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