Will Uralla be Australia's first net zero energy town?

Uralla’s journey towards Australia’s first Zero Net Energy Town

In 2014, Meghan Trainor’s All About that Bass was a hit, Schapelle Corby was released from prison in Bali, and many Australians were still on the fence about climate change.

It was also the year environmental scientist Dr Sandra Eady partnered with Uralla Shire Council environmental projects officer Stephanie McCaffrey to argue the case for Uralla to become Australia’s first Zero Net Energy Town (Z-NET).

At the time, the small town 23 kilometres south-west of Armidale in the New South Wales Northern Tablelands had no pretensions to being “green”, and was below the national average for household solar installations.

“When we kicked off, nobody knew what zero net was. No one really got it.”

But the NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage had supported a ZNET Consortium comprising the Institute for Rural Futures at the University of New England, the Member for Northern Tablelands, the Regional Clean Energy Program of NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, and NSW Trade & Investment.

The NSW Government provided funding for a business case and blueprint, and the search was on to find the perfect town.

Uralla was selected from a field of five.

Why Uralla?

“There were a number of reasons we were successful,” Eady says. “Number one was our approach to the process. Number two was our proximity. The town is on the highway and it is very visible.

“Number three was that we consulted a lot and there was a lot of input from across the shire. Number four was we obviously had the capacity. Council were keen to do it and we had the appropriate professionals.”

Z net plan

At the announcement, NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Leslie Williams told ABC Radio: “Uralla was successful because of its very strong support from the community, local business and local residents, but importantly the local government sector.”

Consultants were sent to Uralla to help form a community reference group and hold workshops to gather information before the Z-NET Blueprint was developed along with a plan for Uralla as a case study town.

The basic actions of the plan were to:

  • Use less energy at home and at work
  • Generate renewable energy on-site
  • Import sustainable firewood
  • Restoration and reforestation nearby
  • Generate renewable energy nearby, and
  • Import or purchase renewable energy.

The approach was announced as “a very practical and ‘real world’ grounding, including a business case assessment to quantify the costs, benefits, opportunities and risks of the various options available”.

On the ground, Eady says this translated into a plan adapted for the time and the community.

This was carried out initially by Z-NET Uralla as a sub-group of the Uralla Neighbourhood Centre and then, in 2017, as an independent organisation.

“We didn’t want residents to feel they were being overwhelmed,” Eady says. “We wanted them to feel they were part of it. When we kicked off, nobody knew what zero net was. No one really got it.

“People understood solar panels but thought rich people used solar panels and poor people paid for the energy.”

Thermal imaging showing heat leaking from the floor, roof and windows of a Uralla home in winter. ZNeT has helped educate residents about more efficient heating. Credit: ZNet

She says the first action was to focus on behind-the-meter solar installation for homes and businesses. Grants enabled the employment of a project officer to lead volunteers in programs to increase the take-up of renewable energy. These included assessing power use at homes and businesses to not only audit energy use and find malfunctioning and power-hungry appliances, but to advise residents and business owners about the best solar solutions for their circumstances.

Z-NET Uralla also entered a partnership with a finance organisation to offer interest-free loans for landlords to install solar panels in rental properties and pass on savings to their tenants.

Renewable results

Z-NET Uralla has a monitoring and evaluation framework to track how the case study town is performing.

Eady says she believes when the project began, solar installation was at about 11%. That figure is now close to 40%.

At the end of the 2015, the shire had 1616 kW of panels installed. By the end of October 2021, that had grown to 5328 kW of panels, creating an extra 7,778,240 kWh of renewable energy.

“We have had a rapid escalation in rooftop solar installations,” Eady says. “That is not all down to Z-NET, but we have run good programs. “From a renewable energy point of view, we are pretty happy. We’re almost at 40%, and that’s ahead of target.”

Uralla bowling club solar panels
Many Uralla businesses have joined the Z-NET journey and installed solar panels.

She says once the New England Solar Farm – the country’s largest hybrid solar and battery energy storage facility – kicks off, it will generate far more power than Uralla could ever use, assisting the town to reach its targets.

Beyond solar

Z-NET Uralla has taken its approach beyond energy to introduce a number of other sustainability programs funded by state and federal government grants, as well as grants through the New England Solar Farm.

These have included a sustainable firewood program.

“We have raised awareness about assessing what is a sustainable level of wood and how much you should leave behind,” Eady says.

The Shire, where about 75% of homes have traditionally been heated with firewood, is also seeing an increased introduction of air-conditioning.

Uralla’s recent water troubles in the drought – including a do-not-drink advisory after a spike in arsenic was detected in the water and alarmingly low levels at Kentucky Creek Dam – prompted the Let’s Talk About Water program.

Z-NET Uralla enlisted experts from the University of New South Wales’s Global Water Institute and consulted with Uralla Shire Council about nine options before surveying residents, holding focus groups and workshops to discuss water scarcity and security. The information fed into Uralla Shire Council’s water planning and strategies.

Z-NET Uralla also has a Greening Uralla tree-planting program, and the Working on Waste (WoW) program, a partnership with community groups to hold a program of events to help creatively minimise the waste sent to landfill. This has included curtain-making to help keep warmth in homes, and sewing for beginners so people can mend clothes rather than throw them out.

A legacy

Now about seven years down the track from the blueprint process, Eady says the experiment has delivered a way forward for other towns.

Hepburn Shire in Victoria was the next to follow the Z-NET route, and others have contacted the Uralla group to hear their experiences as they attempt to reduce their emissions.

“Our legacy for the rest of the country is in sharing what has gone well for us,”

“Our legacy for the rest of the country is in sharing what has gone well for us,” Eady says. “What has worked has been having grassroots community engagement, having the financial grant support to employ project managers so you don’t burn out volunteers, and being open to change and running with what people are excited about.”

Eady also points out that the climate change message is much stronger now than it was in 2014.

That fact, together with the respect she says Z-NET Uralla gained through its early energy efficiency work, has meant that the Shire remains committed to transitioning to a way of living that is more sustainable and meets the challenges of the future.

Find out more about Z-NET Uralla here.

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