Solar on the roof of Sydney Town Hall.

New research from Beyond Zero Emissions has found that almost 20 per cent of Australian councils have set either zero emissions goals or 100 per cent renewables targets.

The research, conducted as part of BZE’s Zero Carbon Communities program, was launched at the Australian Local Government Association national general assembly this week, and was based on survey data from 152 councils.

“The survey shows that local governments and communities are leading the way in setting zero emissions targets,” Beyond Zero Emissions chief executive Stephen Bygrave said. “Communities want strong climate action, and have the capability to deliver on zero emissions targets.”

Australian Local Government Association president Troy Pickard said councils had always been at the forefront of climate action.

“Local government is both an innovator in relation to developing new practices as well as embracing emerging technologies.”

The news comes the week before a City of Sydney Environmental Action 2016-2021 Strategy and Action Plan goes to the council, which will set a net zero emissions target for the whole local government area for 2050, and a 50 per cent renewables target by 2030, if approved.

More action can be taken

While there’s good news to celebrate, a recently released Clean Energy Finance Corporation market report found that local governments could do a whole lot more to improve the performance of their assets.

Clean energy opportunities for local government found that Australian councils were missing out on opportunities for low cost clean energy, which was leading to high operating costs and carbon emissions.

CEFC local government sector lead Melanie Madders said many councils were not making use current low-cost finance to upgrade critical infrastructure. The report noted that the local government infrastructure backlog was estimated to be greater than $20 billion, with $47 billion of council assets in poor or very poor condition.

“By restricting investment to what can be paid for from current-year or retained income, councils face an accumulation of inefficient, out-of-date or sub-optimal infrastructure on their balance sheets,” Ms Madders said.

“Much of this aging infrastructure is energy inefficient, meaning councils have higher operating costs and a higher carbon footprint than necessary. Some councils also have zero-debt policies, which are putting the cost burden of inefficient long-life assets onto current ratepayers, rather than sharing these costs with future ratepayers who will also share in the benefits.”

The CEFC is recommending councils take a longer term view of their infrastructure and invest in energy efficiency and renewables to decrease their carbon emissions and improve running costs.

It has a created a Local Government Finance Program that provides councils access to low-cost finance for clean energy and energy efficiency investments.

“Depending on a council’s energy consumption patterns and energy upgrade opportunities, the savings from clean energy investments can offset the loan repayments, improving council operating budgets while meeting environmental goals,” Ms Madders said.

“This kind of sustainable borrowing is integral to prudent long-term asset management, which is especially important given the significant infrastructure challenge that councils face. Importantly, the cost savings and emissions reductions from clean energy projects continue after the debt is repaid.”

The report provides a number of steps councils can take, including:

  • Using specialist energy efficiency consultants and energy companies to conduct energy audits of council buildings, fleets and facilities, usually involving reviews of asset inventories and energy costs, to identify investments that would boost energy efficiency at a cost below the saving gained.
  • Working with other councils in their area to share knowledge and resourcing as well as combine smaller individual upgrades into a larger project to achieve economies of scale.
  • Focusing on large buildings with higher energy consumption, such as civic and leisure centres, to maximise energy cost savings and prove up the financial benefits of other energy efficiency investments.
  • Designating a sustainability officer or team with responsibility for finding opportunities for renewable energy and energy efficiency investment opportunities across the council’s asset portfolio.
  • Using external consultants to analyse and help develop the business case for potential projects.