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People power: The Victorian communities generating their own energy
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.
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.
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.”
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