The small town thinking big on renewables

Spotting solar panels is easy in the picturesque north-east Victorian town of Yackandandah—just look up. More than 40 per cent of the buildings have rooftop solar, including the primary school, supermarket, council office and hospital.

That figure is roughly double what it was in 2014, when the community group and TAKE2 member Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY) was founded. Project manager Matthew Charles-Jones attributes the increase in part to a successful solar bulk buy program, which made it easier and more affordable for locals to invest.

“We sold 550 kilowatts of new solar power within a 12-kilometre radius of the town,” says Matthew. “Yackandandah Folk Festival even has a three-kilowatt stake in the installation on the community-owned petrol station, which offsets the use of the main festival venues to achieve a low carbon event.”

Encouraging the take up of solar is one of the ways TRY’s members are working towards their goal of powering Yackandandah with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2022. They are also implementing micro grids, whereby a group of homes or businesses generate, store and share electricity. So far two have been installed, each made up of 14 houses, with plans afoot to create Australia’s first commercial ‘mini grid’, or collection of micro grids, in partnership with Mondo Power. The project helped TRY bag a Banksia Sustainability Award in 2017.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an ambitious group, TRY attracts some passionate supporters. Past fundraising efforts have included an epic 1500-kilometre bike ride by one member, while the group receives royalties from an original song by Shane Howard of the iconic rock group Goanna. “Every donation we receive goes straight back to the community,” says Matthew, who counts the solar hot water system and standalone power supply at the Kangaloola Wildlife Shelter ­– which had previously relied entirely on a petrol generator, gas and firewood – among the town’s proudest achievements.

By providing highly targeted grants and interest free loans, TRY has been able to support a range of sustainability projects in Yackandandah, from lighting upgrades at public halls and the football and netball club, to energy efficiency improvements at the community centre. Matthew recounts the story of one local resident who was accepted into a national research project with TRY’s help. “Anne has lived in her house since 1957,” says Matthew “When she moved in, there was no power at all. Now she has a state-of-the-art solar and battery system.”

Above all, TRY is helping the Yackandandah community understand the opportunities created by shifting to renewables. “We rely on good relationships amongst neighbours, friends and relatives,” says Matthew. “This provides the crux of our success; people are strongly influenced by the people around them, and we hope to make that a positive influence.”

With immediate plans to establish a community energy retailer, and install solar and batteries on more public buildings, there will undoubtedly be celebrations to come in the near future. However, Matthew acknowledges that meeting the 100 per cent renewable target will not be easy. “We’ve learnt to be open, nimble and patient. I think success will be achieved through cooperative effort and a focus on visible, small, achievable and tangible goals, but always with the end in mind­­.”

Find out more about Yackandandah’s plans at the TRY website. Promoting your own TAKE2 actions can help encourage family, friends and your local community to join in helping to keep the temperature rise under two degrees.