Tyalgum in Australia hopes to be first town voluntarily ‘off the electricity grid’

A small community in north-east New South Wales wants to become Australia’s first village to voluntarily disconnect from the electricity grid. For that to happen, Tyalgum first needs to become 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy. Those spearheading the project hope it will inspire other towns to go green. But before they can cut themselves off completely they need the law to change, as Penny Timms reports.

PENNY TIMMS: Tyalgum is a peaceful village just over an hour’s drive north-west of Byron Bay. It’s home to around 300 people, and what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in ambition. 
Kacey Clifford is from Australian Radio Towers, the company spearheading a project to make the town 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy. 

KACEY CLIFFORD: Well everything’s sort of aligned for Tyalgum. It’s in a really good position and in that area of New South Wales there is this huge towards sustainability and renewable energy in general anyway. Tyalgum sort of just has everything lined up to be in a good position. It’s right on the end of the grid, it’s got this beautiful, natural, picturesque location, all the houses are north facing, well just about all of them. 

PENNY TIMMS: The position of the houses is important for this project because one of the most realistic options is that each house would have its own solar panels, and potentially a battery capable of storing energy that’s generated by the sun. The project is the brain-child of Andrew Price. 

ANDREW PRICE: I’ve been involved in the renewable energy industry for probably about 10 years in the wind farming sector. As I became familiar with this town and its location and all the things going for it and then the community response to what I was wanting to do there, all the other parts just lined up and so that’s how we got to where we are now. 

PENNY TIMMS: His final hope is that Tyalgum could become self sufficient in energy production and reduce its net emissions from power to zero so that it could become Australia’s first town to voluntarily unplug from the electricity grid. 

ANDREW PRICE: Geographically it’s in the right location. As far as networks go, it’s right on the end of the grid so it’s not disruptive to other communities further down the power line and being at the end of the grid there’s a lot more likelihood that the network owner at the moment would be more willing to hand that grid over to us if that’s as far as we want to go. Ultimately it’s got to be a community based decision but the size of the community and the style of the community it is, we’ve got a really good chance of doing that. 

PENNY TIMMS: Tosh Szatow is from the company Energy For the People. He wrote a feasibility study for the project and says the case for it is strong.

TOSH SZATOW: The community there is pretty frustrated with rising energy prices and not really seeing benefits proportionate to that, they’re not seeing more renewable energy, they’re not seeing better services and more reliable power. So I think there’s a lot of frustration about that and a real desire to take back control of energy infrastructure. 

PENNY TIMMS: He says there are two likely options the community could adopt, the first being the solar and battery combination mentioned earlier. 

TOSH SZATOW: The other way of doing it is if all those individual homes and businesses collaborate and cooperate with a local entity that becomes the energy supplier for that town, then those solar systems, that battery storage could be centralised, could be in a paddock near the town, there’s a possibility of sharing the generation assets, the storage assets, that mean the town can either be completely off grid or largely self sufficient and using renewable energy. 

PENNY TIMMS: If it’s approved, the cost of the project would depend on which option is taken. Early estimates have the cost from anywhere around $4 million to just over $7 million, though there are several hurdles that need to be cleared. One is that those developing the project would need to negotiate viable access, tariffs and potentially the transfer of ownership of a portion of the electricity network from the local power provider. 
Ms Clifford says it will also require strong community support and legislative change from the New South Wales Government.

KACEY CLIFFORD: I’m sure we’ll encounter a lot more but the main part of it is there’s nothing to suggest that we could share energy, that’s not allowed at this point. So part of this would be that people would have rooftop solar and we’d potentially might have a solar array somewhere and they’ll be so much sharing of energy and there’s just not the structure around to allow that at this point. That’s not to say things aren’t changing all the time, so we’re positive that things can be changed and the feasibility study suggests that those changes are very positive for the future. 

PENNY TIMMS: Organisers are in talks with school and community groups to discuss funding options and they say they’re confident the project could begin as soon as it’s given the green light.