NSW pushes to create Australia’s first “zero net energy” town

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A consortium of energy groups look to create “mini electricity” system relying on local renewable energy production and storage.



The search has begun for a suitable town to become Australia’s first “zero net energy town” – where electricity is generated locally from renewable sources, and stored and distributed on a localised mini grid.

The concept of zero net energy towns (ZNET) – where local communities generator enough of their electricity needs – and sometimes much more – is becoming common in Europe and elsewhere.

The Bavarian town of Wildpoldsried is often cited as a model of what can be achieved. It produces 460% of its own energy needs from a mixture of bio-gas, wood, solar, wind and hydro generation. A village in India achieved something similar this week.

Now, a consortium of green energy, community, and academic groups, with the support of local politicians and the NSW government – is seeking to replicate this model in Australia.

Project director Adam Blakester, from Starfish Initiatives, says the consortium of groups will create a blueprint and a business case for the concept. And find the right town to put the idea into practice.

“The ZNET idea is to create a distributed ‘mini’ electricity and energy system for a rural town in the New England region of NSW, utilising the cutting edge of energy network technologies and solutions,” Blakester.

”The model utilises local renewable energy resources, energy management and storage technologies. Local involvement is key and is woven throughout all aspects of energy supply and usage as well for investment, governance, employment and financial returns.

“The potential value of this model for Australia is quite significant, particularly given how abundant its renewable energy resources are and how distributed our energy needs are.”

The concept is now as outlandish as it may seem. Apart from the fact that hundreds of rural and regional communities have done the same, network operators in Australia already admit it makes increasing sense on economic reasons.

Ron Stobbe, the head of SA Power Networks, said in April that rural communities – including major towns – could soon look after their own generation needs. He said it could be inevitable that all forms of centralised generation and transmission will be made redundant over time.

Stobbe’s prediction that  rural communities could gcreate their own micro-grids – and perhaps have just a small connection to the main networks – follows similar remarks by Ian McLeod, the CEO of Queensland distributor Ergon Energy. Regional operators in Queensland and Western Australia are looking to “downsize” their network assets in favour of localized generation and micro-grids. In effect, they are looking to ditch their poles and wires.

The ZNET project comprisesthe Institute for Rural Futures at the University of New England; the Office of Adam Marshall, Member for Northern Tablelands; the Regional Clean Energy Program of NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; NSW Trade & Investment. Most of the member organisations have been working on the initiative for well over one year now.

“Zero Net Energy Town has the potential to create a new model of electricity and energy infrastructure for rural and regional Australia,” added Dr Judith McNeill, Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Rural Futures.

“This model may create much needed financial and economic benefits by transforming what is currently a significant economic leakage and cost area into being a new industry and area of employment and income.”

The ZNET project comprises the Institute for Rural Futures at the University of New England; the Office of Adam Marshall, Member for Northern Tablelands; the Regional Clean Energy Program of NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; NSW Trade & Investment. Most of the member organisations have been working on the initiative for well over one year now.

The immediate priorities for the ZNET initiative are to seek tenders for the blueprint and business case plus the selection of the town for the pilot. Announcements regarding each of these matters will be made over the coming few months. The project will be completed by June 2015.


  • Rob G

    Can I suggest Bathurst as znet town, I really like the irony of the town that is known to petrol heads as being the first to go this way. Maybe that can be followed with an electric car race each year…

    • Chris Fraser

      I like that idea. In addition, energy could be generated on nearby pastoral land and stored prior to the big event. The first weekend in October would still have a lot of action, but be significantly more quiet.

      • GregX

        I agree, Bathurst would be perfect. They could start by putting solar farms on top of the useless open cut coal mines near Wallerawang Power Station that recently shut down. If the open cut mines are too deep then maybe they would suit concentrated solar.

        • Unfortunately our funding is tied to the NSW New England Region. I can add you to the email list and keep you in the loop though. Email me direct (see Starfish website for my contact details).

  • coomadoug

    Can I suggest Jindabyne, with Guthega PS and pump storage as well as wind and solar options

  • Linda Woodrow


    • Unfortunately our funding is tied to the NSW New England Region. Happy to add you to the email list and keep you in the loop though. Email me direct (see Starfish website for my contact details).

      • Warwick Barnes

        It appears that people don’t get that you say, New England so I vote for 1) Kentucky 2) Uralla.

        • Thank you Warwick. We are in discussion with community and Council people in Uralla. It seems very possible they will express interest. Kentucky is an interesting idea, though perhaps a little too small. We’ve not heard from the community there as yet though. Do you have a connection you could follow up? Adam

          • Warwick Barnes

            G’day Adam,

            Guyra too could be a good choice. Not surprised that you have not heard from people from Kentucky. I don’t have a connection but the local store could be a good place to start. Until you asked I had not thought about it. Warwick.

          • Yes, we are liaising with Guyra.

            I spoke with a colleague today whose family were the original European residents of Kentucky. We both were of the view it is too small to demonstrate the ZNET concept.

            No reason though that Kentucky can’t have a go themselves anyway. They are a great example of a can-do community. They have motorcyle imports, a brewery and distillery, wineries, boutique roses plus a great mix of farming and a beautiful social spirit.

          • Warwick Barnes

            Yes, I figured that we would be considered too small, but wanted to give us a mention as a New England place.
            That is why I mentioned the others, thought that they would be closer to your needs. Either way I hope that it provides the necessary and important information required to carry on with your work, keep it up.
            And yes we probably could give it a go on our own.


  • Farmer Dave

    This is a great initiative, and I wish the proponents (and the lucky town) all the best.

    However, I have a terminological hobby horse, and it’s the use of the word “energy” in the objective. (Giles, I am sure that you have just picked up on the proponents terminology here.) When I read the headline “zero net energy” I regard zero net electrical energy as being the easy part, it’s replacing the petroleum energy that is the really challenging part, and so I eagerly scan the article to see how the proponents plan to do that – and realise that they are only talking about electricity.

    While one could regard this comment as being the carpings of a disgruntled pedant, there is a very serious side to this: the general invisibility of petroleum as an energy source. When people talk about energy and ignore petroleum they are ignoring about a third of the climate change elephant in the room and all of the peak oil elephant in the room. We are simply not talking enough about the need to get off petroleum – it’s is if we have collectively decided it’s too hard. Let me remind everyone of the words of Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency: “we must leave oil before oil leaves us”.

    • Hi Farmer Dave

      I am the Project Director for ZNET. Our focus is energy in total.

      While you are right that electricity is arguably the easier place to start ~ even if it is as a colleague of mine says ‘the champagne of energy’ ~ the right town will also be able to work on heat, cooling, bio-gas (which can form liquid fuel) and solid fuel.

      There are hundreds of towns around the world which have achieved zero-net electricity. There are many who also have distributed heat systems. The use of bio-gas is growing rapidly in other parts of the world.

      It frustrates me as well that most Australian’s think of the 20% RET as the main game… yet electricity comprises around only 1/5th of Australia’s total energy footprint. So we are fighting for 1/5th of 1/5th. While our proverbial Rome burns.

      Transport fuel is a hairy challenge for sure… however our long-term objectives clearly have this in the target too. So too electrification of transport, demand management, deep efficiency and cutting edge management and monitoring systems.

      All up this could result in a genuine ZNET… though there are no shortage of challenges we’ll need to address first. Retention of the 20% RET being but one.

  • Andrew Thaler

    Why does this effort only have to be limited to one town. Why can’t several have a go, working together, at the same time? I could probably get Nimmitabel village to a “Zero Nett Electrical” nearly all by myself. Wouldn’t want to do it all by myself though… what would be the point if the lessons and effort aren’t shared?
    On top of the Singleton Solar farm I now own, I just organised to purchase another 35kw of PV to put up in Nimmity on my factory roof… but I question now whether I should really bother telling anyone about this. Shouting into the wind is very soul destroying. It seems easier to just shut up and do stuff by myself, with only my wife, kids and dog helping.
    If you doubt what I say… fair call. Without connecting, how will you ever know?

    • Andrew, I’m not sure how you imagine the work required could be done for more than one town with the same budget. Our budget is very tight for even one town, let alone “several”.

      MInd you, the blueprint we create will be made available ~ under creative commons license ~ for you and anyone else to use with good intent.

  • Malcolm Ryan

    I think mullumbimby it’s already has a strong alternative eneegy and lifestyld culture

  • Danielle

    I would suggest either Kyogle, Woodenbong, Bonalbo, Mallanganee or Tabulam. All small towns/villages and all appropriate for this project. Located in the Gateway to the Rainforest, they would be perfect pilots for something like this. Solar is starting to take off amongst private owners but the local Council doesn’t have the funds to make the transition. We’re close enough to New England. 🙂

  • nanny

    Lennox Head. Small enough to kick off a larger regional project to include Ballina. Plenty of sunshine, plenty of coastal winds..and you could even give wave energy a shot

  • Tracy Singleton

    Armidale!! We have one of the highest kw prices in Australia. We have an abundance of space , sun , wind and agricultural activities.

  • Keith Stone

    where do we vote. Lismore, we are very green up here, and have a large percentage of our population are very active and practical environmental activists.