Which keys will unlock Newcastle's sustainable future?

ACTION: An aerial shot showing the roof-top solar system installed on Newcastle Museum.

ACTION: An aerial shot showing the roof-top solar system installed on Newcastle Museum.

Can you imagine a city that relies on renewable energy resources to trade power between homes and businesses?

Or one that generates enough clean energy to operate its own virtual power plant via solar, battery storage and a smart metering network?

Such concepts could be key to Newcastle's sustainable future, as the city considers new climate action targets post-2020, and how to meet them, as part of a review of a decade-old strategy.

Councillors have been presented with a series of smart energy-saving and renewable generation options to consider as part of the 2020 Carbon and Water Management Action Plan review.

The plan, first published in 2011, identified key targets that would enable us to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, lead the transition to a low carbon economy and position the city as a global testing ground for innovative technologies.

Fast-forward to 2018 and we're well on track to exceed our energy-efficiency reduction and renewable energy targets and make a new pledge to sustainable energy use from 2020.

Solar gardens, solar and battery bulk buys, demand-response initiatives and regional renewable energy procurements are all ideas mooted by City of Newcastle staff.

A demand response involves paying an incentive for energy users to reduce their power consumption, switch to backup generation or dispatch their energy storage for short periods when electricity reserves reach critically low levels.

Another compelling concept is a virtual microgrid being trialled in other parts of Australia.

Microgrids are small networks of electricity users who rely on local electricity generation to deliver energy security, sustainability and cost savings for those involved.

Victoria's La Trobe Valley is trialling one with funding from The Australian Renewable Energy Agency. 

The $15 million project will involve the roll out of 75 behind-the-meter microgrids, made up of solar installations and batteries, to reduce energy costs for businesses and cut emissions.

It's hoped that such trials could pave the way to a similar development in Newcastle and complement the work we are already doing, such as:

  • Installing electric vehicle charging stations;

  • Installing roof-top solar and battery storage systems in city-owned facilities;

  • Replacing fleet with electric vehicles as they come up for renewal, and;

  • Working with experts like the CSIRO Energy Centre and a burgeoning local clean-tech industry on cutting-edge smart building research and demonstration projects.

The City of Newcastle was the first local government in Australia to pledge to climate change action as part of the Climate Council’s Cities Power Partnership. 

Under it we committed to five key actions to increase our renewable energy capacity, create sustainable transport options and improve energy efficiency.

We've fitted out libraries and cultural and sporting facilities with solar panels to generate electricity. We have begun building a 5MW solar farm, which will produce enough energy to run the equivalent of all city facilities during the day. 

Next month, we will also begin the upgrade of more than 5300 streetlights across the city to energy-efficient LEDs.

These types of projects have seen us win various government and climate action awards and be recognised as finalists in several others. 

We recently won the National Cities Power Partnership award for Energy Efficiency, were awarded the best Smart City Strategy in the Country at the inaugural Smart Cities Awards and made the final of the NSW Green Globes Innovation category, all achievements to be proud of.

Historically, Newcastle’s economy relied on the coal and steel industries, which bestowed the city and region a strong engineering legacy ripe for a new picking.

But a lack of a clear national clean energy policy has stalled the region's clean-tech transition.

As the next generation of leaders rally against the lack of climate change action the City of Newcastle is listening and providing opportunities to pave the way forward for real action.

In the coming months, the city will begin to address our future approach to energy sustainability. 

Throughout 2019 we will take an updated Carbon and Water Management Action Plan to the community for further feedback. 

We will keep the community informed about key dates and actions as work progresses.

In the meantime, I look forward to learning more about these technologies as we prepare to take our city into the next decade of climate action change post-2020.

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on Tuesday, 11 December 2018.

Matt Murray