The small town of Yackandandah in Victoria’s northeast has sparked an energy revolution that’s now spreading through other small towns in Australia.


Three years ago, we published a piece about an ambitious plan – hatched by Ben McGowan and Campbell Klose – to create an independent renewable energy network for the small north-east Victorian town of Yackandandah. The plan set in motion two organisations – Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY), a community engagement body, and Indigo Power, a start-up energy company.


As the smoke cleared from the terrible bushfires of the Black Summer, and pandemic lockdowns isolated Victorian communities, we tried to understand how such community bodies might contribute to a recovered world. We framed the inquiry around a question posed by the Australian Conservation Foundation CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy.


“What do you want your community to look like on the other side of the COVID19 crisis?”


Three years on, now seems a good time to examine the answers.

“Community scale is now established as a principle in the electricity industry,” offers Ben McGowan. “Community batteries, rooftop solar, residential batteries, controlling them all together as a virtual power plant… that’s all become pretty mainstream.”

It’s worth revisiting some of the local characteristics that make Yack such a perfect place for initiatives like these. With a history in dairy and other agriculture, the little town of 1800 people is a tree-change and tourist economy now, with a communal spirit and a confidence about innovating. At the time of our earlier story, Cam Klose enthused about the volunteer clubs, Plastic-Wise Yackandandah and the community-owned hospital. The locals had even bought back the petrol station so it could distribute half its profits back into the community.

More recently, Patagonia has invested in Yack’s renewable future.

Patagonia’s electricity footprint in Australia is about 170MW per year. It’s already serviced by two solar power units on the company’s HQ at Torquay, which generate around 20MW per annum of usable electricity. “But we realised that wasn’t good enough,” says Patagonia’s Finance and Operations Director Kate Maffett, “which is why we started talking to Indigo Power about the project.”

“We loaned $75,000 to Indigo Power to build a 150kWh solar power facility on our behalf,” Kate explains. “We wanted to increase the amount of renewable electricity supply that existed… not simply to purchase renewable electricity, as this only happens within government-defined targets. We wanted to go beyond, so we needed to take ownership of the STCs (small scale technology certificates) that a new renewable electricity facility ‘earns,’ and retire them. If we didn’t retire them they’d stay in the market and just go towards the pre-determined renewable electricity target that’s been set by the government. So we’ve gone beyond the targets and created additional capacity that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. The STCs cost us $50k on top of the costs of building the facility. There’s no return on this – it’s a direct investment for the planet.”

Before we get to the project, let’s hear from Indigo Power CEO Ben McGowan about how community energy works. Back at the time of our earlier story, TRY and Indigo Power felt like departments of the same entity. Indigo had emerged from TRY, and still collaborated closely with it on everything. “Since then, we’ve professionalised,” says Ben. “We’re now two different organisations. I left TRY, and I’m only at Indigo.” Cam Klose has also since left TRY and is now Strategy Director at Farmers for Climate Action.

“Since 2020 we’ve been setting up a community energy retail business,” Ben continues. “So a customer joins Indigo, puts their postcode in and joins a community energy hub. Indigo can then show you how much of your energy is shared within the community. And you can also see a whole-of-community view of energy usage.”

That usage often powers shared assets in the area like an electric vehicle charging station and a community battery, but it also offsets power from the grid. Indigo won funding from the federal government to install a community battery at Yarra Junction. Meanwhile, they’re expanding uses and taking them to new communities. Energy resilience and battery storage have become the focuses.

“In all of these hubs in this part of the world,” Ben explains, “there’s almost a surplus of solar in the middle of the day, so our focus has been storage. For example, on the Yackandandah battery, there’s 65kW of solar. It generates on-site, charges a 274kW battery (the equivalent of 40 homes’ usage), then distributes the power across the evening.”

The Yack fire station is connected to the community grid. One of the drivers of the idea of energy independence for regional towns has been recent instances of these type of towns being cut off from the grid during bushfires. Photo Bec Bower

Since the 2019/20 bushfires, Indigo have worked on better preparing their local communities – places like Corryong and Tumbarumba and surrounds that were heavily impacted – for the next emergency. Those preparations include having solar power at the CFA, ambulance base, hospitals and petrol station.

There’s a lot of funding, both state and federal, available now for community batteries. It’s an emerging technology, but Ben says Indigo’s “strong proposal is that yes, you can use this grant funding to do the solar installations that people love, but it’s really nice to put a battery somewhere where it has added value, for instance in the town’s evacuation centre.” This was a lesson out of Black Summer, according to Ben: a lack of back-up energy on the day, creating a need for energy resilience at that site.

Another frontier for Indigo is community-scale pumped hydro. They’re working on a feasibility study, using peak solar to pump water up high, then let it down through lean times, generating power. Ben says it’s basically off-river – just two farm dams – so there’s no impact on the landscape. “It’s near Yackandandah, between there and Wodonga. It originated with TRY’s work a few years ago.”

Pumped hydro has been around for a long time, but is more complicated than battery storage, and needs a lot of civil construction. “It’s not a foregone conclusion,” Ben cautions. “They’re bigger projects. But our part of the world is golden for pumped hydro because of the steep topography and high rainfall. And batteries tend to be short bursts of power – this is energy that’s not quite baseload but getting nearer to it – it’s a longer-lasting supply.”

Ben describes all these projects as “learning by doing,” but he’s encouraged by the fact that industry and government are moving rapidly in this direction. “The world’s moved very quickly since the Yackandandah activity three years ago,” he says. A simple example illustrates the need to keep up: solar generation means the cheapest power is in the middle of the day. But only ten years ago there was an off-peak rate in the middle of the night. It’s still there, and everyone’s hot water systems are scheduled to come on in the middle of the night.

“In the towns around here, peak demand is at 1am because of the hot water systems. It’s not cheaper any more. They should all be switched to the middle of the day when all this solar comes into the grid. Fixing it up just needs an incentive to customers to change their timing. So it’s a big problem but not an intractable one.”

This example, one among many, leads to another insight: for electrical engineers in this field, often the solutions are simple. It’s the industry that’s complex. Behavioural and commercial change is the real challenge.

Patagonia partnered with Indigo Energy to build a 150kWh solar facility on the roof of the Albury-Wodonga indoor cricket facility. “Patagonia and cricket don’t automatically go hand in hand in our minds,” laughs Patagonia’s Kate Maffett. “But supporting community organisations does, and that’s an unintended upside of the project.”

Which brings us neatly around to the reveal that Ben had left hanging: where did Indigo put that Patagonia community solar installation?

“We started talking to Patagonia back in 2019 about the Community Energy Hub project,” he says. “They were looking to account for their energy consumption. We talked to them about the CEH, about sharing energy across sites. Over a long period, interrupted by COVID, we agreed to build a shared asset in Wodonga which would account for their consumption across all sites. We had these conversations before we’d built the software. They took a chance on us.”

First, Indigo had to find a site that had low energy use, was large enough to put solar panels on, was available, and had amenable owners: a tricky suite of characteristics that yielded an unexpected host: Cricket Albury-Wodonga. Their new indoor cricket stadium fitted all the criteria, so in exchange for providing their roof to build a giant set of solar panels, they got bargain electricity.

Patagonia’s Kate Maffett can see the novelty in her company being paired up with cricket. “Patagonia and cricket don’t automatically go hand in hand in our minds,” she laughs. “But supporting community organisations does, and that’s an unintended upside of the project.”

As Michael Erdeljac, the Chairman of Cricket Albury-Wodonga explains, his organisation is an association of 32 clubs, comprising 185 sides. “The deal was exceptional for us,” he says. “We talked to Ben and he took us through the proposed program: we came to an agreement where they paid to put a big 100kw system on the roof. I pay 11c/kwh for our power, which is a lot cheaper than the going rate.”

As Michael indicated, Indigo took the lead in the practical side of things, Patagonia in the complex legal and documentation requirements, including funding the project through a low-interest loan. The templates created by this process can then be used by Indigo for other clients looking to do something similar.

As Indigo’s Ben remembers it, “they had a new indoor cricket facility, a stadium with firstly, a big roof and secondly, good electrical connections. It’s a community organisation, so they were thinking of community and cost. We said ‘we can power you in the middle of the day’ – their consumption wasn’t huge. So they got much cheaper electricity. It takes a bit of can-do attitude, willingness to spend time and work with you.”

The cricket facility is not just a power station, although it’s certainly that. “This is our Wodonga base,” says Michael, “but we cover a huge area geographically. Four indoor lanes, four outdoor lanes, nine turf wickets, a new car park – all in the last three years.” The association has been able to support their girls’ cricket program through the savings they’ve made. And eventually Patagonia can see power generation which offsets their consumption. The project’s worked well for everyone.

Cam Klose and Ben McGowan, who have seen their vision for community-owned renewable energy hubs grow well beyond their small home town. Photo Bec Bower

The other element of the Yack energy revolution was, of course, Totally Renewable Yackandandah. Matt Charles-Jones, CEO of TRY, told us that having separated from Indigo and running under an independent board, TRY’s looking to be 100 per cent renewable by 2024. “The basis is: how to simultaneously respond positively to climate change and benefit the local community’s reliance and its economy.”

Focused on an area of 11-kilometre radius around Yackandandah, TRY is harnessing the kind of local innovation that came up with a second-hand EV sales business, a cemetery mowed with electric mowers, and posties who get around on e-bikes.

Matt believes the region will get to 100 per cent renewables using “single-property, behind-the-metre solar and batteries, not solar farms. This is hyper-local. The business model is really simple.” That model is best described as a voluntary advocacy group. “We provide the interest, and the technical offers. People get overwhelmed with sales and tech people: we can make those decisions easier for them. Put in place a program, the finances, show the strengths. Indigo Power execute it – we still closely collaborate.”

TRY are currently organising their second community battery. They’ve completed the financing and are now focused on the engineering. “We expect to hit 100 per cent by helping people use less power,” Matt explains. “So you give people strategies, like being more selective about when to use power. And helping them generate and store, too, obviously. That leads to a ‘virtual powerplant’ – a smart-energy controller for a micro-grid across town.”

Like Ben, Matt hopes to improve the energy resilience of the area. “Climate change means big infrastructure is exposed to climate risk. We can provide options for energy when the power goes out.”

He estimates that TRY needs the equivalent of 400 more homes of solar and battery to get to 100 per cent renewables (there’s about 600 properties in the area with solar already). The network is at capacity for backflow of power, so batteries are vital to flexibility of use. “When the network voltage is overloaded, you start getting shut-downs.”

Like Indigo, TRY is a small organisation having a big impact. The core membership of TRY’s committee is about 16 people, and there’s around 80 members in all, but TRY took out two Premier’s Sustainability Awards in 2020: one for community resilience, and the Premier’s Award itself. Matt knows, however, that it’s the ability to multiply that will ultimately make a difference.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on helping other groups get started,” he says. “We’ve spoken to well over 100 other groups, an informal, organic movement of Totally Renewables.” So on the faraway Bass Coast, Totally Renewable Phillip Island is out there seeking 100 per cent renewables and zero carbon emissions for the island by 2030. And although the movement is mostly Victorian-based, it’s reaching as far as Totally Renewable Magnetic Island.

One challenge the group faces is that energy use is increasing because of population growth, and people retiring old forms of energy like wood fires. “So it’s in fact a moving target. Power use over the past three years is up 5 per cent, but population has risen by less than that, maybe 2.5.” Matt echoes Ben’s point about the technical and the behavioural. “We don’t have a technical problem. We have a finance challenge. We don’t need to invent anything new. We need donors, and households/businesses willing to give it a go.”

With a history in dairy and other agriculture, the little town of 1800 people is a tree-change and tourist economy now, with a communal spirit and a confidence about innovating. Photo Bec Bower

When I ask Ben McGowan about the Kelly O’Shanassy question – what does his community look like three years after the COVID crisis struck? – his answer ranges widely.

It wasn’t just COVID that influenced the change, he points out. “We had fires in northeast Victoria. Months of smoke, tourism stopped. Then there was COVID, three months after the fires. It was devastating. But both events taught us about resilience, taught us to ask – ‘how can we prepare better?’

“COVID taught us that if the borders closed, there’s value in good local relationships and businesses. Both events (the fires and the virus) pointed towards developing vibrant local collaborations and supportive communities. They’ve always been Indigo Power objectives.

“And after COVID, these communities are really vibrant. People are moving here, recognising that. We now employ nine people at Indigo Power, in interesting, purposeful, local jobs that wouldn’t have been here otherwise. That’s pretty good.”

In our earlier story about Yackandandah’s energy revolution, Cam Klose had said, “The first few years you feel as though you’re pushing and pushing and getting nowhere. Then there’s tipping points. Things begin to work.”

Ben McGowan reflects on that comment, three years down the track. “We’re much more credible because we’ve got runs on the board,” he says. “The Patagonia project has been a big part of that. And things that looked far out are now mainstream. We’ve got a pipeline of projects nearing delivery, we’re looking to have really significant power generation in our portfolio and to be able one day to service all of eastern Australia, to reach people who want to support our work by being customers.

“Community scale is now established as a principle in the electricity industry. Community batteries, rooftop solar, residential batteries, controlling them all together as a virtual powerplant… that’s all become pretty mainstream.”

The small town of Yackandandah in Victoria’s northeast has sparked an energy revolution that’s now spreading through other small towns in Australia.


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