BRIGHT SPARKS

The small North East com­mu­nity of Yackandandah has a big am­bi­tion – to gen­er­ate its en­tire en­ergy needs from re­new­able sources by 2022. And with the help of Matt Gro­gan and Matt Charles-jones, it is well on the way.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Jamie Kron­borg pho­tos Jamie Kron­borg / Tourism North East

The small North East com­mu­nity of Yackandandah has a big am­bi­tion – to gen­er­ate its en­tire en­ergy needs from re­new­able sources by 2022. And with the help of Matt Gro­gan and Matt Charles- Jones, it is well on the way.

IT’S a cold win­ter’s day in Beech­worth in the foothills of the Vic­to­rian alps. In the town’s high Vic­to­rian hall, with its shell pink, ma­roon-boxed walls and cof­fered, ped­i­mented ceil­ing, about 60 peo­ple are rugged up to the ears in hats, coats and heavy-knit scarves.

They are watch­ing An­thony Albrecht – a dark-haired, thir­tysome­thing mu­si­cian on a low stage di­rect­ing two men to walk into the lead­ing rows of the au­di­ence and turn to face the front. When they do so he asks them to crab a few steps so they come within the frame of a group ‘selfie’ that he is about to take – us­ing one hand – on his smart phone. In the other he car­ries a cello by the neck. It sways a lit­tle – and you won­der if the au­di­ence is think­ing what you’re think­ing.

This grad­u­ate of New York’s famed Juil­liard School of Mu­sic has al­ready told them it’s a rare, valu­able in­stru­ment crafted by Lon­don maker Peter Walm­s­ley in 1740. (The auc­tion record for one of them, I dis­cover later, stands at $41,000.) But he’s the master of the sit­u­a­tion – as he is of his cello.

“You guys stand down there in the mid­dle of the aisle,” An­thony di­rects the be­mused sub­jects of his chore­og­ra­phy – Indigo Val­ley’s De­nis Gin­nivan and Al­lans Flat’s Matt Gro­gan – who hold a large, yel­low-coloured cor­flute cut-out of a yak. Ev­ery­one is en­cour­aged to look up.

“I’m go­ing to take a photo now and tweet in a few mo­ments,” An­thony says. “Hold the yak.” He shoots the im­age, thanks the au­di­ence, sits and plays the fi­nal piece in his solo ‘Bach to the bush’ pro­gram – which he’s de­vised for small, out-of-the-way places – and, when the ap­plause ends, pre­pares to broad­cast his tweet.

His Twit­ter tar­get is Tesla’s Elon Musk, the Cana­dian-Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur and en­gi­neer who a day ear­lier has an­nounced his busi­ness am­bi­tion to build in South Aus­tralia’s mid-north farm belt a 100-megawatt lithium ion bat­tery – the world’s big­gest – to store en­ergy gen­er­ated by the wind. It is touted as a game-changer in the quest to cap­ture and use re­new­able, sus­tain­able en­ergy in the face of cli­mate change. But the mu­si­cian wants the mag­nate to know that his is not the only fron­tier, re­place­able en­ergy project.

In Yackandandah, 22 kilo­me­tres from where his con­cert has been per­formed for its ben­e­fit, the 1700-strong com­mu­nity is ad­vanc­ing to­wards com­plete re­liance on re­new­able en­ergy gen­er­a­tion by 2022.

To­tally Re­new­able Yackandandah (TRY) was brought to life as a re­sult of an Indigo Shire Coun­cil-hosted fo­rum in 2014. It’s co-chaired by Yackandandah’s Matt Charles-jones and Matt Gro­gan and, not sur­pris­ingly – given the diminu­tive by which al­most ev­ery­one in the North East knows the com­mu­nity – has in­spired the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the yak as mas­cot.

In an­thro­po­mor­phic terms, it’s a pitch-per­fect choice – these are an­i­mals that herd in small num­bers, breed only ac­cord­ing to the abun­dance or the lim­its of their en­vi­ron­ment, and ru­mi­nate in a way so that every pos­si­ble nu­tri­ent is taken from the of­ten spare, cold-zone plants they graze. >>

TRY’S tim­ing to step to­wards a 100 per cent re­new­able en­ergy tar­get for Yackandandah is on the money, too. The sec­ond Matt – a greens and veg­etable grower and so­lic­i­tor – tells the Beech­worth con­cert au­di­ence “…in hit­ting a sweet spot, in terms of where tech­nol­ogy’s at, where pol­icy’s at, and where gen­eral so­ci­ety sen­ti­ment is at, it has been re­ally amaz­ing”.

“We know that the tech­nol­ogy’s there, the ap­petite for in­vest­ment is there, the com­mu­nity’s be­hind it, and the ball’s re­ally rolling down­hill,” he says.

“We just feel we need to get it done in Yack, get it to 100 per cent, so that we can turn around and say ‘this is how easy it is to do’ – al­though ‘easy’ is prob­a­bly not the right word. ‘ This is how it can be done. Let’s scale this’.”

TRY has courted Aus­net Ser­vices, which owns east­ern Vic­to­ria’s en­ergy dis­tri­bu­tion net­work of poles and wires, into a re­la­tion­ship. “Aus­net re­alises that the space is chang­ing,” Matt says. “The days of elec­trons trav­el­ling one way from, say, the La­trobe Val­ley through­out the dis­tri­bu­tion net­work are gone.”

Thou­sands of house­holds gen­er­at­ing so­lar power are on the elec­tric­ity grid, but Aus­net knows these can also break free of it with new-gen­er­a­tion bat­tery stor­age, forc­ing the cor­po­ra­tion to rely on fewer cus­tomers to meet the costs of main­tain­ing the net­work as it ages. “That’s re­ally dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy,” says Matt. “Aus­net needs to work out how elec­tric­ity dis­tri­bu­tion looks with this new tech­nol­ogy.”

Add sky­rock­et­ing en­ergy prices for busi­ness and house­holds, and ev­i­dence and recog­ni­tion that cli­mate is chang­ing apace, and there is not one com­mu­nity but many with a grow­ing ap­petite for re­new­able, sus­tain­able elec­tric­ity.

“Aus­net needed a sym­pa­thetic com­mu­nity to work with to trial a few things,” Matt says.

“We were like the kid in the front row try­ing to im­press the teacher – we were right up there wav­ing our hand – and luck­ily for us, and for them, they’re work­ing with Yack now.”

The com­mu­nity has bought into a bulk of­fer of bat­tery-ready so­lar pan­els which, on in­stal­la­tion, will take the num­ber of Yackandandah house­holds with so­lar en­ergy ca­pac­ity above 40 per cent. Up to 500 kilo­watts of this will be new so­largen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity. Matt says the com­mu­nity has an ex­ist­ing de­mand of about four megawatts.

The next step will en­able par­tic­i­pat­ing house­hold­ers to mea­sure en­ergy out­put and con­sump­tion and cal­cu­late

when suf­fi­cient en­ergy ‘profit’ has been gen­er­ated to in­vest in stor­age bat­ter­ies. Mondo Power is work­ing with TRY to sup­port bat­tery pur­chase and, with stor­age ca­pac­ity, will trial the op­por­tu­nity for one neigh­bour­hood to share power across a mini-grid.

At the same time, TRY has worked with Indigo Shire Coun­cil to se­cure a $100,000 Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment grant – to which Indigo will add $30,000 and con­trib­ute in-kind re­sourc­ing of about $20,000 – to model the de­vel­op­ment of a com­mu­nity en­ergy re­tailer. It is through this com­mu­nity- owned util­ity – po­ten­tially us­ing a co- op­er­a­tive model by which Yackandandah main­tained ve­hi­cle fuel sup­ply when it risked los­ing a vi­tal ser­vice – that en­ergy will be bought, sold and swapped. “That, in Vic­to­ria, is a very new space,” Matt says. It will also build on Yackandandah’s pedi­gree of co­he­sive com­mu­nity ac­tion. De­nis Gin­nivan points to the chal­lenge of change in the dis­trict’s dairy in­dus­try in the 1970s as one source.

“A lot of small acreage farms came on to the mar­ket and at­tracted a lot of peo­ple who wouldn’t nor­mally be hang­ing around a small coun­try town,” he says.

The shift and mix has led to some out- of-the-box in­spi­ra­tions; a stand- out folk fes­ti­val that turns re­cy­cling and waste re­duc­tion to an art­form, plays that give bush kids a voice and a short film which cel­e­brates pot­holes.

“It would be seen as a pro­gres­sive town, but it’s not a party po­lit­i­cal town,” De­nis says.

“You know where you have some pub­lic meet­ings, where as soon as some­one stands up some­one else wants to shoot them down? Well, in Yack that ap­pears not to be. Peo­ple here walk to­wards the pos­si­bil­ity.”

Indigo mayor Jenny O’con­nor says Yackandandah en­joys re­ally strong en­gage­ment across its com­mu­nity to de­liver its re­new­able en­ergy am­bi­tion.

“Be­cause there are cham­pi­ons for this…it cre­ates a crit­i­cal mass of en­ergy and ideas and en­thu­si­asm and it pulls peo­ple along who sup­port the con­cept but who don’t nec­es­sar­ily know how to do it them­selves,” she says.

“It’s about lead­er­ship and that’s what Yack has on this front. Other com­mu­ni­ties have it in other ways. But in Yack it has been very much about the re­new­able en­ergy tar­get, and re­new­able en­ergy lends it­self to a whole lot of other cul­tural changes around sus­tain­abil­ity and com­mu­nity and think­ing about the fu­ture and about self-re­liance.”

For more in­for­ma­tion go to to­tal­lyre­new­ab­ley­ack.org.au.

COLOUR /

Yackandandah’s world record-break­ing skein of bunt­ing makes an ap­pear­ance for a com­mu­nity cel­e­bra­tion.

MU­SIC /

Uke-n-dan­dah plays at the 2016 ‘Back to Yack’ fes­tiv­i­ties to mark the sec­ond sea­son of the ABC ‘Back Roads’ tele­vi­sion se­ries.

TEAM WORK / Indigo mayor Jenny O’con­nor meets To­tally Re­new­able Yackandandah vol­un­teer co-or­di­na­tor Ben Mcgowan in the town’s High Street.

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