Aussie townships leading the way in going green

They have begun the shift towards renewable energy ahead of federal authorities

Across Australia, small communities and townships have begun taking the planet into their own hands and launching plans to become carbon emission-free or even go off the electricity grid.

The federal government's reluctance to adopt strong targets for cutting carbon emissions has been criticised internationally.

But local communities have often been leading the way in a shift towards new power sources and energy self-reliance.

Uralla, a small district with a population of 6,034, about a five-hour drive north of Sydney, has launched a plan to become Australia's first "zero net energy" community.

The plan involves a range of initial measures for households and businesses, such as encouraging greater use of insulation and rooftop solar panels, promoting the switch to energy-saving light bulbs and appliances, and even supporting sustainable firewood collection.

BENEFIT OF SMALLER PROGRAMMES

Smaller scale is easier to achieve... A large number of people are able to achieve something on a small scale very quickly. It is easier for a family to get a solar panel than for a company to build a A$2 billion wind farm.

MS VERYAN HANN, an Australian expert on energy policy, on how smaller, community- scale programmes are easier to introduce

Lower-income households could receive financial subsidies to make the changes or "green loans" from government agencies and energy firms, in which energy cost savings are used to make repayments.

In addition, the town aims to eventually import renewable energy and establish its own small wind farm.

It is believed the scheme could save the community up to A$2.2 million (S$2.2 million) a year - or about A$360 a person - by 2025.

In a report outlining the scheme, New South Wales Environment Minister Mark Speakman said the town could be relying on renewable energy for 40 per cent to 70 per cent of its total usage within 10 to 15 years. "No Australian town to date has been able to satisfy its energy needs from renewable energy alone," he said. "Uralla stands at the forefront of this challenge."

But experts said the shift to 100 per cent energy self-sufficiency could take more time because renewable costs are currently greater than using electricity from the grid.

Other Australian towns have also taken up the challenge to reduce reliance on carbon-polluting fuel.

Tyalgum, with a population of about 300, is planning to disconnect entirely from the electricity grid and rely entirely on renewable sources such as solar energy.

Each property would get a battery for storing solar energy, or the town could potentially develop a storage site.

But the plan will come at considerable cost - about A$4 million to A$7 million - which may require support from the region's businesses and community groups.

An Australian expert on energy policy, Ms Veryan Hann, said there had been a recent trend in Australia towards smaller-scale, community- based carbon emission-reducing projects.

Five years ago, she said, there were only two community-run renewable energy projects in the country but there are now about 45, and a further 70 are planned within the next five years.

"This is the beginning of a big wave," she told The Straits Times.

One of Australia's first such projects was a community-owned wind farm near the town of Daylesford in Victoria state. It started in 2011 after raising about A$13 million, most of which came from local residents who will share in the revenue raised by the sale of its electricity.

Ms Hann said it was often much easier to introduce smaller, community-scale programmes, such as encouraging household rooftop solar panels or one or two wind turbines, than larger-scale projects such as new utilities or big wind farms. With smaller projects, she said, there were fewer regulatory hurdles, lower investment required and less local community resistance.

"Smaller scale is easier to achieve," she said. "A large number of people are able to achieve something on a small scale very quickly. It is easier for a family to get a solar panel than for a company to build a A$2 billion wind farm."

The trend comes despite Canberra being criticised for dragging its feet in recent years on global efforts to cut emissions.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott came under fire from scientists and environmental groups for his "weak" commitment to cut emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. Australia is one of the world's highest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita.

But local communities have increasingly come together to support energy-saving projects. They have often been able to raise the funds needed for projects involving solar and wind energy.

Experts, however, say the projects face regulatory obstacles and will need support from federal and state authorities.

In particular, legislation may need to be changed to let residents share generated electricity.

Green groups have been urging new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to do more to embrace renewable energy.

The move would appear to have public support, with an opinion poll last month finding 81 per cent of Australians believe that Mr Turnbull should "take stronger action" on renewable energy, even if his own party resists it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie townships leading the way in going green'. Print Edition | Subscribe