This small regional community is working to take control of its energy supply.
The process so far tells a heartwarming story of social cohesion and empowerment of a community to take control of its future.
Mollongghip and the surrounding district is on track to building the capacity to generate its own electricity.
Members of the Mollongghip, Dean, Springbank and Rocklyn communities are investigating small-scale wind, solar, pumped hydro and battery as a sustainable model for power generation and storage.
The potential for power sharing models where farmers and residents exchange electricity at different times of the year is also being analysed.
It gives them transparency and control and reliability.Joe Finnernan
They are looking for a model where all members of the community can benefit from local power generation.
The concept of community cooperatives is not new. In fact, it is generations old. But more communities are looking to collective alternatives to the current economic system that does not reflect their values and lifestyle.
A pre-feasibility study for the potential community power hub project is due to be released by the end of January.
The idea for a model of community energy was first raised by steering committee member Joe Finnernan and discussed with the community after he saw an advertisement for projects from Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions (BREAZE).
More than 150 people have attended workshops to discuss and progress the idea since February last year.
“It has been significantly driven by community,” Mr Finnernan said.
“There is quite a strong collective of people who are keen who spend significant amounts of money on diesel and electricity.”
Mr Finnernan describes Mollongghip and district as a ‘dynamic’ community of farmers, residencies, families, professionals and single people.
“The farming aspect puts a different spin because the amount of electricity they use is considerable. This is an opportunity to help them become more cost effective and more productive for the long term future of the community,” he said.
The Mollongghip and District Power Hub steering committee has analysed the electricity consumption of the community’s 120 households to understand the social, financial and technical possibilities of renewable energy.
This is an opportunity to help them become more cost effective and more productive for the long term future of the community.Joe Finnernan
Data collected from 40 percent of the households shows the community collectively spends more than $250,000 per year on electricity.
“Extrapolate that over 10 years with electricity prices only going one way, it is quite a compelling discussion for renewable energy,” Mr Finnernan said.
“Everyone has different perspectives and different ideas. Because we have a dynamic community some people will be focused on environmental issues, some on reducing cost while some are most concerned about the long term sustainability of farming practices and the community.”
The Mollongghip and District Community Power Hub steering committee engaged a consultant to complete a pre-feasibility study for the project after several community workshops throughout the past year.
The committee will meet at the end of January to discuss recommendations after the report is released to the community. A series of workshops will be held to come to a decision whether to proceed with a full business case.
Mr Finnernan said the work completed so far was promising.
“There are some positive outcomes that look great for the community and there’s some technical solutions that make 100 per cent sense and will make a lot of sense for the community in the future even if the community power hub doesn’t get off the ground,” he said.
Although a number of models of community energy projects already exist, Mr Finnernan said the pre-feasibility study would analyse what would work best for the Mollongghip community.
Ballarat Community Power Hub control group member and BREAZE treasurer Peter Reid said the Mollongghip project was particularly exciting because of the unusual combination of a rural farming community and residential lifestyle blocks.
Mr Finnernan said community energy could be a compelling option for farmers as an alternative income stream.
“If you think about the farming community where we live the costs are going up, but prices the farmers get are not going up at a rapid rate – that profit is getting squeezier and squeezier,” he said.
“If we have got farmers who can produce electricity in summer for farming and have excess in winter that can be sold back into the grid or to the community then that is quite a compelling story for them. Heavy user consumption is the unique thing for us that puts residential into a lesser degree of usage.”
MORE THAN ENERGY
Mollongghip and District Community Power Hub steering committee member Olivia Davis moved to Mollongghip from Melbourne one year ago on the search for a tree change and found what she described as an ‘incredibly friendly and welcoming’ community.
She said she was excited to be involved in the community power hub because of her commitment to sustainability. “I wanted to get solar for the house, but when I found out the community was doing something bigger I was keen to be a part of it,” she said.
Ms Davis said she wasn’t surprised by the community’s positive response to the project.
“There seems to be a lot of very like minded people in Mollongghip. The people I know on the committee are all very in tune with wanting to reduce our environmental footprint and find an energy solution that is sustainable for us,” she said.
“We are a very cooperative, friendly community. We wanted to make sure any project we worked on would enhance that. Some communities have experienced renewable energy projects as a divisive element, particularly with conflict about wind power.
“We are open to any technology that would work for us, but we want to make sure first and foremost we contribute to the social fabric. We did a survey and overwhelmingly what came out is people value the social cohesion of the community almost above everything.”
Mr Finnernan said a model of community energy could give residents energy transparency, control and reliability, but most importantly was building social fabric.
“If this leads to how the community can grow and develop in the next 10 to 20 years that is quite a powerful conversation,” he said.
“As Ballarat changes and grows, what does that do to regional communities? Renewable energy is about building a sustainable community.”