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Australia’s regions already have an energy crisis – and a climate of investment is the answer

Community energy groups are coming up with renewable energy schemes. Shouldn’t government extend a hand to help them?

Yackandandah, like most Australian towns, has had its ups and its downs. One of its biggest ups was the north-east Victorian gold rush. By the 1890s our town was full of miners toiling to extract what was left of its alluvial gold. The only thing holding these folks back was an energy crisis. The miners were unable to source the power needed to sluice and dredge or crush the ore. The solution was a water race from high up on the West Kiewa river, which wasn’t the brainchild of government, or even the mines department – but rather a local man.


John Wallace, a Yackandandah resident, recognised a problem that needed immediate action and set about solving it.


Many people living outside of Australia’s cities are now observing a new energy crisis and, once again, it is from within these small communities that solutions are emerging. While policy makers dither and draft lifeless strategies, those outside of the political bubble have no time to waste as they already face the realities of climate change on a daily basis. With every hotter month, with every failing crop and with an ever increasing bushfire threat, those who live in rural and regional Australia are desperately looking within for climate change solutions – and acting.


Capturing the spirit of Wallace, our small community group Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY) is pushed by necessity to get on with putting new energy solutions in place.


We started by being ambitious: setting a Yackandandah renewable energy target of 100% renewable electricity by the year 2022. It won’t be easy but real change rarely is – as Wallace would vouch.


TRY has only been around for 18 months but has already witnessed a jump of more than 10% in the proportion of buildings supporting rooftop solar panels.


Before we began, there was the pioneering efforts of Yackandandah museum. After an electrical fire gutted the museum in 2006, forward-thinking historians saw the rebuild as an opportunity to embrace energy conservation and renewable generation. To this day, they pay next to nothing for power and both display artifacts and a model of intelligent energy planning.


In February, our town’s community-owned health service switched on 90 kW of solar panels which, along with a raft of energy efficiency measures, will substantially reduce daytime power demand from the grid and save the service $1m over the lifetime of the system. At the official launch of these new power measures, long-time residents of the health service retirement home could not have been more excited about the unfolding energy revolution.


Next door, the Yackandandah men’s shed committee created Australia’s first “stand-alone” men’s shed with a solar and battery system. Clearly our esteemed elders, many with a lived experience of scarcity, inherently understand the many benefits of generating their own renewable power.


Yackandandah also boasts a community-owned petrol station, borne by the looming loss of petrol supply more than 10 years ago. Not only does this business now return $20,000 each year to community initiatives, it also owns 12kW of solar panels in partnership with a “low-carbon” folk festival. Perhaps, by necessity again, the pumped fuel might soon be electricity.


Unfortunately, our community ambition seems at odds with the capacity of successive governments to create strong, enduring and consistent energy policy. In fact, until last month no major party had announced an expansive policy on community power. If elected, the federal ALP promises to spend almost $100m on developing a a series of “community power hubs” around the country that provide legal and technical expertise, as well as start-up funding for groups like ours. We are still waiting to hear from the Coalition.


Instead, leadership has fallen to impassioned groups of people dotted around the country to use technology to dream their own way forward. The central Victorian communities of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs led the way by building a contemporary Australian community-owned wind farm. This was switched on in 2011 and the shareholder-owned enterprise produces sufficient power to meet the needs of 2,200 households. The cooperative also returns $30,000 annually to a community fund for local projects.


Newstead, in central Victoria, has also settled on a renewable electricity target of 100% by 2021. So far the Newstead community is making great gains with the bulk purchasing of green power, developments with micro-grids to push the boundaries of energy efficiency, local generation and electricity storage. Over the border, in New South Wales, Uralla has prepared a zero-net energy blueprint.


There are numerous other examples of communities tackling the issue: Anglesea on Victoria’s coast lobbied hard to shut down their dirty coal power station and groups in Port Augusta and Latrobe Valley also want to transition to sources of clean, renewable electricity. Others in Woodend and the Northern Rivers nurture their own community energy retailers. Members of Corena in Adelaide crowdsource funds nationally to install solar, while passionate people in Mallacoota and Corryong work to strengthen their power supply with local, clean generation. The seasiders of Tathra power their waste-water treatment with solar, Byron Shire and Tyalgum are preparing to launch micro grids, and the ACT moves toward 100% renewable electricity.


Indeed, local communities all over Australia are hatching ambitious schemes, with 72 community energy groups throughout Australia, the majority of which are based regionally. Wallace might well be pleased at the way locals are finding and acting on solutions that work for their communities.


Isn’t it time that government policy took the emphatic science, engineering and economics on board and extended their hand to local groups such as these in leadership and solidarity? We need our state and federal policy makers to dream a conscious future and then act with courage. Then, and only then, will the ingenuity and can-do attitude of communities leading the way on renewable energy reach their full potential.



This was originally published by Guardian on May 12, 2016