News / Environment

End of the road for clean energy pioneer

Board decides to wind up Brunswick-based Australian Energy Foundation

Main photo: Creative Commons via flickr. Inset: Mike Cannon-Brookes

Mark Phillips
Thursday, September 1, 2022

IN the end, not even one of Australia’s richest men could save Brunswick-based Australian Energy Foundation.

The pioneering clean energy organisation that has helped thousands of households and businesses around Australia convert to renewable energy has permanently ceased operation.

Brighte Capital, which is backed by the private investment company of billionaire Atlassian software co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, confirmed on Wednesday that AEF had been wound up following a turbulent 12 months which included a large financial loss and a period in voluntary administration.

AEF, which began life in 2000 as the Moreland Energy Foundation Limited (MEFL), effectively became part of Brighte in December for the cost of a $750,000 loan.

AEF announced on August 8 in a statement no longer available on its website, which has been taken down, that it would be ceasing operations on Wednesday, August 31.

“The impact from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent turmoil in the energy market have posed unprecedented challenges to AEF, creating conditions that have made it difficult to continue delivering our programs and services,” it said.

“In this context, after an intensive period of deliberation, the AEF Board has decided to close operations as it has not been possible to secure the additional business and funding required to continue operations.”

The closure was confirmed by a brief statement on Brighte’s website on Tuesday, which acknowledged the work of AEF over 21 years and said Brighte “will continue this legacy, playing a role in bringing AEF’s vision of an equitable zero-carbon society to life by making a sustainable home affordable to everyone”.

The foundation’s most recent accounts reveal it made a loss of more than $500,000 last financial year and that revenue from governments, including an annual grant from Moreland City Council, fell by more than half at the same time as the organisation was haemorrhaging cash.

MEFL was founded in 2000 with proceeds from the sale of the Brunswick and Coburg councils’ electricity supply departments under the Kennett Government’s privatisation of Victoria’s power industry.

It grew to be a national organisation with staff in Melbourne and Sydney, positioning itself as a national leader in the delivery of practical solutions for households, small business, municipalities and other organisations to make the switch to renewable energy.

It changed its name to Australian Energy Foundation in 2019 in recognition of the national scale of its operations but remained based in Brunswick.

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Clean energy pioneer goes belly up

The organisation began to strike trouble last year when it made a loss of $524,488, compared to a $209,062 profit in 2020.  Revenue plummeted by 35% and it suffered negative cashflow of $1.2 million.

A factor in that result was Moreland City Council cutting its annual funding to the organisation from $761,953 to $119,364.

A tight rein on employee costs meant expenditure actually fell last year by almost 30% to $4.1 million.

The organisation had 26 staff, including 19 full-time, according to its most recent accounts.

AEF directors placed the company in voluntary administration at the end of October last year, with BRI Ferrier appointed to run the organisation.

Two days before Christmas last year, it was bailed out by a $750,000 loan from Sydney-based Brighte, whose backers include Mike Cannon-Brooke’s private investment company, Grok Capital.

A note included in last year’s financial report said: “Brighte’s support will enable AEF to continue as an independent not-for-profit, following a financially challenging period”.

Moreland Mayor Mark Riley said he was saddened by the demise of AEF, even though the council had not been involved in the running of the organisation since it restructured as an independent charity and was renamed in 2019. Prior to then, the council had a seat on the foundation’s board.

Cr Riley said the foundation had provided advice and support to help thousands of Moreland residents and businesses reduce their energy bills and make the switch to clean energy over more than two decades.

“I’m saddened that the organisation will soon close its doors,” he said in a statement.

“Council originally established MEFL to continue our leadership in taking action on climate change and providing innovative energy services for our community.

“Council was proud of AEF becoming independent of Council three years ago and this reflected its local and national reach and impact.”

Sydney-based Brighte’s website says its mission is to make every home in Australia sustainable by providing financing and loans for the installation of solar panels, batteries and other renewable energy infrastructure.

Beginning in 2016, it has provided more than $615 million in financing to 75,000 homes.