In a country grappling with a technically and politically difficult transition to renewable energy, Bendigo has a unique advantage in the race to “electrify everything”, argues renowned renewables entrepreneur and engineer Saul Griffith.
Many other regional areas will spend years reliant on dirtier, local sources of energy as companies and governments attempt to get a return on their investments. But Bendigo has no such ties and is perfectly positioned to capitalise on Australia’s “rooftop solar miracle”, says Griffith, who advised the Biden administration on the $A520 million climate package now fuelling a “renewables gold rush” in the United States.
The electrification evangelist believes everyone can have an impact on future climate by developing a simple plan to transition to an all-electric household one appliance at a time.
“Forty-two per cent of the emissions in our domestic economy are emissions that are decisions that happen around your kitchen table,” Griffiths says.
“What are you driving, what is heating your house, where does your electricity come from?”
Household appliances and vehicles have lifetimes of up to 25 years, and Griffiths says electric options are only getting cheaper with innovation and economies of scale.
His “electrify everything” mantra – which he shared with an audience of 300 at the Bendigo Climate Summit in May – tops the list of priorities in the new Greater Bendigo 2030 Zero Emissions Roadmap, the outcome of a year-long collaboration of business, community and government and some 1500 individuals which was adopted by the council on 16 October.
The plan is particularly resonant in a region which only two years ago was importing 99 per cent of its energy, with businesses and households spending an estimated $150-200 million a year on electricity bills.
Already those numbers are “a lot lower”, says Michelle Wyatt, Greater Bendigo’s climate change and environment officer, with up to 20 per cent of Bendigo homes fitted with rooftop solar.
“That’s a lot of local production occurring already”.
In 2021-22, 60 per cent of Bendigo’s emissions came from electricity and seven per cent from gas. Of that 60 per cent, about one third was attributed to residential and commercial sources.
The potential impact of Bendigo households and businesses switching from gas and powering electric appliances with rooftop solar, and then sharing excess renewable energy, is considerable.
Emission reductions are not the only win from such a shift, Griffith says. Households save money, which flows back into local spending, freeing up potential to invest in more green energy. This circular economy is another priority of Bendigo’s emissions roadmap.
But getting to that point doesn’t come cheap. Annika Kearton, chief executive of the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance, worries there has been little focus given to small and medium enterprises, which account for the bulk of emissions in the region.
“At the moment, there’s not a huge amount of targeted support for small and medium businesses,” she says.
“It is critical not only to support those businesses to reduce their emissions and to be part of the transition, but because small businesses employ a lot of people in regional Victoria”.
Griffith agrees – heavy government subsidies underwrite his vision. “You don’t solve climate change if only 10 or 50 per cent of people can afford [the solutions].” He’s lobbying Canberra “to set a precedent globally on a progressive set of policies that help every single Australian household afford this future”.
Meanwhile the Bendigo Sustainability Group, one of the roadmap partners, has kick-started its own efforts, rolling out solar power systems for low income households using a crowd-funded campaign, Giving Power, which has so far raised more than $54,000.
This is the last in the current series of of Future Bendigo, a regional reporting project by the Centre for Advancing Journalism in collaboration with the Bendigo Advertiser.