Blue Sky thinking transforms small and isolated communities

Many isolated communities now drive their own innovative and sustainable energy solutions.

Residents of communities that are small and isolated often have to depend on each other for the help they need. This brings about a tight-knit community that can get things done more efficiently than a larger one.  Innovative thinking bears fruit where everyone gets together and discusses possible answers to problems. This can be seen in Lord Howe Island, where the costs of living are really high.

Lord Howe Island is a small community of around 350 residents. There often be more people there though, due to the place being popular as a tourist attraction. However, visitor numbers are restricted to 400 per day to protect this World Heritage listed paradise from harm.

The expenses of island living

While Lord Howe Island may seem a paradise, there are certain difficulties in living in such an isolated spot. Diesel has to be brought in on a regular basis to power the generators that provide electricity for everyone. It is not only diesel that is shipped in.  Whatever is needed – food, clothing, medical supplies - that can’t be provided by the island has to be shipped or flown in. This increases the cost of these things dramatically. And since some of the residents own charter boats that run on fuel, it means their costs are higher than a similar business would incur on the mainland.

Other tourist businesses, such as those that provide accommodation, would also find the cost of flying in food for their guests is also expensive. Of course, being surrounded by ocean, there is a great deal of fresh seafood right on the doorstep, so that would bring costs down.

Expensive fuel for transport

What about fuel for cars? The number of cars on the island is increasing slowly, with five or six rentals included. The fuel for all of these has to be shipped in as well, so the price is much higher than mainland prices.

Many people use bicycles as a means of transport.  There is one electric car – affectionately dubbed the pope-mobile – that is as much of a tourist attraction as all those provided by Mother Nature.

Blue sky thinking

The so-called blue sky thinking takes advantage of the islands natural resources. The island is also often buffeted by wind due to its location 600 kilometres or so east of Port Macquarie. One place on it is even called Windy Point. So residents got together and drew up a plan to make their island paradise 80% wind and solar powered by 2019.

This plan will fit in nicely with the island’s World Heritage status, by helping to keep noxious fumes and other such waste away from the area. There is, after all, the possibility of an oil spill when diesel is constantly being brought in. That would be a total disaster in such a beautiful area.

Government grants have helped

The problem with becoming sustainable has been that such a small community had fewer funds to spare than a larger one might have. This is what has prevented anything being done about it in the past. However, with two grants totalling around $10 million from the Commonwealth and NSW Governments, the island can go ahead with its plan to become more sustainable. This includes installing two wind turbines with battery storage and diesel backup, as well as an integrated system of solar panels. Many of the residents also have their own solar panels.

One big advantage of having the extra power provided by the wind and sun is that there will be enough to provide power for more electric cars, thus increasing the green living aims.

A model for other small communities

Once Lord Howe Island has paved the way to sustainability, other small communities may be able to copy them, rather than thinking that there is not much they can do in this area. It is usually large cities that have the funding to put sustainable ideas into practice. What Lord Howe Island is set to accomplish gives inspiration to other smaller communities who aspire to achieve sustainable living.

However, even now there are other small communities that are looking to do similar. It helps the local energy companies in that they don’t then have to make expensive repairs and upgrades for places that may not use a great deal of power, and that are often right out at the boundaries of their reach.

Tyalgum NSW considers going off the grid

Tosh Szatow at Energy for the People, states that it is not the technology that is the problem because that is already available. What is needed is: -

  • People that work together in getting behind such a project
  • A specific structure of the grid must be in place for the best results
  • The network operator and pricing is also critical for financial viability.
  • Some legislative change in government

Going off the grid does not always cost the $10 million that Lord Howe Island is spending. A study done for Tyalgum, NSW has found that they could go mainly off grid for about $4 million. However, to be 90 -95 per cent sustainable would cost more – around $9 million. Much seems to depend on the tariffs charged by Essential Energy, the electricity company for the region.

The people of Tyalgum favour sustainability due to the constant blackouts they experience during storms. With the power supply already unreliable, they look forward to 2020 when the change will hopefully be in place. They are not the only ones.

Western Australia envisages a different model

The model of sustainability envisaged by Western Power, WA’s government owned power corporation, is slightly different. Rather than choosing whole communities isolated by distance, they suggest that smaller groups of people within or around those towns could band together to use a small, stand-alone off-grid power system. Again, this would save Western Power making expensive upgrades and extensions. They will begin with several pilot programmes of five to ten residences in the Ravensthorpe – Jerramungup area.

Ravensthorpe is a small town of about 500 people close to Esperance than Perth. The whole area is prone to many blackouts due to storms, bushfires and fallen trees and the cost of repair is very high.  Jerramungup is about halfway between Esperance and Albany and has the same problems with blackouts. Western Power wants to trial several different sized systems to see which is the most cost-effective.

Other towns and communities in Queensland and South Australia are also being considered for off-grid applications.  So while Lord Howe Island is not the only one, it may be the first to have everything up and running.