How can Ballarat harness renewable energy for cheaper electricity and more jobs?
This was the question at the centre of a Committee for Ballarat member workshop with Ballarat's business and community leaders and economist Ross Garnaut on Wednesday.
"What is possible if Ballarat took hold of the idea of being a green city and everything it encompasses?," Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton said.
"The big idea is making Ballarat a fully sustainable, carbon neutral city, driven by 100 per cent renewable energy and off grid. I haven't had anyone tell me yet it is not possible.
"Why would we do this? To ensure a future for our kids and theirs... to create a differential for our region - businesses and people would come here because of this."
Professor Garnaut has released a new book outlining the economic opportunities for Australia to create a low-carbon future, and says Ballarat could play a part in leading this transition away from coal towards renewable energy and electrified transport in the future.
The Committee for Ballarat session focused on Ballarat's capabilities in generating renewable energy and what could be achieved through collaboration.
Representatives from City of Ballarat, Sovereign Hill, Ballarat Cemeteries, Mars, Regional Development Victoria, Federation University and Selkirks shared their desire to focus on sustainability in their long-term business strategies.
Andrew Lang, a senior consultant with the World Bioenergy Association, told the group he had recently returned from Finland and visited a city equivalent in size, education and industry to Ballarat that was self-sufficient in its energy supply.
"For Ballarat to go energy neutral is going to take some dramatic steps," he said.
Professor Garnaut agreed, saying there was an opportunity to have 'really low cost' electricity in this region if 'dramatic' and 'disruptive' approaches were introduced.
"We won't get it through incremental changes in our existing system but if we do things in a dramatically different way we will," he said.
Professor Garnaut said low cost electricity would give Ballarat a competitive advantage for attracting new business and industry, particularly with a diversity in supply in wind and solar, the city's tradition of industry and connectivity to Melbourne.
What is possible if Ballarat took hold of the idea of being a green city and everything it encompasses?Michael Poulton, Committee for Ballarat
He suggested new suburbs and construction as a high value place to start the transition to a de-centralised electricity supply.
"Current regulation doesn't allow sharing electricity with neighbours - each house has to put its power back into the grid," he said.
"But my understanding is if you have got a new suburb you could plan the distribution in a different way so that the suburb goes into the energy market as one block.
"The entire suburb could be self-sufficient most of the time and have a low cost link to the grid as a back up."
Professor Garnaut also suggested the electrification of transport as another area Ballarat could take the lead nation-wide by installing charging stations and creating regulation for charging stations to be required in all new buildings.
"Share use of cars may start to have more value," he said.
"People could have a car that is electric that they use in Ballarat with an abundance of charging stations and then use a hire company to swap their car for longer journeys outside of Ballarat."
In groups, members discussed what action could be taken to transition Ballarat to a zero carbon future.
A common theme emerged of creating a shared vision for the whole city that has business and community on board, the need for education on that vision and small actions that show progress and possibilities.
There was also a focus on creating prosperity and equity in an energy transition that would not 'leave people behind' and the concept of 'building a place we want to be' where community re-uses more, shares more and wastes less.
Committee for Ballarat plans to continue the conversation in the hope it leads to business, government and community action towards a zero carbon future.
A public forum with Professor Garnaut and City of Ballarat deputy mayor Cr Belinda Coates was held in the evening, to share the concepts behind Garnaut's new book and City of Ballarat's sustainability strategy.
City of Ballarat has released a plan to reach zero net carbon dioxide emissions from its own corporate activities by 2025.
Cr Coates said part of the plan was to bring community, business, industry and the not for profit sector along in understanding achieving carbon neutrality was an economic, social and environmental win.
"It feels like we are on the cusp of some really big positive changes," she said.
"There is an opportunity to create an environment that will attract a lot of innovation and promote Ballarat as a place people want to come to test out ideas, to do something innovative and disrupt the status quo."
Cr Coates' message to community was everyone had a part to play in transitioning to a sustainable future.
"As a community member in your day to day life there are things that can be changed, whether it is accessing some of the programs to get free or subsidised rooftop solar, reducing energy use and thinking about transport and waste," she said.
"For businesses it is about thinking about how you can purchase renewable energy or swap to a renewable energy source. It is a great way to save money for the business as well.
"There are lots of like minded people out there in community groups like Food is Free and No Waste Ballarat that are a great example that the changes that can be made are positive and healthy for the community and businesses as well."
Have you signed up to The Courier's variety of news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat.