as Elon Musk, to stimulate change.
  • Use the power of narratives that inspire action, such as stories about:
    • health benefits,
    • opportunities for retraining workers from other industries,
    • desire to work with low-income housing developers, or
    • the impacts of coal plant closures.
  • Be mindful of external influences and strategic partnerships at the innovator level.
  • Partner with an installer to help identify, assess, and install projects to time and resources intensive front-end development.
  • Develop volunteer programs that morph into paid positions as the project grows.
  • Pressure governments to involve the community, “Doing it for the community means doing it with the community.”
  • Build demonstration projects and share case studies.