People power: The Victorian communities generating their own energy

Living Well | Story: Peter Barrett | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 22 June 2020

Three community energy projects power up around Victoria. 

For people who live and work in the country the idea of ‘community’ is more than a buzzword on a real-estate flyer. In times of fire, drought and flood it’s literally what you rely on to get you through. In recent years, some regional towns have been pooling resources to buy and save important community assets too, such as post offices, petrol stations and pubs. Order a beer at a country pub today and there’s a good chance you’re investing in the town as well. 

Hepburn Wind manager Taryn Lane and wind turbine Gale.

Hepburn Wind manager Taryn Lane and wind turbine Gale.

The trend also extends to action on climate change, power generation and electricity storage. At last count, there were 127 community energy groups across Australia. These grassroots organisations are taking control over local power generation, driven by a need for practical action on global warming and simply reducing the cost of their electricity bills

And last summer’s devastating bushfires have brought extra focus on reliability and safety, with AusNet Services, which owns part of Victoria’s electricity distribution network (the poles and wires), investigating the feasibility of taking some bushfire-prone towns off-grid by using solar generation and battery storage. 

We caught up with the people behind three very different community energy projects powering up around Victoria.

Totally renewable  

Yack, as most locals know Yackandandah,  is in Victoria’s northeast, 30 kilometres south of Wodonga. The former gold-mining town has a few agriculture and farming operations but most of the 1000-strong population work in surrounding towns. “There’s quite a history here of people being innovative and creative,” says Matthew Charles-Jones, chairman of Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY), formed in 2014. “There’s a strong can-do attitude.”

Pledging to make the town’s electricity supply 100 per cent renewable by 2022, the group wanted to help people save money on their bills, boost the town’s economy and confidence, and tackle global warming.

TRY has gone on to win more than $500,000 in Victorian government grants and several awards for its achievements, which include installing three microgrids (networks of houses that can share, buy and sell power directly into the main grid), increasing uptake of solar systems from 20 to 55 per cent. 

In late 2018, TRY helped form Indigo Power, a community-owned energy company that pumps half its profits back into building new community assets. Assets such as a ‘virtual powerplant’ – 10 community buildings fitted with solar systems, three of which have batteries, including the Country Fire Authority so it can maintain power in times of emergency. This year they hope to unveil one of Australia’s first community-owned 136-kilowatt-hour lithium batteries. 

Matthew puts the project’s success down to keeping things simple, not getting bogged down in technology, and valuing relationships. “I love that it’s something that, broadly speaking, has included everybody. We’ve worked really hard at making it not political. We’ll all be better off with renewable energy than otherwise.”  

   Hepburn Wind manager Taryn Lane and wind turbine Gale.

Gale and Gusto have generated enough energy to power 2200 homes.

CFA GROUP Margrit Beemster, Neil Beemster, and Chris Tracy (with his children Ada and Eliot) at the Yackandandah CFA’s solar-powered headquarters.

Margrit Beemster, Neil Beemster, and Chris Tracy (with his children Ada and Eliot) at the Yackandandah CFA’s solar-powered headquarters.

Matthew Charles-Jones, chairman of Totally Renewable   Yackandandah;

Matthew Charles-Jones, chairman of Totally Renewable Yackandandah.

Winds of change 

Since they were built in 2011, Gale and Gusto have been hard at work making enough renewable electricity to power 2200 homes whenever there’s a breeze. Named by a local school student, the two wind turbines are at the heart of Hepburn Wind, Australia’s first community-owned wind farm.  

As of last year they had generated 80,865 megawatt hours of electricity between them over eight years, saving the planet some 87,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and benefitting locals through their community fund to the tune of almost $250,000.  

The story goes like this. In 2005 townspeople from the Daylesford/Hepburn Springs area were shocked to learn of a large-scale commercial wind farm being proposed nearby. In response, about 30 founding members adopted a cooperative power-generation model that had found success in Denmark. Together they rallied almost 2000 cooperative members who forked out a combined $9.8 million to construct a community-owned wind farm, assisted by $1.7 million in state government grants and a $3.1 million bank loan.  

Today, Hepburn Wind has 2013 members, each with an equal, democratic vote. “We’ve got a very active membership base,” says the cooperative’s manager, Taryn Lane, who is also director of national peak body, the Coalition for Community Energy. “We have a lot of opportunities for members to have their say and there’s a lot of activity around the community wanting to shape their future… there’s also a really strong ethic around ‘relocalisation’ and owning and controlling your own assets.” 

Taryn says the Shire of Hepburn is on track to reach its target of zero net energy (matching energy made by emissions-producing generators) by 2025, and zero net emissions by 2030. “I am proud of how the community is responding to the threats of climate change and fire, and how it’s taking responsibility for what we need to do on a local level.”  

Man standing on roof installing solar panels

Solar panels can save you thousands on your energy bills.

Accessible solar

Installing solar is great, but what if you’re a renter? Or a vulnerable person living in state-sponsored housing? 

Backed by state government grants, a demonstration program in Melbourne’s north is addressing that imbalance by stepping through the complexities of making solar work in buildings with multiple tenants and owners. 

Elissa-Jane Bowden, project manager with energy solutions company Ovida, says she (along with partners Allume Energy, the Australian Energy Foundation, RMIT University and energy company Jemena) spent a year talking to tenants of a 52-apartment building in Preston. 

After many barbecue chats, letter drops and conversations, more than half the tenants – many of whom are vulnerable or speak English as a second language – took up the offer, which allows them to access cheaper power generated by solar panels on the roof of the building. The arrangement, which is now saving participants up to 25 per cent off their annual electricity costs, also allows them to remain connected to the main grid to ensure year-round reliability of supply. 

RACV Solar (previously Gippsland Solar) installed the hardware, which is an Australian first – a single solar and battery storage system able to be shared across multiple electricity users. 

“The exciting aspect of it is we’re having a go at providing an energy solution where there isn’t one right now,” says Elissa-Jane. 

She says two more projects – a residential building with shops on the ground floor and a shopping strip of businesses – will be finished by the end of the year. People will save money as a result but she says governments also will learn valuable lessons. 

“The more choice and information that people have then the better equipped we all are to deal with the challenges that are before us with climate change and other environment issues.”

Man sitting in garden
Man sitting on couch

When it comes to buying a home, location is everything.

Keeping the lights on

Phil Piper and partner Kate Jackson had been living on the outskirts of Mallacoota for just over a year when this summer’s bushfires hit. “It was pretty scary,” says Phil, recalling how the sky suddenly turned black at 7.25am that Tuesday morning, the last day of 2019.  

“And then the roar ... like standing next to a jet engine. The next thing was you got embers falling down. The good thing about being dark was you could see them and put them out.”  

The couple spent the next seven hours and 15,000 litres of water defending their half-hectare property. The fire front came within 60 metres of their street and, around the same time, the town lost power, a situation that would last for days.  

Not so at Phil and Kate’s, though.  

Having sold a property in South Gippsland before downsizing to a cheaper house in Mallacoota, they could afford to spend an extra $30,000 on a solar-power system and battery. Their lights stayed on during the disorientating darkness of the fire and, in the aftermath, they were able to offer neighbours hot showers and cups of tea.  

“For that two weeks we had four refugees staying at our place: one had lost their home, two were from Genoa that was totally cut off, and there was another guy who didn’t lose his home but all the homes around him had gone. He just couldn’t go back there.” 

As the flow of relief funds trickles into Mallacoota, 70-year-old Phil would like to see the town go off-grid, or at least become more self-sufficient.  

He also hopes the summer’s bushfires spark increased action on global warming. “You can see what’s coming and the idea is to prepare yourself as much as you can for it.”   

Your home can be working for you with an RACV solar solution