Communities doing what the politicians cannot

While our political leaders continue to act as if our climate challenge is going to sort itself out, others are taking it more seriously. [31 August 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Our headline-hogging, energy-sapping political extravaganza shows no sign of going away. Meanwhile in the real world — including within Australian communities — many people are getting on with building their own sustainable future.

Leonards Hill, south of Daylesford, showing the wind turbines in place. IMAGE BY HEPBURN WIND

Leonards Hill, south of Daylesford, showing the wind turbines in place. IMAGE BY HEPBURN WIND

It’s not hard to see why. While some in our parliaments continue to question scientists’ warnings about climate, many constituents see what the evidence is saying and accept the reality of global warming.

People note that while in 2007 Australia was hailed as a budding global climate champion, now our climate and energy policies don’t cut it on a world stage. We’re falling away.

They see that China, that great ogre of John Howard’s carbon world view, has just ordered over 2000 of its most carbon-intensive factories to close by the end of September, stopped electricity discounting to big industrial consumers, and announced that it will have its own carbon trading scheme within five years. So much for Australia getting too far ahead of the rest.

They note that while in Australia renewable energy’s share of the electricity market sits at 6.8 per cent and falling, and while we continue to talk about energy efficiency, countries like Sweden and Portugal enforce universal energy efficiency standards and already have renewable energy schemes supplying over 40 per cent of total energy needs.

They see a big Victorian winemaker, Brown Brothers, looking south to Tasmania and spending over $32 million on Tamar Valley vineyards “to position ourselves to combat global warming.”

Tasmanians who have seen the longer-term benefit of building business resilience in the face of future energy constraints include Dr Bob Walker of Lindisfarne’s Lincoln Street Clinic, poultry producer Rob Nichols, of Sassafras, Richmond vegetable growers Colin and Anthony Houston, and Kettering tourism operator Gerry White.

We can add to that ever-growing list Robert Rockefeller, owner of Hobart’s Marine Board building. He got some bad press a few weeks ago when his rooftop wind turbines stopped turning, but it hasn’t stopped him from seeking to install more turbines atop another of his city buildings.

Whatever’s been said about the appearance, safety or energy efficiency of Rockefeller’s turbines, or about any of the other “climate-friendly” ventures around Tasmania, the effort and money they’ve spent is testament to their willingness to set the kind of example that is so lacking among our political leaders.

These pioneers are far from alone. Around Tasmania households and groups are building neighbourhood sustainability by exercising their own muscle, literally and otherwise. Walk-to-school regimes, community gardens, growers’ markets, rooftop solar power and hot water, home insulation and energy-efficiency schemes are among their growing list of achievements.

The world-wide Transition Towns movement, based on the experience of the UK town of Totnes, offers a process which many of these community groups have adopted. But the scale of their accomplishment is small compared with what’s been achieved in some European centres, such as production of surplus energy that can be fed into national grids.

But at least one Australian community can claim to be rapidly approaching that macro level of sustainability. Daylesford, northwest of Melbourne, is in a region that many years ago embraced the need for people and communities to become more sustainable and self-sufficient.

Here, within the next 12 months Australia’s first community-owned wind farm will begin operating on a hill 10 km south of the town, courtesy of a brand new phenomenon known as the community social enterprise investor. It’s small — only two two-megawatt turbines — but it provides enough power for nearly all the community’s 3000-odd residents.

In 2005, concerned about the threats posed by climate change and peak oil, people in Daylesford and its outlying “suburb”, Hepburn Springs, formed the Hepburn Renewable Energy Association, which in turn established a cooperative wind-farming venture now called Hepburn Wind.

Each person who is a member of this community cooperative gets a single vote regardless of the number of shares held, distinguishing Hepburn Wind from commercial ventures. Failing to attract much interest from institutional investors, the cooperative managed to raise $8 million among 1200 mostly-local members — nearly two-thirds of the capital needed for the $12.9 million project.

There have been hurdles to overcome, not least last summer’s sudden drop in the value of renewable energy certificates, but recent adjustments to the REC scheme and steadily rising electricity prices are putting the venture in a more favourable investment light.

Around Tasmania communities and local governments, including all Greater Hobart administrations, are keeping a close eye on what’s happening with Hepburn Wind, which is setting up a non-profit organisation to give practical advice to other groups. That’s the good thing about such cooperatives — they’re in it for the common good, not the money.

The success of the Hepburn Wind project is proof that communities don’t have to wait for government to act — they can do it themselves. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

• People from southern Tasmanian communities are invited to a Saturday workshop on 18 September about building community and personal resilience and work out how we can deal with severe energy constraints caused by peak oil. For more information call Sustainable Living Tasmania on 62345566.

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