(Left to right) Starfish Initiatives' Liz Gardiner, Uralla Shire mayor Michael Pearce, Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall and NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Leslie Williams.

A consortium headed by the Melbourne-based Moreland Energy Foundation has won a tender to develop the business case for the town of Uralla in the NSW Northern Tablelands to be Australia’s first Zero net energy town.

Members of the consortium includes ClimateWorks, Enhar, Percepscion, Little Sketches and former Net Balance and Deloitte economist Rod Marsh. EnergyAustralia will also participate, helping to make the project more feasible.

The program, funded by a $105,000 grant from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, aims to develop a model for the town of about 2700 people to become energy self-reliant within a decade, and for that energy to be renewable.

The first stage of the program comprises scoping the feasibility of the ZNET concept and defining the appropriate mix of renewable energy sources and how they can be financed and delivered.

“Uralla will be the first town that satisfies all of its own energy needs from renewable energy sources, or zero net energy, in a way which is competitive in terms of price, quality, reliability and security,” NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Leslie Williams said.

“Total energy costs for a rural town with a population of 2500 are estimated to be $10-20 million per year. ZNET provides a potential to transform energy from being a cost into the basis for a sustainable economic model through revenue, industry, business and employment.”

Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall said Uralla was selected because of the broad support from local council, local businesses and community groups. The town has also seen a significant uptake of domestic rooftop solar, and has active campaigns around climate change

The ZNET business case would quantify the rationale, benefits and risks particularly economic, financial, as well as social impact and environmental outcomes, Mr Marsh said.

“ZNET presents a unique opportunity to bring together technology solutions with adaptable financial arrangements and, most importantly, real and meaningful community involvement,” he said.

Moreland Energy Foundation director of major projects Bruce Thompson said renewable energy projects such as this were part of major disruptive shifts to the way energy entered the market.

“We know we need a renewable energy future, and the technology is here and now,” he said.

The initial business case and technical pathways for the ZNET is due in April 2015. Mr Thompson said MEFL will then use this as a model for other communities including capital city suburbs. The consortium will outline key steps the Uralla community can put into action immediately and ensure an emphasis on the blueprint being resilient to policy shifts, such as changes to the Renewable Energy Target.

Adam Blakester, executive director of Starfish Initiatives, the NGO that brought stakeholders together and coordinated the tender process for ZNET, told The Fifth Estate that as the technological risks of renewable energy projects are falling away, the economic and financial benefits at a town scale of projects were becoming clearer.

“Localisation of the energy industry and keeping money from energy local has potential at the regional level of being a key part of broader regional development strategies,” Mr Blakester said.

Because the energy network providers’ financial models for payback and investment were founded on the centralised generation model, there was “a lot of sunk capital at risk” with a shift to distributed renewable generation, he said. This raised questions such as, “How do we manage the inevitable capital loss? Who will wear that?”

“One of the most significant strategic challenges for ZNET is to constructively engage with the network provider and government,” he said. “It is an extraordinary opportunity for regional and rural communities, but we have to balance the loss and gain equation.

“To get to 100 per cent [renewable energy] with ZNET, we need to crack the viable, economic distributed model, and that’s a big thing to do in the next six months.”