Govt pushes for localised energy

Ray Moynihan

A state government department is throwing its weight behind moves to produce more home grown green power in the region, as plans to import additional coal-fired electricity face ongoing question marks.

The Department of Industry and Investment is funding a series of community-based projects to plan for the ‘transition to a low carbon economy’, with key workshops and forums in the coming weeks in Byron Bay and Brunswick Heads.

Council figures show there’s already been a dramatic surge in local energy production in the past two years.

While the total contribution remains small, there was a massive jump in the number of houses with solar panels in the Shire, from around 40 to over 700, producing a 2000 per cent increase in renewable energy fed into the grid, from less than 20 to over 400 megawatt hours.

Last Thursday saw the launch of the Nimbin Community Solar Farm, a unique community-based federally funded collaboration which has created several new jobs and will generate enough energy to power over twenty homes.

In Moree, further inland, conditional approval has just been granted for a new solar mega-farm, featuring 180, 000 solar panels across 160 hectares, powering more than 12, 000 homes.

At the same time controversy is growing around long-standing plans for new high-voltage transmission lines that will bring additional electricity to meet growing demand in the northern rivers region.

The state-owned Transgrid corporation wants to spend a quarter of a billion dollars building new lines that would run from west of Tenterfield to Lismore, but the project’s being opposed by groups who’ve raised concerns about local environmental impacts and questioned whether it’s needed at all.

Late last year an investigation by the national energy watchdog found that in its planning for the massive new project Transgrid had breached rules requiring it to assess alternative  options, including renewable energy.

A report by the watchdog – the Australian Energy Regulator – strongly criticised Transgrid, but decided not to pursue legal action after the state-owned corporation committed to more transparency and wider consultation.

Following calls for public submissions on alternative options, and analysis of the resulting proposals, Transgrid says the new power lines remain the most effective way to meet ‘growing peak demand’ in the region.

‘Dinosaur’ infrastructure

However, the Lismore-based Environmental Defender’s Office describes the $225 million project – designed to carry largely coal-fired electricity – as ‘dinosaur’ infrastructure which is unnecessary if demand can be reduced and local power generation options pursued more vigorously.

Key alternative options include solar, wind and bio-energy, all of which face major challenges if they are to significantly help meet the energy demands of this growing region.

For example, large scale solar farms on the coast face the problem of cloud cover, while a local bio-energy project recently went into receivership.

As for wind, a Byron Shire Council assessment of the region’s renewable energy resources has found the wind is highly variable, and areas with acceptable speeds for power generation were often in national parks or on highly visible scenic ridges.

‘This suggests that the wide-scale deployment of wind turbines is unlikely to occur,’ says the Council report ‘although small pockets of land may support smaller wind turbines, whether privately owned or through a community share program.’

However, the Council study identified solar power as having a ‘strong financial basis and an obvious choice for deployment due to its widespread and evenly distributed nature.’

Last year’s cuts to the ‘feed-in tariffs’ – the amount of money paid to people who produce home-grown energy – are a major challenge for those pushing solar energy, and have created a delicate political issue for the incoming state government, keen to promote sustainable businesses.

Greater energy efficiency will be the theme of a workshop at Byron Shire Council chambers tonight, Tuesday April 5, at 6pm, featuring tips for the public on how to ‘reduce your power bills and beat soaring energy costs.’

The workshop on energy efficiency comes as the NRMA says average families may have to spend an extra $2000 a year on petrol, if tensions in the Middle East continue to push up the price of oil.

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