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Off the grid: How renewable energy is helping remote towns take back the power

Tired of blackouts, high energy prices and fossil fuels, communities are ditching big electricity companies and taking power into their own hands.

Robert Kerton/CSIRO

This is part of "Fight The Power," a series about the people, organizations and countries transforming the way we think about energy for the better.  

When I first heard about Tyalgum, I pictured Bartertown.

Visitors would pass through rusted gates near the town limits and head down a dead-end street where the Mad Max-esque locals would power their dieselpunk outpost with renewable, ethanol-based Guzzolene.

Instead I found a place with free Wi-Fi and a day spa.

Tyalgum is going off the grid. And for the people in this bohemian town in Australia's east coast hinterland, the stakes are high. 

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A tourist may be forgiven for ignoring the harsh realities of climate change in such a picturesque spot, but the locals are serious. They're concerned about carbon emissions and rising temperatures. They're sick of relying on coal-fired power stations for their electricity.

They're not the only ones. As the existential threat of climate change grows, people and communities across the world are growing frustrated with governments dragging their feet on environmental policy and investment in renewable energy. 

Australia is deeply dependent on fossil fuels, with around 90 percent of the country's energy generation coming from oil, coal and gas. While other countries around the world go to 100 percent renewable energy, Australia's federal government is unabashedly pro-coal. While other nations turn to renewables, Australia contemplates building a massive coal mine in the northeast of the country. When debates about volatile power prices hit the news, Australian politicians call for the construction of more coal-burning power plants. In 2017, the deputy prime minister at the time said he would support clean energy targets -- if they included coal

Tyalgum, in eastern Australia.

Claire Reilly/CNET

But climate change is real, and Australia is feeling the effects. With unstable energy prices, statewide blackouts and a fierce debate over fossil fuels, more Australians than ever want to take action on electricity. 

For the people of Tyalgum, solar is the future.

That's where the Tyalgum Energy Project comes in. The ambitious project wants to power the entire town with 100 percent renewable energy and, one day, begin selling excess power to the wider local area, turning Tyalgum into a community-owned energy retailer in its own right.

Tyalgum isn't alone. Far from it. Just down the road, the town of Lismore switched on Australia's first community-owned solar project back in January. The 99kW solar farm floats on the overflow pond at the town's sewage treatment plant.

From homeowners installing a few solar panels on the roof to entire community-owned solar projects, Australians are starting to take back their power.

Going off the grid

There's a reason Australia is called the "sunburnt country." The continent has the highest solar radiation per square meter in the world, according to Geoscience Australia. Despite its sunny disposition, the country is 15th on the World Bank's ranking for sustainable energy use.

Australian communities and businesses are beginning to switch to renewables, though. Elon Musk's Tesla, best known for electric cars, just installed the "world's biggest" lithium-ion battery farm in South Australia. AGL, one of the country's biggest energy providers, has plans to convert one of its ageing coal-fired power stations into a clean energy hub. And the country's biggest beer maker, Carlton United Breweries, is moving toward sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewables. Yes, a cold tinnie of Victoria Bitter will soon be even greener.

New companies are even emerging to change the way the industry thinks about selling power. One such company, PowerLedger, is turning to blockchain technology to allow individual homeowners to take excess power generated by their solar panels and sell it to their neighbours. 

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Australia's largest floating solar farm, located in Lismore, takes advantage of the space on an overflow pond at the local sewage treatment plant to float 280 panels, providing 12 percent of the plant's energy requirements. 

Lismore City Council

Despite this push, the love affair with coal is still strong Down Under.

While Australia has committed to lowering emissions, its current energy policy depends on fossil fuels to ensure "reliability" in the grid. As politicians debate energy use, a faction of conservative federal politicians recently formed a lobbying group that warns against the "demonization" of coal. Last year, the country's treasurer even turned up to Parliament with a lump of coal as a prop. "Don't be scared," he cried. "It won't hurt you!"

While political infighting over energy policy continues, Australians want certainty over power, and they're turning away from the power companies in the process. That means returning to Australia's frontier spirit and the concept of living "off the grid."

But taking a whole town completely off the grid is a formidable goal. According to the Australian Energy Market Commission, which acts as the policy adviser to the federal government, residents can't be taken off-grid unless they consent. This means towns that want to cut off their grid connection need the buy-in of everyone in the community -- eco-warriors and climate-change skeptics alike.

For communities like Tyalgum that are small but still served by the mainstream grid, the best option is to go "grid neutral" (where you use your own renewable power rather than grid-provided electricity) or "grid positive" (where you maintain your grid connection to sell the surplus power you're generating back into the network).

For some towns in the far-flung reaches of the Australian outback, though, being off grid is the only option.

The Never Never

Coober Pedy entrance

A mining truck welcomes visitors at the outskirts of Coober Pedy, just past Dingo Crescent, in remote South Australia.

Getty Images

In the middle of Australia, 1,700 kilometers west of Sydney, the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy has always been off-grid. Not by choice, but by necessity. That does not mean it has always used clean energy, though.

This town redefines the word remote. To the south lies the desolate stretch of Australia known as the Nullarbor (Latin for "no trees"). To the north, there are the red sands of the Simpson Desert, or what locals call the "Never Never."

With summer temperatures regularly pushing above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the realities of extreme weather are ever-present. The sun is so strong that most of the residents of Coober Pedy live underground, with air vents dotted across the red landscape leading to subterranean homes and businesses.

Coober Pedy is finally using the harsh environment to its advantage, thanks to the Coober Pedy Renewable Hybrid Power Project.

Last July, the town switched on 1MW of solar, 4MW of wind and a 500kWh battery. Before the hybrid project, Coober Pedy relied on a 3.9MW diesel power station and trucked in the expensive diesel to run it. Now renewable energy provides about 70 percent of the town's needs, and the power station is just a backup. In fact, Coober Pedy has already marked days where 100 percent of its power has come from renewables.

Similar projects on Kangaroo Island (yes, it's a real place off the coast of South Australia) and King Island (between the island of Tasmania and the Australian mainland) are trying to do the same thing for those remote communities, making them more self-sustaining with wind and solar generation.

For Coober Pedy, it's been a game changer. With no power grid serving the town and the state capital of Adelaide a nine hour's drive away, trucking in diesel had been prohibitively expensive and faults in the power network were slow to get fixed.

Jason Wright, who works at one of the town's famous underground hotels, remembers the diesel days well. Speaking over the phone from Coober Pedy, looking out across the Never Never, he says the power "was always buggered."

"With the diesel generators, there were always blackouts and brownouts," he says. EDL, the company behind the project, "came in with these two big windmills and the solar panels, and ever since it's been extremely reliable."

It's strange to think that this mining town of 3,500 people has been quicker to adopt renewables than many parts of Australia. But Wright has a message for the rest of the country.

"Just put the bloody solar panels and the wind in and stop telling us it's unreliable," he says. "They say, 'It's expensive'. But it's going to be more expensive if none of us can bloody breathe."

Community energy

Tyalgum is the exact opposite of a desert-frontier town like Coober Pedy.

An hour's drive from an international airport, past sugarcane fields and a theme park devoted to tropical fruit, it's nestled in the fertile caldera of an extinct volcano. Tyalgum looks like a quaint Aussie town plonked down in the middle of Hawaii.

When Andrew Price first arrived in town, he was attracted to that laid-back atmosphere.

"It's just this little hidden world out here," says Price. "What I saw here was an opportunity."

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Tyalgum Energy Project founder Andrew Price with one of the town's solar-powered electric bikes. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

He bought the town's old butter factory on the main street and turned it into an education center to teach locals and road-tripping tourists about renewables. The idea grew. Soon Price and his small team developed a concept for community-owned power and founded the Tyalgum Energy Project.

Step one: Help locals install solar panels and battery storage to reduce grid-provided energy use.

Step two: Install energy monitors in meter boxes to get a picture of how much power the town uses.

Step three: Park a couple of solar-powered electric bikes outside the general store to help sell tourists on the future of green energy.

But that's just the beginning.

Price wants to install a solar array in the paddock on Tyalgum's main street, currently home to a herd of friendly cows. The goal is to transform the panels into an architectural feature, by creating a solar-covered walkway that connects the local school and the butter factory.

With this move, Tyalgum could generate enough power to be self-sustaining.

But Price is pragmatic. He recognizes that taking Tyalgum completely off the grid would be difficult. 

"Our thinking has changed a little bit in the last two years," explains Price.

He still wants to build an off-grid-capable system, but the plan is to keep that grid connection intact. That way Tyalgum can generate its own solar power and sell the excess back to the grid. With support from local residents investing as shareholders, Tyalgum will then become a community-run energy retailer.

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The General Store on Tyalgum's main street. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Many people in Tyalgum are already on board.

Longtime resident Pallidan Nova works at the town's cafe, Flutterbies, a converted bakery that looks like an eccentric jungle treehouse. He shows me the solar panels and battery setup at the cafe that provide 40 percent of the business' power. 

For Nova, the Tyalgum Energy Project isn't just about cheap power. It represents a fundamental shift in thinking. It's a model for a better way forward.

"With small towns at the end of the grid, it sometimes costs more to send power that far down the grid, and we often get power cuts," he said. "It's great to look at small towns like us because we're the perfect situation for a change in the system."

Mick Julien, who's a member of the Tyalgum District Community Association, agrees.

"I'm hoping that Tyalgum will be a pilot," Julien says. "I think there's a lot of people waiting to see what can happen and how to make it happen."

Green is the new black

The move to renewables can't come soon enough. Climate change, driven by fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, is a pressing issue. Australia is keenly feeling its effects.

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A newspaper poster outside Tyalgum's General Store shows the political climate in Australia. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Climate change has led sea levels to rise three inches in 25 years, has devastated Australia's Great Barrier Reef and has been pushing some of Australia's closest island neighbours to the brink. Fiji, off Australia's east coast, is already investigating the legal implications for climate refugees who are displaced by rising sea levels.

Back in Tyalgum, after a day of tropical heat and squally cloudbursts of rain, the sun is going down. Outside the general store, a lone newspaper poster shows the day's headline.

"Coal is the new black," it reads, riffing on the government's current bid to keep selling the public on the benefits of coal power.

Julien is hoping that focus will change.

"We're wedded to coal for the time being, but we need to be phasing out of it," he said. "It's going to happen sooner or later. Why not do it sooner? And why not get Australia involved in the economies involved with that?"

With the Tyalgum Energy Project, Price is hoping to capitalize on that burgeoning renewable energy industry and make the world a little greener in the process. He doesn't want Tyalgum to be another town at the end of the grid that clings to fossil fuels. In fact, in 10 or 20 years, he doesn't want Tyalgum to be that different at all. He wants it to be "normal."

"I'm hoping," he says, "that Tyalgum doesn't stand out from other communities by then, that it's just become mainstream and that decentralized power and sustainable living practices are just par for the course."

First published May 23, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, May 24 at 6:23 p.m.: Adds detail about PowerLedger.

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