WHEN Frank Burfitt was planning the new Men’s Shed at Yackandandah, he struck a problem – its electricity supply. It required a costly new connection from the road, traversing the hospital grounds.
So they did something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago: bypass the network altogether. “We did it cheaper than connecting to the grid,” Burfitt, a retired electrical engineer, explains.
“We got the first juice about a month ago and we’ve been using the power to fit out the shed. We’re proud we could do something visionary.”
The solar panel and battery system at the Men’s Shed is connected with a bigger initiative: Totally Renewable Yackandandah. A group of residents want the north-eastern Victorian town to produce more electricity than it uses, by 2022.
They began working on their scheme twelve months ago, and already the number of solar households in the town has jumped. Now, one in every three houses has solar power, more than double the national average.
Matthew Charles-Jones, from Totally Renewable Yackandandah, says they’re surveying local residents and working on their grand plan, with the help of a council grant. In the meantime, new solar panels, like those on the brand new Men’s Shed will make it easier to reach the target.
Yackandandah is one of three Australian towns plotting to become 100 per cent renewable, along with Newstead, in central Victoria and Uralla in northern NSW. Newstead was recently awarded a $200,000 grant from the state government to develop its plan.
Nicky Ison, director of Community Power Agency, says the technology is the easy part. For larger-scale renewable energy schemes, however, funding remains a challenge. That means starting small and growing.
“These towns first need to do widespread energy efficiency campaigns, and look at household, business and community solar,” she says.
In Yackandandah, the community centre has set the example. Its old brick-veneer house has been transformed, with the help of a state government grant. Local tradies installed a large solar photovoltaic system, insulation, double-glazing, shading and efficient air conditioners for heating and cooling. Electricity bills have plunged by three-quarters.
“We’ve had some really cold days this week,” says Ali Pockley, the centre’s manager. “But you come in here and it’s just toasty. It was hopelessly inefficient up until the retrofit, no doubt about that.”
Ison says that while the idea of “energy self-sufficient towns” is unfamiliar in Australia, it is well established overseas. Last year, she organised a visit by Arno Zengle, the mayor of a village in Bavaria called Wildpoldsried, which produces more than four times the electricity it consumes.
Matthew Charles-Jones heard Zengle speak and was inspired by his message, because Yackandandah is about the same size as Wildpoldsried.
Although going fully renewable is an ambitious goal, the town has form: a decade ago, residents bought out the local petrol station, which was closing down. Now it’s a thriving community-owned business, encompassing hardware and farm supplies, with an annual $3 million turnover. It hands out $20,000 in local grants each year.
It also boasts a large solar photovoltaic array, funded in part by the local folk festival.
Charles-Jones says Totally Renewable Yackandandah is propelled by concern over climate change, but also – as with the petrol station – by a desire to strengthen the local economy.
“We’re not inventing anything new,” he says. “We’re just being smart about the way we’re doing energy.”
Read an edited version of this article at The Age online