TRY was started in 2014, and gosh, after the events of 2020 how far away does that seem? Six years of of concerted, determined effort, many long days, scores of grant applications, numerous market stalls and many fearless chats. They seemed to fade into the background in 2020’s turbulence but their legacy is still there.
We now have three functioning microgrids, 191 buildings contributing to the minigrid, an awesome community energy retailer, Indigo Power, and a rooftop solar density approaching 60% of buildings in the Yack valley.
We also have a public virtual power plant (VPP), with solar installations on ten public buildings and batteries at three of them, producing energy for the minigrid. This reduces the running costs for community groups, and provides resilience in times of emergency for organisations like the CFA, public hall and sports park.
We’re not finished yet though, with plans underway to expand and deepen the public VPP and promote the replacement of inefficient hot water systems. Here are a few stats covering the benefits to participants in the almost three years since minigrid operations started in December 2017 up to August 2020.
But how close are we to achieving the 100% renewables goal?
Our federally funded 100% Feasibility study is looking at that very question, and more importantly, how we progress to the target of 100%. In many ways, despite the enormous achievements of the last six years, we have only laid the all important foundations for our target and the last big push is still to come.
We have travelled through the first four stages of our five-stage roadmap and we’re entering stage five: generation and storage of renewable energy at community-scales, ie. in quantities large enough to supply the whole community, not just individual households.
We have a community-scale generation and storage installation, Yack01, about to be installed at the site of the old Yackandandah sawmill, our community-scale project. We’re also powering on with expanding the VPP and further developing resilience within the town so it can continue operating even when power blackouts occur. And recently our efforts have been noticed in the Premiers Sustainability Awards.
And we take enormous heart from the fact that our efforts are also influencing others. The small-scale microgrid trials that TRY and Mondo started are now being scaled up and run in larger pilot studies to develop a market mechanism for distributed energy resources (DER), such as the ones TRY has in its minigrid.
So how far have we come? Such a very long way! We still have a way to go but we are confident that our regenerative efforts will change the way Yack and other towns view their power supplies, and their capacity to operate in times of emergency and hardship. And of course to tackle the climate emergency. All the while demonstrating the very significant benefits, savings, autonomy and reliability, that can come to residents. We’re powering towards 2022 – just watch us!
Kim McConchie is the TRY secretary, has a degree in Applied Science in chemistry, and used to drive one of the very first electric vehicles in the 1980’s (his employer, Dunlop Batteries, was developing storage batteries for different purposes). With a long career in different industries, he understands the science behind climate change and renewable energy. He’s now retired and lives on 16 acres outside Yack with his wife, two dogs and 7 kW of solar panels that provide most of their needs. Here he gives an insight into his motivations for joining TRY.
Try. It’s a little word that has big connotations. Try to get motivated to get out of bed in the morning. Try to have a sustaining breakfast for the energy to face another day. Try to face the world without becoming dispirited by the negativity, the confusion, and the absolute rigidity of political thought that our leaders seem to be locked into. Try to face up to a struggle against it all that can be daunting, enraging and frustrating, when it seems that you have no voice. Try to do all this, and that little word can seem an obstacle in itself.
TRY. It’s a little acronym which also has big connotations. It’s an acronym I came across as we prepared to move to Yackandandah late in 2016. Reading up on the town, its community, and the achievements that had been made, raised the feeling of positivity, something that even the thought of packing up and shifting 25 years of stuff and memories couldn’t diminish. And one little line that hooked my interest was the goal to become a 100% renewable energy community. In Melbourne, my wife Chantelle and I had been members of Solar Citizens, joined in events, held banners outside politicians’ offices, and while we did try to be positive, there was a feeling of pushing against a great wall of indifference when it came to achieving tangible outcomes. So the hook was readily taken.
The move was made, the boxes (mostly) unpacked, the neighbours made us feel very welcome. Of course, the discussions quickly turned to why we moved to Yack? We talked about the many positives of the people, the place and the property we had fallen in love with, and I mentioned the push for renewable energy as a factor that had absolutely resonated with me… and with that, our neighbour Neil Padbury said there’s a TRY meeting on next month, I’ll take you to it and you can meet the committee. Which he did, and next month I went again, and haven’t stopped.
It was actually quite daunting looking at the progress that had been made, and the plans to meet the 2022 goal of 100%. And daunting becoming a part of a wholly committed, quite visionary group of volunteers working to meet a renewable ideal to benefit the Yack community in the first instance, but also to ultimately provide inspiration to other communities to be able to set and achieve such lofty goals.
TRY. Try. Two faces of the same coin. Three years on and the TRY progress has been remarkable. The vision is clear and the path to meet the goal well defined. Try and you can succeed is the great story that comes out of this journey, being a part of it has become one of the many positives and a source of motivation that the move to Yack provided. And we always welcome others who also want to try – maybe that’s you? ––– Kim McConchie
Matt Grogan reflects on the challenges and opportunities that face regional communities in the wake of a fiery summer.
This summer’s devastating bushfires show us once again that regional communities are on the front lines of the climate crisis.
Loss of life and property, ecological devastation, and economic pain are but a few examples. As the fires continue to burn, evidence is mounting that the most remote communities are the most vulnerable. Isolated towns could be without power and clean water for weeks.
Once the rain finally comes and the fires are extinguished, our attention will turn toward rebuilding. We know climate change has driven the severity of these fires. We know climate change means more fire seasons like this one.
We need to support communities to rebuild themselves in a way that makes them more resilient for future catastrophes. What if adapting to climate change provides an opportunity for rural and regional Australia to re-invent itself and curb rural decline?
As affected regions across Australia rebuild, decision makers would do well to look to rural Scotland, where communities have invested in renewable electricity generation assets that have become the cornerstones of thriving local economies. Instead of funnelling money to electricity corporations based in far-off cities, profits remain in the community, and community members have the opportunity to upskill by learning about innovative technologies and investment models.
These skills are then transferred and developed in other pursuits to create thriving, culturally vibrant communities where young people want to stay. Some of the projects in rural Scotland have been distributing profits to communities for more than 20 years. Community energy is not unique to Scotland – many volunteer groups in Australia work tirelessly to help their communities transition towards a decentralised, de-carbonised and democratised electricity supply. But even the most strident supporters of community energy in Australia would admit that there is a long way to go in most instances before community energy projects meaningfully contribute to baseload power. In Scotland, on the other hand, a co-ordinated and long-term policy developed and maintained by the Scottish government has enabled community-owned energy projects to meet baseload power demands in many rural communities.
Directing a portion of the bushfire recovery money towards community-led, decentralised electricity generation and storage projects is the perfect opportunity to prove that, like Scotland, rural Australians can take control and benefit from providing clean energy to themselves and the rest of the country.
The town of Yackandandah in northeast Victoria is proof that relatively modest contributions from government and philanthropic donations can unlock local investment and keep money within the community. Yackandandah has been working over the past 5 years to transition its electricity supply to 100% renewable. Approximately 60% of the houses in the town have solar panels, and almost every community-owned building does too. In 2015, the local health service and aged care facility installed 130 kW of solar panels on its roof, and by 2035, it will have saved several hundred thousand dollars in power bills. Additionally, Yackandandah’s fire station has a large solar and battery installation, meaning that it can operate in isolation in the event of a power outage.
Yackandandah has received approximately $700,000 in Victorian government grants; philanthropic funding; and donations, which has been matched by household infrastructure investment of over $1.1million. The philanthropic funds have largely been put towards resourcing committed locals to create and facilitate a pathway towards a 100% renewable electricity supply.
The government funding has helped Yackandandah build the physical and commercial infrastructure to enable its electricity supply to become self-reliant. The good news, if there can be any, for communities affected by bushfire, is that the concept has now been proven.
Locally focused electricity infrastructure, supported by community-scale generation and storage mean that remote communities will not need to completely rely on hundreds of kilometres of electricity grid being repaired and checked before the power can be reconnected after a fire. The generation, supply and consumption of electricity can, to a large extent, be contained within a town.
This could be a game changer for remote towns like Corryong and Walwa who are vulnerable to disruption to their electricity supply during natural disasters – when the community most need access to power.
A key part of the localised electricity solution in Yackandandah is Indigo Power. Indigo Power is a community-owned, certified social enterprise that is working with its partners to create community energy hubs – first in Yackandandah and then across the Hume region of Victoria and the Southern Riverina region of New South Wales. Community energy hubs allow electricity retail customers of Indigo Power to pool and share household solar electricity, and then draw from community-owned generation and storage facilities. Indigo Power is working with Yackandandah to install one of Australia’s first community-owned batteries that exports power to the electricity grid for use by locals.
As electricity sharing technology becomes more sophisticated, communities will become more prepared for future disasters. Technology is being developed that allows electricity grid operators to ‘island’ a town’s electricity supply on days of extreme fire risk, thereby potentially eliminating the risk of fires sparked by the electricity distribution network, and decreasing the risk of power outages.
An added benefit of Yackandandah’s journey has been the sense of pride and togetherness derived from its 100% renewable target. Similarly, the common purpose for a project that is greater than the sum of its parts can help bushfire affected communities on their long road to recovery. Community-energy projects bring the community together to share stories and grow.
Like the Landcare-funded tree planting days of the 1980s and 1990s that changed the landscape of rural Australia, community energy works best if many people contribute a small amount so that a broad sense of ownership is created. Community members can work together to recover by building resilience.
The examples of Scotland and Yackandandah are evidence that targeted funds can unlock local investment so that renewable electricity can become a source of income and resilience for rural communities. Post bushfire, it’s time to scale the idea throughout affected communities.
A mid-afternoon summer sky turned orange and red by uncontrollable fire is the climate catastrophe that many have dreaded. But a narrative of fear will not help rural communities recover. Community-owned energy projects can provide hope for the future by enabling rural communities to take control of their own destinies.
Matt Grogan is a co-founder of Totally Renewable Yackandandah and Indigo Power