NSW town provides blueprint for 100% renewable energy communities

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The NSW town of Uralla has outlined plans to go 100 per cent renewable energy, in a government-sponsored blueprint that could become the model of many other towns.

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One Step Off The Grid

The NSW town of Uralla has outlined plans to go 100 per cent renewable energy, in a government-sponsored blueprint that could become the model of many other towns in NSW and other states to follow suite.

The Zero Net Energy Town – the Uralla Case study – was released today and describes a two-stage process that the town could adopt to go 100 per cent renewable, or “zero net energy”. It is a blueprint that others can follow, and two dozen towns in the state have already expressed interest.

uralla blueprint

The good news is that Uralla – population 6,034 and in the heart of Barnaby Joyce’s New England electorate – can get most of the way to their council’s objective of becoming “zero net energy” just by using measures that are proven and that will save them money.

These include things such as LED lighting and home insulation, and producing energy on site, particularly with solar PV. These measures will save the town around $2.2 million a year in energy costs, the study finds.

The more challenging news is that it will be harder to get to that 100 per cent renewable energy target. That may have to wait few years until renewable energy costs have fallen further.

Bridge Street (the New England Highway) through Uralla.
Bridge Street (the New England Highway) through Uralla.

This was the big takeaway for Adam Blakester, the project director of the Zero Net Energy Town project.

“The most surprising result was just how effective the on-site measures are and, in contrast, how uncompetitive the small-scale power generation options nearby are, like small wind or solar farms,” Blakester tells One Step Off The Grid.

“The challenge is that many community energy groups are focused on those ‘nearby power plant’ options, when at the moment we need to be coordinating a major ramp-up in the uptake of energy efficiency and on-site power choices.”

Blakester says Uralla’s challenge, and probably the challenge for most rural and regional towns, is that getting all the way to 100 per cent is currently more expensive than mainstream energy options, like the grid.

“Our take on this challenge it that it falls into a second stage of work and some five years into the future. By that time this energy transition is likely to have shifted to change the cost curve – as we’ve seen a shift in the last five years in the cost of LED lighting and solar power.”

Blakester says the Z-NET Blueprint for Uralla is now freely available for towns and villages to consider using for themselves.

“More than two dozen have already contacted us and we’ve now opened up expressions of interest for a second round of towns to use the model. We’ll also be working to secure resources to support Uralla and these next towns for implementation.”

Some of those towns, such as Tyalgum in northern NSW, want to go even further and possibly create their own micro grid. Other towns such as Lismore and Byron Bay are looking to go 100 per cent renewable or zero net emissions within 10 years, as are Yackandandah and Newstead in Victoria, and many others.

Uralla was chosen for the Z-net project – over about several dozen other towns – because of the enthusiasm of its 2,203 households and the council.

Mayor Michael Pearce, an independent who recently dumped his electric hot water system for a heat pump, says a number of communities around Australia, and indeed the world, are in various stages of transition to sustainable energy models, while others may not know how or where to begin.

“We hope that our experience and the lessons learned here will serve those communities as well as they do ours.”

uralla stage 1

The Z-NET study focuses on stationary energy and excludes transport fuels such as petrol and diesel. Uralla’s current stationary energy needs comprise electricity (49 per cent) and firewood (45 per cent, and mostly for heating) with a modest use of LPG gas (6 per cent). Around 10 per cent have rooftop solar.

It found that Uralla energy consumers currently spend a total of approximately $12 million per year to meet their energy needs, but just the use of cost-effective energy efficiency actions, replacement of hot water units and residential solar PV could decrease demand in Uralla by almost 20 per cent.

These actions, alone, had the potential to save $2.2 million per year and would allow participating households to save up to $1,000 per year and businesses to save up to $3,000.

Stage One, using cost-effective action, could reduce overall energy use by 15 per cent and deliver between 40 to 70 per cent of the goal within 10 years.

uralla stage 2

Stage 2, however, provides a framework for developing partnerships and joining policy and advocacy initiatives to remove barriers and look large-scale renewable electricity generation. This includes looking at creating a local or regional “renewable” firewood supply.

The conclusion was that, because Uralla does not have “premium” wind or solar resources, the cost would be higher than elsewhere – between 9c/kWh and 15c/kWh for wind (a local initiative has been proposing a 4-6 turbine community owned wind farm, and 15c-25c/kWh for solar PV). But these costs are likely to fall in coming years. In the meantime, it may be more cost effective to “import” clean electricity.

Uralla uses around 25,000MWh of electricity a year, with about 75 per cent of this for household use, and most of that is used for electric hot water and appliances. The town is not connected to a gas pipeline, and about 70 per cent of homes use firewood for heating, mostly from fallen timber on farm land.

uralla demand new

The big peaks in electricity use are at night, when hot water units controlled by the local network distributor are switched on (ostensibly to keep the state’s old coal generators busy at night). Demand is higher in winter than in summer, as there is little use of air conditioning. There seems to be plenty of room on the local network for added renewable energy generation.

This article was originally published on RenewEconomy sister site, One Step Off The Grid. Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.

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