Ballina teacher Gus Moncrieff thinks the time has come for a public conversation about Ballina owning and generating its own renewable power.
He kicked things off this week with a post on Facebook’s Ballina Community Notice Board, saying he was inspired by what the community of Hepburn Springs in Victoria achieved with their small wind farm, which is owned by the community and started returning profits within five years, while reducing C02 impacts.
Echonetdaily asked Mr Moncrieff if he thought there was a place for wind in Ballina’s energy mix.
‘I’m a bit agnostic when it comes to renewables,’ he said. ‘I suppose whatever is going to return the best dividend if you had community members staying in as shareholders, whether it is wind or solar.’
He said he’s also excited by the possibilities of hydrogen.
‘There’s a lot of potential with hydrogen, certainly if we’re using electrolysis to produce it, that sources its power from renewables. That’s where the future invariably lies.
‘It’d just be nice to see a little more investment in that space. That’s one of the hurdles we’ve got to vault ourselves over at this stage.’
Education, mitigation, generation…
Mr Moncrieff said although he’s worked in education for the last decade, he’s recently gone back to university to study Environmental and Marine Science, where he started exploring mitigation strategies to address environmental issues.
‘I first went down the avenue of looking at carbon offsetting, and how we might be able to do that here in Ballina, but through that I came across more research about community-owned power generation.
‘I’d certainly like to engage a bit more with the guys at the uni there, particularly the Live Ideas program that they’ve got at SCU, which is looking at how they’re going to decarbonise the uni’s operation, particularly in regard to where they source their power from.
‘They’re also using that as a project to try to bring in EV ownership, to make it more accessible than it currently is, both here in the area and also more broadly.’
Mr Moncrieff said his personal experiences with community owned renewable power at Hepburn Springs when he was stationed near there as a teacher were very positive.
‘It’s something they seem to derive a lot of pride from,’ he said. ‘It was always the conversation-starter. The first thing people wanted to talk about was how the windfarm was doing.
‘It really piqued my interest. It was always on my mind. Why aren’t we doing more of this? It’s obviously cost viable, so where’s the resistance coming from? That’s the world we’re in at the moment, trying to understand where that disconnect occurs. It should be a no-brainer but it’s being hindered.’
So far, Mr Moncrieff has found support for his ideas from Ballina Councillor Keith Williams, and he’s also reaching out to other Ballina councillors, as well as local environmental consultant James Foster.
He’s already struck some hostility to his ideas in the online space, but Mr Moncrieff says he’s happy to talk to people with different views. ‘I’m used to teenagers!’ he said.
He acknowledges there are environmental issues with renewables, but sees that the debate is coloured by deliberate misinformation from fossil fuel interests as well as genuine concerns about the dark side of renewables technology.
He hopes that Australia might be able to take advantage of new renewables manufacturing opportunities as that industry declines in Germany and a cloud remains over manufacturing in China.
Mr Moncrieff told Echonetdaily that he saw the renewables revolution in Germany at first hand when he lived on exchange in a German village as a student in the noughties.
He remembers, ‘The village had its own wind turbine, 100 metres from the house that I was living in, and it was owned by the village.
‘So it created power to offset the village’s power. It didn’t completely make them independent of the grid there in the northeast, but it was a pretty instrumental part of their power structure.
‘If we could have the model they’re using over there being rolled out here – not just in our LGA but more broadly – I think we could be on to a winner!’
He said he has been inspired by Enova, and thinks it’s time for the Ballina community to take control of its own power.
He also sees risks ahead, especially considering the bad experiences many people (including himself) have had with unethical solar doorknockers trying to tie people into onerous personal finance contracts.
‘One result is a lot of people have hardened their views of this stuff, having had a negative experience of it,’ said Mr Moncrieff.
But he thinks the positive aspects of community-owned power generation will win people over if the conversation happens.
‘If you’re trying to cause effectual change you’ve got to bring everybody with you, and you don’t get that unless you have buy-in from pretty much every demographic in your community,’ he said.
‘My feeling is that we have to be as open and collaborative as we can with the broader community, so everyone’s got the opportunity not only to participate, but also to stand to benefit from it as well.’