Stories Culture Bright Sparks of Yackandandah

Bright Sparks of Yackandandah

The Victorian country town that set up its own solar energy grid.
Bright Sparks of Yackandandah

Bright Sparks of Yackandandah

Cam Klose and Ben McGowan are both in their early thirties, and grew up in the small community of Yackandandah, or “Yack”, in Victoria’s north-east. Ben had moved away from Yack after his schooling, and came back as he was approaching thirty and looking to start a family life. In Cam’s case, he’d moved overseas, but returned with his partner to be involved in renewables and community projects.

Yackandandah in Victoria's north-east. Photo: Bec Bower.

Yack’s historically been a dairy and general agriculture hub, but nowadays you’d describe it as a tree-change and tourist economy. It’s a community on the move: 1800 people, across about 800 dwellings, possessed of a fierce community pride and a willingness to innovate. “There are lots of different projects underway here,” Cam says. “People move to the town because it’s a very active community. There are clubs, Plastic-Wise Yackandandah, a community-owned hospital…the townspeople even bought out the petrol station when they were looking at closing it: it distributes half its profits back into the community.”

Community collaboration has the town on track to be running off 100% renewable energy. Photo: courtesy of Totally Renewable Yackandandah.

What drew both Ben and Cam in was a remarkable new community collaboration known as TRY – Totally Renewable Yackandandah - a community energy group formed in 2014 with the express goal of making Yackandandah’s energy 100% renewable. Ben joined TRY around 2015. At that stage, TRY was “reaching out to different partners to assist us,” he says. “In 2016, we spoke to Mondo, a subsidiary of Ausnet Services, who manage the grid in our part of Victoria. They had the nascent technology, and we had the good sympathetic relationship with the community on our side. It was mutual benefit – they’ve supported us.”

Cam Klose and Ben McGowan catch up at Project 49 Cafe in Beechworth. Photo: Bec Bower.

TRY works with the community on other projects too: it just recently got all the public buildings in town to connect to solar and link together through smartphone apps to form an energy grid. Just recently they’ve been working on connecting the Yackandandah CFA shed to solar and batteries, so that if power’s lost in a disaster such as a bushfire, the vital community hub keeps running. And the benefit then continues through the aftermath: the recovery phase is aided by having a working community building, and locals can use the powered site to reorganise their own lives.

The local firies are onboard. Photo: Bec Bower.

Another TRY project is investigating whether you can “island” a grid, so that if the township’s cut off from the main grid, the local network will keep going. “It’s really promising…” is as much as Cam’s willing to reveal.

TRY’s entirely volunteer-run: it doesn’t even have an office. “The executive committee meetings are held monthly in the Community Centre,” says Cam. “They’ve been great supporters.”

Solar panels installed on the Old Beechworth Gaol, now a social enterprise. Photo: courtesy of Indigo Power.

Cam came on board with TRY in 2017. Both he and Ben have since moved across to one of its flagship successes: Indigo Power. Set up more or less as a conventional energy supplier, Indigo is creating community energy hubs, where customers will be able to keep track of energy supplied by their solar neighbours, and larger-scale solar and battery systems.”

The first larger scale solar and battery installation is planned for Yackandandah. And if completed on schedule, is expected to be the first community owned battery in Australia. “Over time with the Yackandandah Community Battery project, we’ll be able to provide more energy locally, and build up that local grid stability,” says Cam. “We’re hoping to have the batteries set up by June. We fundraised $100,000 to make it viable – it’s still quite an expensive technology at this small scale.”

Photo: courtesy of Indigo Power.

Cam is employed by Indigo Power, on a three-days-per-week basis as the Community Engagement Officer: “My job is to build up community support for a community energy retailer (Indigo) through things like town hall meetings.” As well as Ben and Cam, there’s a staff member who does all the customer service, a volunteer board and “lots of voluntary supporters.”

Indigo Power has its office in nearby Beechworth, in the old granite gaol building that Cam describes as “cold in winter and hot in summer… but a great environment because the building’s been converted into a shared working space for creative people and social enterprises like us.” With a background in environmental science, Ben heads up the business, also working part-time.

Cam says he and Ben work well together because they’re both willing to “get stuck into it and do the work. Along the way there have been some incredibly busy periods and long days. Ben’s just about finished his PhD, so that gives you an understanding of the level of detail and depth he is willing to go to. He’s happy to sit in front of a spreadsheet for days to figure out the business case for a solar installation, whereas that sort of work would be the end of me. I much prefer the front-facing work, and the hustle to make things happen. But both of us really like and prioritise the community engagement side of it.”

Matt, Tamsin and Paddy are Indigo Power customers. Photo: Bec Bower.

The actual provision of the wholesale energy, not supplied from within a hub, is outsourced. “Big companies with scale can do better than us,” says Cam. “But we’re competitive on price. And we’re 100% carbon offset, and like everybody, we’re working on being resilient against surge pressure, heatwaves, weather events and so forth.”

Indigo Power has also delivered an energy efficient hot water system bulk buy. Targeting high consumption and low efficiency electric hot water systems, and replacing them with heat pump and solar technology up to 80% more efficient. Standard electric hot water systems are very high-emissions and they all switch on overnight putting additional strain on the grid, and in some cases reducing the amount of solar that can be added.

“It’s a social enterprise and a percentage of the profits goes back into projects in the town.”

Cam says he’s driven by the people side of the enterprise. “The technology exists to do these things, and there are people who are very skilled with that tech, but we can organise and mobilise communities, and bring them on board.

Russell and Julie became customers to support the local initiative. Photo: Bec Bower.

“The philanthropic side of it is the great driver. We ran a share offer over the weekend: an equity crowdfund campaign through the Birchal platform. We were after between $100,000 and $300,000, and we only offered it to friends, initially. We reached the target in four days - seventeen days early.” The shares won’t be very liquid, and there won’t be a dividend any time soon, but as it’s a social enterprise, and a percentage of the profits goes back into projects in the town, the shareholders understand their position. And after that, the sky’s the limit.

“We’re going to set up community energy hubs across the region,” says Cam. “Over the next few months we’re opening it to southern NSW, working with more communities to do energy generation projects like our battery project. We need to expand beyond Yackandandah to have a successful business.”

People right across the region are getting behind the movement. Photo: Bec Bower.

Is it something about Yack that feeds this kind of co-operative success story? Or is it the quality of people involved? Cam sees a little of each: “Yack as a community is already very engaged and it knows this type of project is possible and worthwhile. Our petrol station is an example. Yack’s known to be a community that’s passionate about climate change. So, others come here with that in mind, and it grows.

“Along the journey, some wider aspirations are met – energy justice, climate solutions, and putting the economic and personal health of the region at the forefront.”

“Our work has attracted attention nationally,” Cam continues. “And other communities are looking at what we’re doing. They’re interested because it’s scalable, and it has a solid foundation. But it’s a lot of hard work. Ben and I have sunk years into this, along with a lot of other people. The first few years you feel as though you’re pushing and pushing and getting nowhere, and then there’s tipping points, and things begin to work. So we’re totally open to showing the model to other communities to help them get going.”

TRY have demonstrated how a community can come together in pursuit of local goals. Along the journey, some wider aspirations are met: energy justice, climate solutions and putting the economic and personal health of the region at the forefront.

Rural Australia is ready to lead on clean energy. Photo: Bec Bower.

The successes of TRY and Indigo Power are as much about resilience as they are about innovation. Eastern Victoria fared badly in the summer’s fires, and will suffer through the economic slump in the wake of the COVID crisis, as will many other regional communities.

In the post-COVID recovery phase, Cam is adamant that local initiatives are the answer. “$160 million leaves our region every year in electricity bills,” he says. “It’s hard to know what a post-COVID phase will look like, but if we can start keeping that in our community, it goes to local jobs and investment, and upskilling. It’s a circular economy. We’ve created an environment now where these projects can get up.”

Totally Renewable Yackandandah was a recipient of a Patagonia Australia grant in 2019, as part of Patagonia’s 1% For The Planet.

Visit the TRY website to learn more about the steps this community group is taking.

Find out more about Patagonia Australia’s Environmental Grants Program here.

Banner image – Photo: Bec Bower.

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