Regional communities receive rooftop solar
A year on from last summer’s devastating fires, Victoria’s bushfire-prone communities are emerging more resilient than ever, with a little help from RACV.
As bushfires raged across the country last summer, the town of Tallangatta found itself at the centre of the fight as its Rowen Park sporting precinct became the staging ground for emergency services battling fires across north-east Victoria.
“For 28 days every fire appliance and truck that was up here fighting those Upper Murray fires came back to Tallangatta every day and changed shifts,” recalls Tallangatta Sports Centre project co-ordinator Peter Haysey. “The fireys got fed, we had them sleeping in tents all around, and this is where the fire was managed.
“We were very very blessed that we weren’t directly in line but as the closest town we were trying to provide as much emergency as well as physical support that we could. Corryong had no power, no food, no water, no service and no communications so Tallangatta became the main town for getting what was needed.”
It’s a role the town was only too pleased to fill, but as the coronavirus pandemic followed bushfire, the Rowen Park precinct is only now gearing up to host sport again. The oval’s underground irrigation system was damaged by heavy fire vehicles and has been temporarily resurfaced. And the building housing its changerooms, kitchen and function room now boasts a roof-ful of shiny new solar panels, as well as a battery underneath, courtesy of RACV.
Along with a similar solar installation in Omeo, it’s part of RACV’s Solar in the Regions program, a million-dollar project to install solar and battery systems, free of charge, on community buildings in 28 bushfire-prone Victorian towns.
There are two main aims of the program, explains RACV Solar CEO Andy McCarthy. Firstly, providing access to renewable energy to reduce power costs at the facilities so the savings can go into other local initiatives. And secondly so that, in an emergency, there is a community building with guaranteed access to power to keep water pumps, lights and fridges running.
“It’s good to be able to provide that for these towns, to give them peace of mind and also to regenerate some of these community halls and meeting points to become more useable places for the community to help people reconnect,” says Andy.
“It’s a feeling of safety, not just for them but also for their family, so if dad lives in Omeo and he’s 80 and he refuses to leave on a 40-degree day it’s nice knowing there’s a safe place in that town he can go to.”
We were surrounded by fires... At some stage there if you didn’t know how to get out you wouldn’t have got out.
In Omeo, that place is the Recreation Reserve building, which plays host to all the important dates of country-town life – footy and netball matches, the Omeo Show in November, calf sales in March complete with CWA-baked sponges for refreshment. “We had a wedding there recently, birthdays, lots of wakes – pretty much everything,” says Reserve president D’Arcy Fitzgerald.
And last summer, with bushfires burning at all four points of the compass, it became a shire-run relief centre sheltering 150 locals, while the footy oval hosted Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters deployed by the Australian Defence Force to evacuate anyone who wanted to leave.
“We were surrounded by fires,” says D’Arcy. “At some stage there if you didn’t know how to get out you wouldn’t have got out.”
A fifth-generation local, he’s used to the valley town’s vulnerability to bushfire. In 2003 it swept right through, destroying houses and burning part of the Recreation Reserve. “You can’t get in and you can’t get out, you’ve just got to deal with it,” he says.
The town lost power for two weeks that time, and last summer for a week while generators were trucked in via Mount Hotham on the Great Alpine Road. But with ranks of solar panels now on its rooftop and a battery for storage, losing power will no longer be a problem for the Recreation Reserve building.
For D’Arcy it means he never has to worry about the power going out in a bushfire, and the building’s $7000-a-year power bills will be a thing of the past as the panels generate and store their own electricity.
A safer place: Omeo Recreation Reserve president D’Arcy Fitzgerald with RACV Solar’s head of technical and special projects Shane Clayton.
Back at Rowen Park in Tallangatta, Peter says the savings that will come from generating solar power – worth up to $12,000 in a normal year – can help keep club membership fees down and allow money to be spent on improvements. And having solar power to rely on in an emergency is “one less thing we have to worry about”.
But Peter has bigger plans for that solar-power system. With Tallangatta’s sports facilities, swimming pool and high school grouped together on one street, there is potential for them to share power generated from rooftop solar panels across facilities and seasons. Eventually he hopes the whole town will be powered by its own self-sufficient solar mini-grid, following the example of nearby Yackandandah’s efforts to power itself with 100 per cent renewable energy.
RACV’s installation is, he says, a “magnificent” start towards energy efficiency for the town. “To have an institution like RACV come in and recognise the stress that this area is under and support it by doing what they’ve done is just immeasurable.”
RACV’s Andy McCarthy says that for all the great work done in bushfire recovery and planning for future risk mitigation there are some communities that feel like they’ve been a little left behind. “For us to come back nine, 10, 12 months later and say we’re here to support you – it’s just that feeling that someone cares about them.”
Image below: Emergency fire vehicles on the oval at Tallangatta’s Rowen Park sporting precinct last summer.