In a vegetable garden that once was a greenhouse for a horticultural research site, Suzie Brown is tending kale and silverbeet.
Brown, her husband and nine-year-old daughter are among those who have ditched suburban life to join Narara Ecovillage, a 63-hectare site about 5km north of Gosford on the central coast of New South Wales.
The ecovillage, which aims to have about 150 homes and up to 400 residents, has released stage two of its development, and has become a test case for renewable energy.
In 2016, the ecovillage was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the federal Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) towards establishment of an on-site smart power network.
The ARENA website notes that the project was an “ecovillage model for sustainable living including social, economic as well as environmental outcomes”. The website further notes that “it will demonstrate that costs can be significantly reduced, compared to a standard grid solution, by eliminating the need for one substation out of two on-site,. “As the market develops over time, the benefits of this village model can be extended to virtual power generators located in the same district and beyond.”
The microgrid includes 471 kW of solar photovoltaics (PV), 460 kWh of energy storage and integrated demand side management and control systems.
“The Narara Ecovillage Smart Grid project will collect data relating to social impacts, resident behaviour, and the interaction of the microgrid with the NSW electricity network,” the ARENA website states, going on to note that the grant would help the ecovillage become “a world-leading carbon-neutral sustainable living centre that integrates and maximises renewable energy use and new energy storage technologies”.
Findings from the project are already being released through a NSW Government Clean Energy Knowledge Sharing Initiative Case Study available online.
As part of the project, a 437 kWh battery was installed at the ecovillage early this year, allowing the storage of solar power during the day for use at night and on cloudy days. Solar panels on all the buildings feed into the micro grid, and excess is fed back into the national electricity grid.
Brown says that, as a resident, it means that when the lights unexpectedly go off in nearby Narara, they are still on in the ecovillage.
Chair of NEV Power, the energy company for the village, and ecovillage resident Lincoln De Kalb said the village had a fully carbon neutral energy supply.
“As the ecovillage continues to grow and new homes are built, more solar panels will join our micro grid and help charge the battery,” De Kalb says.
“It feels great to know that we’re not adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere and our excess solar energy helps the wider community access solar as well.”
NEV Power is expected to grow to include 1052 kW of solar PV generation and 825 kWh of batteries when the ecovillage is complete. It will be a demonstration village with tours and presentations.
In the interim, Brown and her family are renting while they wait for a house compliant with the ecovillage’s strict guidelines to be built.
“We have known about the village for a long time,” Brown, who is also a founder and volunteer director for Australian Parents for Climate Action, said. “A friend who has a house here offered to rent it to us to try it out. Within a few months we had realised how great it was.”
Houses within the ecovillage must meet a minimum Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) 7-star rating (one star above the usual building requirement) and are measured on other aspects such as whether building materials are sourced locally, the level of their embodied carbon and water efficiencies.
The requirements have resulted in an eclectic mix of housing, from an “earthship” made from straw bale, used tyres and bottles, to hempcrete homes, a “Hobbit house” tucked into the slope with a bamboo reciprocal frame roof covered with zincalume steel, to a yurt and a few tiny homes. Some houses appear traditional but are solar passive or thermally efficient in their design.
“The village standards are strict,” Brown says. “If you meet them, then you are pretty sure to meet council requirements.”
Homes must have solar capacity for 1 kW per bedroom, along with extra capacity for the home, and lots can only be sold to co-operative members, who must each pay a minimum shareholding of $30,000. This buys them shares representing a slice of the community land and buildings owned by the co-operative. The lots are sold to members at market price.
“It takes a while for people to have a look around and to determine if it is right for them,” Brown says. “There is an application process. Our people are committed to community and environmental standards. It’s a way of life.”
Brown’s husband, Guy Dutson, who is an ecologist, loves to hear the sound of frogs and birds, and the family is contributing to providing food through the community garden. Brown says her family has found the ecovillage to be home in a way their suburban house never was.
“It’s a very friendly place,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your background is or how old you are, everybody’s welcome. “My daughter had 60 acres to explore safely. We feel more relaxed – she knows everybody and she loves it.”
Marie Low has been a journalist and communications advisor for more than 30 years. She has also worked as a media advisor to state government ministers, headed a government media department and worked within a well-regarded metropolitan communications consultancy as a senior consultant. Her family tree change brought her to Tenterfield and then Gunnedah where she now is one half of Two Cats Creative.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.
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