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  • Writer's pictureKira Day

Hepburn Wind's resilient community powered by renewables

The first of its kind in Australia, Hepburn Wind is a cooperative wind farm, owned and operated by 2,000 members of the local community. It can be found just an hour and twenty minutes west of Melbourne at Leonard's Hill. Hepburn Wind's two turbines - aptly named Gale and Gusto - generate enough electricity to offset the needs of nearby towns Daylesford and Hepburn Springs.

As a producer of renewable energy for the local community, Hepburn Wind appears on two Best for the World lists - Community and Environment - for the fourth consecutive year. We sat down for a conversation with General Manager Taryn Lane to hear about Hepburn Wind's work to date, including emissions literacy programs, moving towards net zero emissions by 2030, and their recent plan to install a solar farm alongside the turbines.

B Lab: Hepburn Wind is such a unique B Corp in Australia, not only because of what it is, but also its structure. I'd love for you to tell us more about the cooperative structure and what it looks like in practice.

Taryn: When we first went for B Corp certification in 2016, we were the first cooperative in the Southern Hemisphere applying for certification. There was only one other example in the Northern Hemisphere in America that we could mirror off. What makes a cooperative different is that they are genuinely a social enterprise. It's really a democratic structure, so it's one member, one vote. Each member is a financial shareholder in the property. We have 2,013 of those.

Each member, no matter how big their shareholding is, has the same democratic rights as every other person in the room. We might have a member that has 100 shares worth $100, or we might have a member that has 20,000 shares at $20,000, but they still all sit in the room and have exactly the same vote. That's the governance perspective.

In regards to the role of the membership, it's a lot more participatory. We might have all of our board as members, all of our staff as members, and a lot of our procurement comes from members. We're really supporting those members in their participation. When we want to do something strategically, we'll do big member surveys and find out what the pulse is of our membership base. We try to align ourselves with with what the members want us to do.

Two wind turbines on a grassy hill.
Gale and Gusto can be seen from many of the homes they power.

B Lab: How does that structure contribute to the culture and operations at Hepburn Wind? Does it feel more like a community than a business?

Taryn: Not only is the organisation more of a participatory organisation, but we are located in a relatively small regional community where we're here to do very place-based work. We are supporting our community to reach net zero emissions by 2030. We do support programs like bulk buys for solar energy efficiency, and various other types of programs. We're here to be a community asset and to support our community as well.

B Lab: That definitely comes through in the B Impact Assessment when we talk about local economic development, because most of the employees live locally and are actually benefiting from the energy product itself. It's quite special to have people working on something where they get to realise the end product.

Taryn: Absolutely. We're also an all women-run wind farm. I don't know of any others in the world.

B Lab: I don't think I know very many wind farms run as cooperatives, or many wind farms run by women, so that's a double whammy! What type of impact does Hepburn Wind have on the local grid for energy consumption?

Taryn: We offset approximately the consumption energy consumption of the local area of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, and that accounts for about about 2,200 homes on average. Every year we're generating what's called 11,000 megawatt hours of clean energy for our local community. Rather than pulling electricity from La Trobe Valley like we historically used to do, we're generating clean energy right into our local distribution network for our communities to use. They can purchase a local energy product from us as well.

B Lab: You mentioned you're working to get an entire community to net zero emissions by 2030. What does that actually look like in practice?

Taryn: One of our partnership programs is Hepburn Z-NET, which we helped to develop. It's an open-source model for how a community can lead its own climate transition.

We knew that in our community, most people were really renewables literate. Most people can look up the hill and say, 'The two turbines are there, so we know that 100% renewables is possible.'

But no community in Australia is really emissions literate. That's also talking about agriculture, waste, transport, land use, and all the various sectors and industries. So we decided that we wanted to start with literacy and building solutions in a really place-based way in our local community. We've been working on that for two years. We have a shared community council and the Hepburn Wind partnership to deliver towards a target of zero net emissions by 2030. We're giving a fair crack. We've seen in the past 18 months around $4 million spent towards zero net emissions in the community, in a very small community of 15,000 people. We're seeing a lot of activity, which is really exciting.

B Lab: I want to talk about some of the educational programs, because like you said, a lot of Australia struggles with emissions literacy. That means understanding not only where the emissions are coming from, but how we start the transition to renewables and eliminating the sources of emissions. When you're doing these education programs, what are some of the barriers that you see to achieving emissions literacy?

Taryn: The challenge that we all have, whether it's in community, in organisations, or in government, to transition to net zero by - at most - a 2050 trajectory, is that the challenge is so huge.

It can seem insurmountable, and it can seem like we need to wait for other people to take responsibility for it.

What we found is that breaking it down into very bite-sized chunks and having very friendly information and educational materials is hugely effective. We have been talking in our community about what place-based solutions could be, and then piloting ideas. We've been trying to work out the most accessible programs that people engage with and are interested in that meet their needs. Those very micro and place-based solutions really work. They are highly replicable and scalable as well, so that's why we're interested in them.

B Lab: You mentioned this idea of place-based solutions a few times, which I think is really important to highlight here. What do you think it is about using place as the centre or anchoring point for something like a transition to renewables is so effective?

Taryn: Particularly in regional communities, there is quite a high concept of what community is and what future and destiny the local community wants to see for its area. Having social enterprises, cooperatives, not-for-profits all collaborating together and trying to work out solutions in a place-based way is something that the community can really support on a broad level. It's not someone coming in and doing development to them, or them having no choice about the kind of development that's happening.

It means they are participating in and, in many cases, leading that change, which I think is a big motivator.

If we are looking at a big tricky issue like transitioning to renewables or adapting through climate change and reducing our emissions, these are long-term ideas, concepts, and projects that we need to build community around.

Editor's note: At this point in the interview, Taryn's dog, Coco, started barking. She picked Coco up to show me her wearing a turtleneck. "She's done her architectural internships," Taryn explained. It took us a minute to stop laughing and get back to the interview.

B Lab: Sometimes you need people to see the place that's going to be affected, and think about how it's going to change over time. They can also see their own community and think about their kids, or their neighbour's kids, and wonder what the world is going to look like for them.

B Lab: I'd love to talk about some of the ways that you've scaled, so how you've gone from a little community initiative to now a large cooperative that is powering up to 2,000 homes at any given time. What are some of the things that you've learned along the way?

Taryn: Some of the recent lessons about how we approach our operating environment is that we're really here to serve the members and to serve the community. Our members have a really low appetite for risk. Because we are a very lean operation and a very small cooperative in the scheme of things, when we want to grow and take these opportunities then we generally seek grants. We don't really take the risks within our own business line.

We have been successful in achieving quite a few grants, including one which is to essentially double the energy production by adding a solar farm up there. We've just submitted a planning permit in the past few months to the state government for a solar farm a storage facility. That is really important for climate adaptation because in the years where there is low wind and iBest for the World 2021 lists here.iwill perform really well. When it's a very rainy year, then the wind farm will be the lead operator. It's about long-term resilience for us.

Everything that we do is under Creative Commons, and we set ourselves up the Hepburn Model. We have freely shared that over the past decade with a lot of other communities. The community energy sector has really grown over that time, so there's now 110 community energy groups around Australia, and over 100 projects that have that have been built. It's really exciting to see that expansion in the sector.

B Lab: Are you seeing the conversations around renewables changing over the past few years? Outside of your community, is it becoming easier to pass that model on as people see the need for renewables?

Taryn: Yes, absolutely. I feel like several years ago, we were still very much in that advocacy space talking about why it was really important to switch to renewables.

We've definitely passed a threshold now where the market is delivering renewables, and nothing can stop it.

For me, the big conversation now has to be: what about everything else? What about all the other emissions sectors that we're reliant on?

B Lab: What would you want to see Hepburn Wind achieve in the next decade? What's the big aspiration?

Taryn: I want to see a thriving, resilient net zero community. One that's a lighthouse for other communities around Australia to see what's possible. I want to complete our solar and battery facility, and hopefully have some sister sites across the Shire as well. That would be my dream.

One of the reasons why five years ago we decided to initially go for B Corp certificaton, even though there had only been one cooperative before, was because it really complements the existing certifications and structures that we have. A cooperative is very good for democratic participation; we're Social Traders certified and that's very good for the profit-sharing processes. But there was nothing to tie all those things together. Particularly the environmental piece, to really ensure that our environmental piece was robust but also was recognised for what it was. For us, it was really beneficial to have that complementary certification.

B Lab: Thank you for doing a quick plug, even though you didn't have to! I love to see when businesses break the model of what B Corp was initially designed to be, becuse it fits the values and also helps make the certification better by helping us think outside the box of what business can look like, regardless of the legal structure.

Best for the World recognises B Corps with exceptional work in any of the five impact areas of the B Impact Assessment: community, customers, environment, governance, and workers. Their score has placed them in the top 5% of B Corps for their size in that impact area.

Congratulations to Hepburn Wind for being recognised as Best for the World in Community and Environment. Check out the Best for the World 2021 lists here.

All images courtesy of Hepburn Wind.



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