FLICK THE SWITCH: In the Australian Capital Territory, developers are paying new home owners $10,000 not to connect to the gas grid that’s in the street. Why? Read the sneak peek to Flick the Switch ebook, coming very soon.

A big change in thinking and a small change to legislation have paved the way for new developments in the suburbs of Canberra to go ahead without gas reticulation for the first time in history. But before the changes, things got off to a rocky start.

Two steps forward

On the North West outskirts of Canberra, where the Murrumbidgee River meets Ginninderra Creek, the creek’s namesake suburb is establishing itself as a beacon of sustainable development with so many sustainability elements on the 1600 hectare site that it deserves its own nationally spotlighted case study. But one of the more subtle aspects of the development is one of its most revolutionary, at least on the surface.

No gas and electric rooftops

One of Ginninderry’s aims is to be a beacon for future developers to follow, and eliminating gas was an important part of that package. The original specifications called for no gas reticulation, and, after Stage One, none will be installed other than the trunk main into the main commercial centre.

After considering options like solar farms on open-space areas, Ginninderry settled on rooftop solar to generate 40 megawatts by the time all the rooftops are constructed – more than the rest of the ACT combined in current solarfarm generation, according to Jessica Stewart, sustainability manager for Riverview Developments, the joint venture company between the ACT Government and a subsdiary of   Corkhill Bros Pty Ltd developing the site. Demand management systems by Reposit, Evergen and Solahart currently control the ebb and flow of the power generated.

To further encourage sustainable housing, Ginninderry offers a front garden landscaping package to all home buyers in Strathnairn, the first neighbourhood to be released, and where in some parts gas has been reticulated, on the condition that home owners build to the Ginninderry Housing Development Requirements – which precludes gas connection.

The electric economy

Building on all-electric housing, the development also includes electric vehicle charging infrastructure, an electric bikeshare scheme, and in-home and centralised battery storage. Space has also been left for retrofit future technologies into the current properties, that will be 40-years old when the development is complete.

One step back

Discussions with Evoenergy were, largely, fruitless and Evoenergy enthusiastically

installed gas mains through the entirety of Stage 1 where they remain unused

“Going all-electric was on the cards from the start – in line with the [ACT] government’s aim to be carbon free by 2045. We were all ready to go on Stage 1 with no gas when we discovered that we had to – it was a legal requirement,” Stewart says.

Discussions with Evoenergy were, largely, fruitless and Evoenergy enthusiastically installed gas mains through the entirety of Stage 1 where they remain unused.  

Sources in the ACT development community say that poor communication between Evoenergy and developers has also been a sticking point in other developments too. The Capital Airport Corporation’s Denman Prospect development mandated three kilowatts of solar on every rooftop and caused all kinds of grid instability until variable tap changers were retrofitted.

Leylann Hinch, manager of strategy and operations at Evoenergy explains, “In recent times, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of solar and batteries connected to our electricity network, which has changed the way energy flows. This presents network safety and reliability challenges which we’re working through, but we also recognise the great benefits that come when Canberrans have flexibility and control over the generation and use of their own renewable energy.”

In another new suburb, Whitlam, being developed by the Suburban Land Agency , all-electric goals have been slightly undermined by gas reticulation installed in the streets in front of the houses.  ­­­This is largely because the long lead-time of the development meant that gas reticulation was a legal requirement during planning and design.

Two steps forward again

On 17 January 2020, the ACT removed the mandatory requirement for gas mains in new developments.

“From today, we have removed the requirement for new suburbs to have a gas connection. This makes it possible for new suburbs to be zero emissions and is an important step in combating climate change,” Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, Shane Rattenbury, said, at the time.

Sources say that Evoenergy seemed to enter a new era of sustainable cooperation over the last year.

“I’ve been working at Evoenergy for eight years and nearly 40 years in the energy industry, and this transition we’re going through is significant—like nothing I’ve seen before. We’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration with the community, the energy industry and the government to plan and evolve our energy networks to ensure our energy system meets our needs now and into the future,” Hinch says.

While gas was reticulated through Whitlam, the Suburban Land Agency is encouraging residents to go all-electric with $10,000 rebates – informed by lessons from Ginninderry – and a further $4000 grant is available from the ACT government if they install a household battery.

The suburb of Jacka has gone further, proposing centralised battery storage.

Both Whitlam and Jacka’s electric infrastructure is being developed in cooperation with Evoenergy to make these innovations work. (Evoenergy will not run the “Jacka Battery” as the ABC called it in June, as it will be a contested service, but would workwith the developer to help find an operator.)

“We know Canberrans want innovative, sustainable and low-cost energy solutions, so rather than build more poles and wires, we’re shifting to focus on a more proactive and flexible approach to balancing electricity supply and demand, enabling the integration of renewable energy, and working with industry partners to develop non-network solutions that help meet the additional capacity we require as our community grows,” Hinch said.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Evoenergy’s shift in world view is its 2021 five-year Gas Network Plan which aims for Net Zero supply, and does not include plans for reticulation through new suburbs.

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  1. As a Building Construction Management; Carbon Management; and higher degree candidate in Materials Science and Engineering, I have got to question the logic to remove gas pipelines for housing developments particularly as they lock the prospective home owners into battery technologies, thereby removing choice, and requiring expensive upgrades should individuals choose to connect to essential services in the future.

    So, whilst I have noted the discussion on gas mains as indicated in the article, it would appear that the developers of this project may not be aware of the emerging: Power-to-gas technology to decarbonate the gas grid; but also the Ceramic Fuel Cell BlueGen technology developed by the CSIRO (now owned by Solid Power overseas), with similar technologies deployed in increasingly large numbers as part of the ENE-FARM project in Europe.

    Therefore, I would suggest that readers view the Harumi Flag Olympic village development by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and joint venture partners as an equally environmentally friendly development where Panasonic fuel cells have been deployed in large numbers.

    Alternatively, other key examples may include the Tsunashima Sustainable Smart town, Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan but also the larger scale fuel cell modules developed by: Toshiba; Bloom Energy; and Fuel Cell Energy; technologies that currently power the Internet, and Apple data centres in the USA.

    Thus, I would encourage the Fifth Estate to follow up this article with further informed commentary on what other leading companies are doing.