Towns going renewable – Martin Oliver

Towns going renewable

In Sustainable Building, Development and Energy by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

While political discussion and controversy rages in Australia as a result of the federal government’s proposed new national energy policy, NEG, which will see the abandonment of subsidies for renewable energy.


In Australia, where politicians hold up a lump of coal in Parliament and are very keen to see development of one of the world’s largest coal mines, national leadership on tackling climate change is conspicuously absent.

The current national renewable energy target (RET) stands at 33,000 gigawatt-hours (gWh), or about 23.5% of total production, by 2020. A further target designed to incorporate Australia’s agreed 26-28% greenhouse emissions cut under the Paris Agreement is currently under discussion. Ludicrously, there have been suggestions that this could incorporate ‘clean coal’ technology, despite it having been dismissed as unworkable by US coal CEO Robert Murray. Meanwhile, according to the latest computer modelling, limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees under the Paris Agreement would involve full global decarbonisation ‘well before 2040.’ With the federal government now proposing a new policy, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), the RET could be abandoned entirely.

However, behind the negative headlines, there have been encouraging trends. Both Tasmania (93%) and South Australia (53%) already run mostly on renewables. Four states and territories now have strong renewable energy targets:

  • Victoria – 40% by 2025.
  • South Australia – 50% by 2025. This was achieved eight years ahead of schedule, in 2017.
  • Northern Territory – 50% by 2030.
  • Queensland –  50% by 2030.

Most remarkable is the ACT, which is on track to meet a 100% renewable target by 2020. This will include its share of the national RET, rooftop solar (three percent), and uptake of GreenPower (one percent). Most of the remainder will be from wind farms located in other states, and from local solar farms. Three of these solar facilities have been completed, and a company called SolarShare Canberra allows people in the ACT and further afield to invest in future solar projects. On the downside, this target is expected to increase electricity charges by an average of $290 per year, peaking in 2020.

The Homegrown Power Plan, which was launched in 2016 as a joint initiative of GetUp! and Solar Citizens, is calling for a shift to 100% renewable energy by 2030, based on modelling carried out by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the UTS in Sydney.

Acting Locally

On the sidelines of the 2015 Paris climate talks, an event took place known as the Climate Summit for Local Leaders. Mayors from around the world agreed to support aggressive emissions reductions, and a transition towards renewables. Globally, this transition is accelerating.

In July 2017 the Climate Council launched the Cities Power Partnership as a forum for networking and the sharing of information. So far, 35 Australian cities and towns have joined. While some large cities such as Sydney (50% by 2030) and Melbourne (25% by 2018) have strong renewable targets, generally it is the smaller rural backwaters that are pioneering the renewables transition.

Local microgrids, also known as distributed energy systems, offer greater proximity between electricity generation and end users, which translates into reduced transmission losses. While it may be feasible for a town to exit the grid entirely, achieving certainty of an off-grid supply at all times is more expensive than retaining the grid connection so that the microgrid can sell power back to it, and can purchase energy if the need arises.


Tyalgum is a scenic village with about three hundred inhabitants, on the Far North Coast of New South Wales, close to Murwillumbah. Local company Australian Radio Towers is pursuing the idea of going off-grid, with grassroots support from the community. The Tyalgum Energy Project plans to use a combination of solar and storage, and is weighing up the pros and cons of a decentralised model, with a hybrid solar-battery system for every household or business, versus a centralised system near the village centre.

The estimated cost stands at four to seven million dollars, and challenges include working out tariffs and the transfer of the network ownership from existing operator Essential Energy to a community body. Because this transfer would require legislative change from the NSW Government, implementation of the project is on hold at present.

Mullumbimby & Byron Bay

Located on the NSW North Coast, within travelling distance of Tyalgum, Mullumbimby is a town of 3700 with one of Australia’s largest Green votes. It is also home to Community Owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimby (COREM), a group that started in 2014 after being inspired by the successful Bentley Blockade coal seam gas protest outside Lismore. The group’s goal is to get Mullumbimby running entirely on renewables by 2020.

To date, the main focus has been on adding solar arrays to community buildings. So far, four have been installed, with a fifth in the works. Electricity savings are split between the community groups and COREM’s Revolving Communit

In Byron Bay, down the road from Mullumbimby, is Australia’s first community-owned power retailer. Enova Energy was launched in 2016, and currently sells energy and solar PV systems to customers across most of NSW. As a generator, it is now starting to purchase and resell solar power from rooftop and small-scale commercial systems. It offers a solar feed-in tariff of up to 16c/kWh.


Uralla is a small town of 2800, on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. Its 100% renewable goal extends to energy used in homes and businesses, with no deadline mentioned. The first stage of the process, already underway, is to focus on efficiency through measures such as switching to LED lighting. Being in an area that gets cold in the winter, its current energy mix involves nearly as much energy from firewood as is used as electricity. The quantity of wood consumed is being reduced via home draughtproofing and insulation, and another dimension of the project is to track down sustainable wood sources.

Second priority is to identify opportunities for generation such as rooftop solar. One project, jointly organised with renewable energy group CORENA, facilitates installing solar PV on rented properties, with the benefits split between landlord and renter.


In the north-east of Victoria, close to Wangaratta, is the small town of Yackandandah with a population of about 1000. Following a 2014 community energy forum, the group Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY) was set up. It wants to see the town make the transition by 2020.

A community energy model follows what it calls the ‘3 D’s’; namely decarbonising, decentralising and democratising. As with many other towns, priorities are to first work on energy efficiency, and then boost generation through rooftop solar while pursuing battery storage for homes and businesses. Already, 31% of households have rooftop solar, more than double the national average. Efforts are regularly rewarded with what are known as Golden Yak Awards.

Its Perpetual Energy Fund directs money raised from donations into overhauling public buildings through energy efficiency, renewable generation, and battery storage. One recent large-scale project involved the Yackandandah Health building, while another is planned for the local water treatment plant. Savings on power bills are paid back into the fund. Donations into the fund are accepted from anywhere in Australia.


Located in the goldfields region of central Victoria, Newstead is a tiny town with a population of about five hundred, and a goal of being 100% renewable by 2021 under community ownership. Aspects of the transition include energy efficient solutions such as insulation, hot water upgrades, and more efficient heating and cooling. Solar photovoltaic is expected to be complemented by wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydroelectricity. Renewable Newstead has already signed a two-year partnership with energy company Powercor.

Organisers anticipate that the renewable project will be optional for households and businesses to join, but expect that the community power will offer the key incentive of being cheaper than the best market rates. Where a householder feels unable to afford solar photovoltaic on their roof, it would be possible to have one installed with no upfront charges and to pay a fee that is somewhat smaller than the expected savings.


On the west coast of Western Australia, Kalbarri is a small seaside resort with a population of about 1300, located roughly six hundred kilometres north of Perth. In the more remote parts of the country maintaining poles-and-wires networks to small towns is expensive. In the case of Kalbarri, a further issue is power supply interruptions from wind-blown salt and dust.

Unlike most other towns with renewable goals, plans for a local $10 million microgrid are being driven by the network operator, Western Power, which is motivated by cost savings. When completed, this microgrid could be Australia’s largest, with a mix of wind energy, solar power, and battery backup. The town already has a small two-turbine wind farm generating 1.7 megawatts (mW), while peak demand is 3.7 mW. In case of any shortfall in local power generation, the grid connection will be retained as a plan B.

Global efforts

It is not just in Australia that there has been a lot of activity. Overseas, many places are also working on a transition to renewables, and some have already been successful:

  • In 2017, the Danish island of Samsø converted entirely to wind power.
  • Eigg, an island off the west coast of Scotland switched off the diesel generators during the 2000s, replacing them with hydro, wind, and solar.
  • The New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau in the South Pacific has achieved its renewable goal ahead of time. Solar panels are supported by generators running on coconut oil, with battery backup.
  • In the same region, the Cook Islands, Nuie, Tuvalu, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands all have timeframes for going renewable.
  • The island of Cape Verde off the coast of Africa plans to switch over by 2020.
  • Gotland is an island off Sweden that launched its 2025 renewable timeline way back in 1992. Elements include solar, wind, and wood chips rather than oil for generating heat.
  • A German village named Feldheim is home to both a solar park and a wind farm of 47 turbines. It exports 99% of its generated power, and has completed construction of a lithium-ion battery storage facility.
  • Wildpoldsreid, an attractive village in Bavaria, generates five times its power needs through solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, hydro and biogas.
  • For Indian villages, a common issue is a lack of electrification. Dharnai in the province of Bihar now has a solar and storage microgrid as a result of a Greenpeace initiative.
  • At least four places in the US are fully renewable. These are Aspen, Colorado (wind, water), Burlington, Vermont (hydro, landfill methane, wind, solar, and biomass), Greensburg, Kansas (wind), and Rock Port, Missouri (wind).
  • Large American cities that have resolved to go renewable include Atlanta, Portland (Oregon), San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose.
  • In June 2017, more than 250 US mayors responded to Donald Trump’s statement about withdrawing from the Paris Agreement by announcing plans to go 100% renewable within twenty years.

Zero net emissions

Whether or not all of Australia’s local renewable transition plans come to fruition, aspirational goals are valuable when they translate into action, and encourage other towns to follow. Scaling up is also important.

Parallel with this is the zero net emissions movement, which goes beyond the realm of electricity generation. A useful resource here is the Beyond Zero Emissions’ Zero Carbon Communities Guide. When the ACT reaches its 100% renewable target, total greenhouse emissions are expected to be reduced by a more modest 40%. The reason for this is largely the continued usage of other fuels such as unleaded, diesel, gas and firewood.

Byron Shire, the council area that takes in Mullumbimby, is pursuing an ambitious goal of becoming a zero emissions area by 2025, which would extend to all greenhouse emissions associated with a variety of sectors such as transport, buildings, waste, and land use.

For those of us living in suburbs that have not joined in with the 100% renewable movement, one key action is to work on energy efficiency, ideally with the help of a free energy assessment if one is available. Beyond that, it is worth buying renewable energy as GreenPower, and looking into installing rooftop solar.

[author title=”About the author”]


100% Renewables

Homegrown Power Plan

Cities Power Partnership

SolarShare Canberra

Tyalgum Energy Project

COREM (Mullumbimby)


Z-Net Uralla

Totally Renewable Yackandanda

Renewable Newstead

Zero Net Energy Town

Zero Carbon Communities Guide

Zero Emissions Byron

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