Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Winds of change - Things are greening up at the grassroots level.

Adelaide Advertiser
Thursday 24/12/2009 Page: 21

While climate change is debated on the world stage, local councils in South Australia are directing change. They've trained residents to drag three different rubbish bins to the kerb and it's time to move on to the next challenge: the power game. The same authority that hands out library cards and dog tags has its eye on capturing the sun and wind.

Onkaparinga City Council, which spans Adelaide's southern fringe, proposes something for everyone, from household solar panels to miniature "sun farms" and a larger commercial power plant. There are already about 1200 photovoltaic (solar panel) systems installed across the south - mostly on houses. Last week, the council agreed to investigate a scheme whereby preferred suppliers would be appointed to sell solar systems to ratepayers at a bulk-purchase rate.

The smaller sun farms would involve the installation of up to 30kW solar panel systems on public buildings or vacant land. Community members could buy a stake and receive dividends from profits. The 5mW commercial scheme planned for Lonsdale would power about 2000 homes. Onkaparinga chief executive Jeff Tate says while the council will not own and run power companies, it has the vision and ability to bring investors together. "This links in to us trying to build a new economic base in the south; we're now targeting different industry sectors," he says. "Residents and businesses of the city, if they'd like to become involved, we'd find a way for that to happen as well. "It could be a co-operative. It could be a company is formed and people become shareholders."

The green energy plans depend on the willingness of residents and business to invest, and the council now will begin to gauge interest. Solar Energy Society president Monica Oliphant says the Federal Government should provide incentives for larger renewable energy projects to encourage investment. At the individual level, householders are paid a "feed-in tariff' for any unused power they generate, which goes back into the grid. However, larger renewable power schemes do not attract the tariff. "Renewables are still quite expensive," Professor Oliphant says. "A lot of people might not want one on their roof but wouldn't mind putting a bit into a community project. "But the Government does not want to go to a feed-in tariff for larger systems because they're afraid of what it might do to electricity prices."

She also says it is important to look beyond solar energy, to wind turbines and waste gases, to allow for times and places the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. Professor Oliphant says most local council projects are "small stuff' but Onkaparinga's proposed 5mW system is impressive and would involve more than one source of power. "That's not small-scale stuff - that's good," she says. "They're probably a leader in what they're thinking."

With scientists and politicians still divided on climate change, Professor Oliphant believes it can be tough to persuade homeowners to change the world at their own expense. Associate Professor John Boland, who works in environmental mathematics at UniSA, says local government is doing great work in a range of green directions. "To be honest, some of the best initiatives in many different areas are at the local government level," he says. "I find it quite happily surprising that they seem to be driving these projects.

"There's no feed-in tariffs for big installations like that, only for domestic dwellings, and yet they're pushing it without the best economic drivers there could be." In the Campbelltown City Council area, the State Government is working with the council on developing Lochiel Park - a green village with just 100 sustainable houses. The other two-thirds of the project is parklands. The project will serve as a model for other urban developments and help educate the public and the property development industry about sustainable housing and land development.

Professor Boland says even small projects, such as a solar panel on a council library, can be used to educate the community. Salisbury City Council's stormwater project is another standout scheme and a national and international leader. A series of wetlands created to hold and clean stormwater now is home to more than 100 bird species, including 50 migratory types that visit from as far away as Korea and Japan. Frogs, fish, yabbies and turtles all live in the waters which 20 years ago would have been allowed to run out to sea. Now, much of the water is stored in an underground aquifer for later re-use. Next year, all of Salisbury's parks and reserves will be irrigated with recycled stormwater.

Local Government Association environment and development director Michael Barry says people may be divided on climate change, so such schemes will not motivate everyone. "Everyone's got the right to their own opinion about climate change, but the things that are facts are the cost of energy, the cost of water - the shortage of water is not in dispute in SA," he says. "We'll encourage communities to respond because it's in their interests financially, even if they're not won over philosophically." Mr Barry says councils from Victor Harbor to the South-East and Eyre Peninsula are looking to the sun, wind, rain and methane to make environmental and financial savings. "We do think it's local government's job to help their communities contribute in whatever way they can on these issues," he says.