Victorian township Newstead is inching closer to its goal of relying solely on renewable energy, with expectations of going 100% solar. 

No-one anywhere in the world is overjoyed about paying their electricity bill, but it’s very seldom that entire townships get together to do something about it. But that’s what’s happening in Newstead, about 50km northwest of Melbourne.

The denizens of Newstead want to go 100% renewable. To get them started, the Victoria government contributed a $200,000 grant in February 2015 to develop a replicable, commercially viable model to make the shift to clean energy.

As the town waits on responses from experts and industry about how to turn itself into a solar power plant, Renewable Newstead spokesperson Genevieve Barlow took EcoGeneration through the process so far.

“We’re not dreamers; we’re realists,” Barlow says. “We understand things have to be commercially viable [and that] the energy has to be priced right so that it’s attractive for people to opt-in. And it has to be attractive to any would-be investors.”

When the sun’s shining

One thing’s for certain so far: the project will be based on solar generation – with the door left open for storage at about $250/kWh. “At this stage battery storage doesn’t make sense but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking for that down the track,” Barlow says.

The idea is for distributed solar panels around the town, with investors making up the balance of funds required if local contributions fall short. “We’re not a wealthy community; we have a very high reliance on timber for heating in the winter,” says Barlow, who didn’t have an estimate of the cost of the project when she spoke to EcoGeneration in late November.

Investors can be community members, financial organisations, philanthropic organisations … “we’re up for anything”.

Interested parties will be invited to tender early 2017, once project partners are finalised.

newsteads-seasonal-energy-use

The project committee has a signed memorandum of understanding from local distributor Powercor, who supplied it with demand parameters to work within.

Newstead is comprised of about 400 homes and some businesses, with usage of about 2.34GWh. An assessment of half-hourly load and solar production, assuming all systems face north at 20 degrees, shows that about 1.7MW in solar assets is needed to transition it to 100% renewable energy supply.

Of peak energy demand, 67% would be supplied by solar and 33% imported. About 72% of all exported solar power would occur at peak time.

Change is difficult

Newstead will remain grid-connected but there is no estimate yet on whether it will be a net buyer or seller of energy. Also, there is no obligation to be part of the crowd. If anyone wants to keep the status quo arrangement and buy the electricity generated by nearby coal-fired plants, they can. Barlow is hoping the transference of energy supply will leave no-one worse off, however.

newsteads-hour-by-hour-energy-consumption-in-kw-for-a-full-year

“We’ve approached this as a social project. Most importantly our goal is to care for our community,” she says.

“For example, if the trend plays out as predicted and more people opt out of the grid, who’s left standing? Is it a little old lady who lives on her own, who doesn’t know how the system’s working? And what will happen to her bill? We’re trying to work towards something that will deliver us renewable energy and be fair price-wise to people. That’s a key motivation.”

It’s way too early to say how the plan to convert the Victorian town to clean energy will go, but Barlow’s positive. In fact, who’s to say Newstead won’t become a power plant which also generates revenue. “If we had a system which in fact returned some sort of funds which we could turn into a community pool to invest in our community, that would be fantastic.”