A lot has changed in the world since the advent of wind turbines. Public interest in renewable energy has increased, and almost three million households across Australia now have solar panels.

The number of electric cars on the roads is steadily increasing and of course, last year’s election was widely viewed as a referendum on climate.

But through it all, Hepburn Community Wind Park has continued steadily on, going from strength-to-strength with the support of its community.

Now known as Hepburn Energy, the co-op has made a shift from focusing just on wind power to a new ambition to add solar and battery storage to the mix.

Taryn Lane, general manager at Hepburn Energy, told Pro Bono News that since being built, Australia’s first community-owned wind farm has gone through a process of bedding down operations and delivering on what the community was promised. But around 2016, its managers began thinking more broadly.

“[We thought] OK, we have delivered Australia’s first example of a zero-net-energy town because the wind farm generates enough electricity to offset Daylesford and surrounds, and we are still the online one in Australia … we’ve done that, now what?” she explained.

The team wanted to increase their ambition and build literacy in the community about the changes needed to Australia’s energy use.

The Advent Of Z-NET

In 2019, a new program was launched: Hepburn Z-NET, a shire-wide collaboration with the local council and other community and sustainability groups, along with sector experts in things like agriculture.

Hepburn Z-NET conducted a community transition plan to reach zero net emissions by 2030, and since then, the team has been working towards implementing the plan.

One of the programs involved is building an electric vehicle (EV) charging network across the Hepburn Shire. The first EV charging station has been constructed, and another four will be delivered this year, according to Lane.

There have been solar, battery and EV bulk buys, and the second heat pump and hot water bulk buys are in train. Free energy audits of community members have also been conducted and a local sustainability group is being supported to do an agroforestry project.

“We’re also broadening out to things like agriculture, so creating a guide that supports farms so they can become zero net emissions farms,” Lane added.

“We’ve gone very broad and we’re also now looking at climate change adaptation and the circular economy within that broader zero net emissions model.”

Simultaneously, in 2017 the co-op began looking into solar and battery storage.

“We had always talked about it from back in 2011 and [had thought] when solar power at that larger scale is more affordable then we’ll start looking into that in more detail,” Lane said.

In 2017, the co-op felt ready and installed a purpose-built solar monitoring device on the wind farm.

“It’s certainly not what you would think of for a location for a solar farm at all, but we have a really good asset at the wind farm, which is the grid connection and all the existing infrastructure. Those factors make it more viable,” she explained.

The data was monitored for a few years and the co-op’s managers realised that the wind farm would make a good base for solar too.

Plans are now in place to install solar on the farm; a planning permit has been received to add five megawatts of solar and up to a 10 megawatt battery on site.

“When you’ve got years of drought and low rainfall and low wind conditions, the solar farm would perform really well. And then in those years … with lots of rain and high winds, the wind farm performs really well. From a resilience perspective, combining the two technologies on site is a really smart thing to do over the long term,” Lane said.

Local Solutions

With the change in focus came the change in name to Hepburn Energy.

“We’re just trying to model how you can do local programs and local solutions in a really place-based way and help people get behind them and take action on that very localised level,” she said.

“We’re in a really changing climate and that has to be considered and accounted for when we think about what the future energy system looks like.”

“We’re moving away from a highly centralised kind of system, being the coal fired and gas fired generators, into a more decentralised system. And of course, we’re going to need the big stuff, the really large wind farms and solar farms and offshore wind and pumped hydro and big batteries. But it’s really important – particularly in regional areas like where we live where we’re exposed to huge storms, floods, fires, that local communities have strong energy resilience and that they are secure on a very local level.”

By making things simple for the community and using local service providers, Hepburn Energy hopes to make the pathway to climate action simple for the people of Hepburn Shire, and others who might be watching.

And there’s another rationale informing the action too.

“Everything that we do, we have a social justice approach for. We’re not going to put forward technologies or programs that are really expensive. It has to be affordable and accessible for people,” Lane explained.

In an expression of this approach, for the EV bulk buy the co-op partnered with the Good Car Company on second-hand EVs.

“It just changes the entry point for people,” she added.

A Leader In The Field

Hepburn Energy now has over 2000 members, which Lane said shows how much trust the community has in the co-op, and Hepburn Energy has led the way for other community energy projects.

Although these haven’t happened on the same scale, Lane said she hopes to see larger community energy projects elsewhere in Australia in the coming years – there are more than 130 community energy groups around the country working on other projects.

“There is solar on community facilities and micro-grids, with two of the community wind farms located up in Western Australia. There is a lot of diversity in the space,” she said.

“I think we’re at a really interesting juncture where we’ve got alignment from state and federal governments to see a fast transition happening. It’s the first time that we’ve had that alignment in over a decade.”

Lane said these community groups and projects are happy to share information about their projects, creating a collaborative culture across the sector, and smaller community projects are putting pressure on governments to act more ambitiously and decisively on the climate crisis to bring targets into alignment with the science, she says.

But she cautioned that a social justice lens needs to be maintained over the transition.

“The transition is escalating at the moment, but there’s a real risk when that happens without social justice impacts being fully developed and delivered because of the pace that it needs to occur at. I think there needs to be a focus from governments on how they can ensure their participation at the community level and that they’re not excludes from the transition opportunities, because if we want to transition as fast as possible, then we need all kinds of stakeholders and everyone doing their bit.”

She would like to see more government funding available to community groups to help them resource climate programs, and there’s also a role for philanthropy.

Simon Holmes a Court was an early supporter of Hepburn Energy, and Lane said the co-op has benefited greatly from philanthropic funding over its lifetime, but she thinks there’s definitely more support that can happen from the philanthropic end.