The “Regenerative Energy for Rural Communities” forum, held in July 2008, which was hosted by Gwydir Shire Council and Bingara & District Vision 20/20 was a great success, according to all the participants.
The goal of the gathering was toexplore the prospects for smaller rural communities to generate power by means other than coal fired powerstations. Secondly, to investigatethe potential to redesign the electricity supply system so that power is generated from a number of sources feeding into a genuine electricity grid. The forum had a strong focus on solar power, which was perceived as the most likely option for the Gwydir Shire.
The first day saw a comprehensive forum of guest speakers, while the second day revolved around aworkshop session aimed at identifying ideas generated from the previous day.Some of the opportunities identified were:
(a) A network now exists
The Gwydir Shire now has a strong network of recognised individuals and organizations with which to work. The forum participants have expressed enthusiasm at the level of professionalism and commitment shown by the local community, and have been generally positive in their support for the concept of a small rural community becoming a “test” case for regenerative power. We have real possibilities of developing a strong team approach through strategic partnerships as we move forward. In addition, the community and GSC worked together very well in conducting the forum, and this process should continue as we explore specific opportunities.
(b) To become one of the first “solar towns” in regional NSW
This idea has been floated by Nigel Morris of BP Solar. He sees a need to roll out the ideas generated by the Solar Cities program, to move from trials to implementation. He sees that Bingara is well placed to become one of early adopters. There are a number of reasons why Bingara is well positioned:
• We have a strong Vision for the future, and this concept fits perfectly with the “Regeneration” theme of the Vision.
• The Vision focuses on three key areas to underwrite our future – Education, Regional Conferencing and Tourism, all of which dovetail nicely with the concept of a “solar town”
• Build on the Gwydir Learning Region concept to become a hub for Regenerative Education
• Bingara is geographically central to the North West of NSW. Within a comfortable 2 hour drive there is a population of approximately , and  other local government areas. Extension of lessons learned in Bingara is therefore relatively easy.
• Bingara is a large enough town to be used as a test case, but small enough for this to be done at reasonable cost • We have a community and local government enthusiastic to embrace the opportunity
• We have a track record of commitment and success
(c) To maximise Energy Savings:
It seems very clear that there is major potential to minimise energy costs through greater efficiencies – indeed, it is clear that any proposal to install alternatives should be accompanied by a program to maximise efficiencies. Ideas Include:
• Town/group/individual audit to create base line data
• New generation smart meters to enable individual monitoring, measuring of efficiency. BP Solar suggests themselves and Country Energy partner in the supply of smart meters and in-home displays for residents – with a resident employed and trained in conducting energy audits.
• Community must have ownership of the process to generate behavioural changes
• Community education program including objective analysis of financial benefit
• Competition intra and inter town/ rewards for change – financial, “feel good”, environmental, “green” dollars
• Promotional benefits from town sharing success stories
• Shire wide project
• In addition to “Tidy Towns” “Energy Efficient Towns”.
• Strategic partnerships – community, local government, Country Energy, State and Federal Governments.
• House design, insulation – GSC can give lead through public buildings, publicise success stories locally, demonstration house as role model/ tourist facility & for general education – design part of local education process. Collective purchasing could be a possibility.
(d) Immediate opportunities
(1) Schools: $50,000 per school immediately available for solar installations. Use network to be amongst the first schools to take advantage. Put in the context of the “solar town” program – design education to fully involve school and broader community
(2) Individuals: $8000 per house for solar installation. Cut cost by group purchasing and negotiate for further assistance. Organise financing – Credit Union. Package loans to take hassle and perceived costs out of the transaction – i.e. match payback period on electricity saving. Do financial analysis for the community. Publicity for success stories. Total amount of funding under both these programs limited so advantage in moving quickly.
(3) Upgrade existing power supply: Country Energy advised that the connection of the North/ South supply systems is part of a future agenda. Potential exists to bring this forward, at the same time encouraging line upgrades. Country Energy has undertaken to provide data on the energy profile of the existing system.
(4) Establish a community hub for sustainable energy (suggested by Nigel Morris). Research Alice Springs Solar City model. Combination of employees and volunteers to research and drive the process. Work with relevant partners such as Country Energy and BP Solar to develop a plan of attack and understand and manage the infrastructure and commercial issues. Undertake a role of lobbying for more commercial feed in tariffs (which are necessary to make solar power truly commercial) and partner with relevant parties for a FIT trial (note: the electricity drainage in delivery from base load power stations to the end of the line may be as high as 70%, in itself justifying a significantly higher FIT)
(e) Solar Thermal Power Plant:
As advised by Wes Stein, a Solar thermal power station will be commissioned somewhere in NSW in the next 2 years, and “why not” Bingara? This could be a major project, employing around 500 people during its construction phase and 50 permanents. It would also offer major tourism potential and cement the role of Bingara as an educational hub for alternative energy. There are other alternatives, including large scale photovoltaic (PV) systems for solar farms. This should be the ultimate goal of the energy team, building on all the hard work in identifying Bingara as a Solar Town.
The strong panel of speakers at the forum were Professor Stuart White, Director of the Institute of Sustainable Futures, Cr Barry Thompson of Willoughby City Council, Nigel Morris – Offer Development Manager, BP Solar Australia, Paul Watson, Group Manager Environmental Strategy, Country Energy, Wes Stein – Project Manager, National Solar Energy Centre, Darren Keegan – Business Development Manager and Pieter Verasdonck – Community Economic Development Manager – both with Dept of State & Regional Development, Tim Cotter – Regional Manager, AusIndustry and Joe Wilder, Dept of the Environment. After dinner speaker was David Fewchuk, Chairman Aurora Vehicle Association. A video of the forum and a full transcript of the outcome of the workshop are available to interested parties.