Transforming a Town’s Energy

I’m sitting having cups of tea on the verandah with two Matts: Matthew Charles-Jones and Matthew Grogan; the two lead drivers of their community’s transformation. One, an outdoor educator and builder turned clean energy specialist; the other, a lawyer and farmer. Matt C-J seems the more reserved and introspective of the two. In sharing their story he spent the last day and a half weaving a rich tapestry for me, and then today Matt G provided the drawstring that pulled the folds of cloth together.

I pedalled in to the small historic town of Yackandandah the day before yesterday, through the tree-lined streets with their autumn colours. Matt C-J and his wife Michelle welcomed me into their home and settled me into their straw-bale studio apartment out the back. It was gorgeous and cosy, and a luxury after several days on the road. After dinner, we sat by the fire to talk.

They moved to Yack to be part of a small community, and built themselves a home that was true to their values: a straw-bale house with solar panels, rainwater tanks, compost toilets, a vege garden and a chook pen. Matt C-J worked in outdoor education, helping connect young people with nature, and also spent time as a builder.

He was becoming increasingly concerned about the issue of climate change and felt strongly the need to transition to renewable energy, but was faced with that age-old question: what can one person do?

Having installed solar on his own home, he started supporting others to do the same. In 2012 the local Neighbourhood House won a grant to do energy efficiency improvements and Matt C-J was chosen to advise them. He helped them to upgrade the building with solar panels, energy efficient lighting, double-glazed windows, insulation and exterior cladding.

In 2014 he took things further. He organised a local community forum on the topic of climate change and renewable energy, to which about 80 people came. Around 12 of those showed up to the followup meeting and they formed a local group. Matt G was one of them.

Shortly afterwards Matt C-J and Matt G travelled to the Community Energy Congress in Melbourne, meeting with others from around Australia who were leading the way on renewable energy projects in their communities. They returned home fired up and determined to repower their town.

Their newly formed group called themselves ‘Totally Renewable Yackandandah’, or ‘TRY’, and the name set their purpose: to repower Yack with 100% renewable energy. Their aims were to: 1. reduce their community’s electricity usage, 2. install more household solar and batteries, and 3. build community-scale solar and batteries.

The group started small and grew organically, doing activities to raise awareness, and helping households install solar panels and make energy efficiency improvements. They were opportunistic, following wherever government funding or the enthusiasm of the team took them; or sometimes people approached them with a project.

The next morning Matt C-J took me for a drive around town, pointing out important community buildings along the way. He told me that they have all had trouble with their electricity bills, particularly the tennis courts which use 60kWh of electricity each night lighting their courts. TRY organised fundraising events, such as community concerts, and raised enough money to replace the 10kW stadium lights with 2kW LEDs. They have plans to replace the tennis court lights as well.

We stopped at the Yack Health Medical Centre, and I could immediately see a large array of solar panels on the roof. Matt C-J told me they had a consistently large power usage, so TRY provided the knowledge and some of the money to install 99kW of solar, halving their power bills and saving them $35,000 per year. They were soon able to pay the money back to TRY, and the savings have enabled them to keep their GP practice building open.

Matt C-J explained that part of what TRY does is build a culture of support for renewable energy in the town, and many houses and institutions have gone solar of their own accord. He drove us in to see the town’s potable water treatment plant, which has done exactly this, installing a long 40kW array of solar panels and 43kWh of batteries — the first of their kind in Australia to do so.

On the gate outside the treatment facility I noticed a yellow sign in the shape of a yak, with the letters ‘TRY’ cut out from it. Matt C-J explained that this TRY Yak image is given as an acknowledgement to homes and businesses that have put in at least two energy efficiency measures, such as solar panels and LED lighting. Seeing the image everywhere helps encourage even more people to get onboard.

Returning to the town centre, Matt parked the car and took me for a walk down the main street. “Beautiful day!”, “Certainly is!” — a couple of people greeted Matt as they passed or stopped to talk with him. It felt so quintessentially small-country-town-like, I couldn’t help but smile.

We stopped at the local supermarket, which TRY supported to install 80kW of solar, reducing their power usage by a third. A few shops further down was the Country Fire Authority (CFA) shed, who TRY worked with to install 6kW of solar. Matt C-J says it took three years to make this happen, but it was an important opportunity to change the culture in a large organisation like the CFA. He pointed to the Yack Public Hall down the street, where TRY has upgraded the lighting.

He told me that TRY just recently secured a $104,000 grant as part of the government’s Renewable Communities Program. They’re combining it with $80,000 of locally raised money to create a ‘Virtual Power Plant’ or ‘VPP’, involving a system of large solar and battery installations on community buildings across the town.

He pointed out some of the halls and buildings that will soon be part of this: the Yack Public Hall will get 11kW of solar panels and 10kWh batteries, the sports hall will get 8kW of solar plus 10kWh batteries, and similar installations for the community op shop, the museum, the CFA shed, and the community-owned petrol station.

TRY is now working on a project to install solar on all the commercial buildings in the main street. It’s taking a lot of work, he said, and is a bit slow, but the pub is keen to get onboard. I was just amazed at the relentless progress that TRY had already made. Even so, there were two more special projects that I was to learn about.

In 2014 TRY approached their local network operator, Ausnet, which manages the electricity grid, and asked for their help with repowering Yack with renewable energy. Ausnet thought they were dreamers. But then in 2016 Ausnet came to them, through their new subsidiary, Mondo. They said they were aware things were changing because of solar and batteries, and they wanted a sympathetic community to work with. TRY and Mondo teamed up, and set about finding a local suburb where they could trial setting up a ‘microgrid’.

I’d often heard about microgrids — they seemed to be one of the latest innovations in the renewable energy world. I was keen to see one up close and finally wrap my head around the concept.

We drove to a trendy-looking subdivision called Yackandandah Heights, where almost every house had solar panels on the roof. I also noticed the yellow TRY Yak symbol on several of the houses. Pulling into the driveway of one of them, we were welcomed at the door by the owners Ron and Helen, then Matt C-J left me there. Ron is a member of TRY and they joked that they’re used to having people dumped on them. They offered me tea and we sat at their kitchen bench to chat.

They told me that in 2014 TRY and Mondo invited them and one other couple to a discussion about the idea of a microgrid trial at Yackandandah Heights. Mondo would provide the solar panels and batteries on an interest-free loan, which would be paid back from the savings on their electricity bills. Ron and Helen were keen.

There were 22 houses in the neighbourhood, and 14 of them took up the offer. Ron and Helen were the first, adding an extra 2kW of solar panels to their existing 3kW, as well as a 6.5kWh battery. They said they haven’t had to pay an electricity bill since.

Ron took me outside to see the solar panels, and pointed out the difference between their old ones and the new ones. The new ones took up about half the area and produced one and a half times the power, showing how much the efficiency of solar panels had improved. He also showed me the battery in his garage, and said that battery technology was developing so fast that in the time the project was being discussed the proposed battery units halved in size.

But, I asked, what makes theirs a ‘microgrid’ rather than just a bunch of houses with solar and batteries? What will make their installations on the community buildings in town a ‘Virtual Power Plant’, rather than just a bunch of separate solar power systems? It turns out that the key is in the control system. Ron took me down the side of their house and showed me a special white box on the wall with the word ‘UBI’ written in the centre of it. This is Mondo’s proprietary power management system; in other places the equivalent device has a different name.

On an individual basis the UBI optimises the solar electricity use for Ron’s house. Back at their kitchen bench, Ron showed me a real-time display on their tablet that told us their excess solar electricity was currently being used to charge the batteries. It also provided historical charts of their electricity generation and use.

But they can do more than this, he said. Each of the houses in the microgrid has an UBI, and they all talk to each other and talk with Mondo. They can coordinate the household batteries to all release or receive electricity together, to manage grid voltage fluctuations, or deal with a sudden shortfall in grid electricity. This can save the network operator from having to do expensive grid upgrades, or use a fossil-fuel generator for this role.

The UBI can also facilitate sharing of electricity within the local neighbourhood, discharging excess electricity from their battery when their neighbours need it. This is more efficient and it benefits the grid, but currently there are no financial benefits for Ron and Helen in doing this.

This brought us to the latest ambitious project that TRY has embarked on. They told me about Indigo Power, a community energy retailer that TRY was setting up for the electorate of Indi, which will buy local solar electricity and allow people to sell it to who they want to. The exchange of local electricity would be managed and monitored by the network of UBIs.

I eventually said goodbye to Ron and Helen and set off on foot back through the main street of town to Matt C-J’s house. The walk gave me time to think about all I’d learnt so far and the many strategies TRY had used.

That evening Matt C-J, Michelle and I tried out their new fire pit they’d built in their yard, and we sat and chatted while watching the flames and helping their son Tarn to roast marshmallows. We talked about TRY and all it had achieved, as well as what still needed to be done. There’s a quiet determination about Matt C-J and a sense of inner unrest that drives him to push himself hard.

That brings us up to this morning, Matt G has come over for a cup of tea on the verandah and I’m able to see both Matts together. He summarises the goals and progress of TRY for me, helping me to understand how it all happened chronologically.

But who cares? — Matt G floats the question. Even if Yack gets to 100% renewable energy there’s still the rest of society causing climate change. He says that what they’re doing here is really important as a ‘proof of concept’. It shows what can be done.

And from what I’ve seen, they can and are doing it. 50% of the houses in Yack now have solar panels on the roof, and recently they celebrated reaching 1GWh (or 1,000,000kWh) of solar electricity generated by the 160 households that have an UBI installed. Other towns have caught on to the idea and begun starting their own ‘Totally Renewable’ groups — there are now apparently 12 in total.

The Margaret Mead quote comes to mind as we finally say our goodbyes and I load up my bike, ready to pedal on: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

A huge thanks to Matt Charles-Jones and Michelle for their generous hospitality and for showing me around, and to Matt Grogan and Ron and Helen Boulton for taking the time to talk with me.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?