Canberra leading the nation on sustainability
Willow Aliento | 11 December 2014
When Canberra’s Reverse Solar Auction won this year’s Gold Banksia Award, the nation’s top honour in sustainability, it was no isolated gem of achievement.
According to ACT director-general of the Planning and Environment Directorate Dorte Eklund, the territory’s renewable energy policy is among a raft of measures, including low carbon transport (featuring the new light rail), high density planning and recycling, that make the territory a national leader.
In addition, medium and high-density development is boosting the territory’s economic resilience, and giving Canberra a greater level of social and civic amenity, exemplified by the activation of the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin.
Eklund says a key of the ACT’s renewable energy projects is that they are untouched by shifts in federal policy around the Renewable Energy Target or other incentive schemes.
Canberra’s Reverse Solar Auction will deliver three major utility-scale solar farms. The first, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures $60 million Royalla solar farm, went online in October; the second, Elementus’ $17 million OneSun Capital Solar Farm is nearing completion; and the third, Zhenfa’s $30 million Mugga Lane solar farm, is awaiting final development approval.
Zhenfa is also working with Simon Sheikh’s Future Super to set up a scheme for “mum and dad” investors to develop a solar project that will be owned by household investors who will be paid $200 a megawatt hour for the electricity produced.
All of this solar power, in combination with wind power projects, is expected to ensure the territory will meet its policy goal of 90 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Eklund says the territory government is underwriting the cost of the solar farms, following consultation with householders who agreed they would pay between $4 and $4.50 a week more for greener electricity through ACTEW-AGL, the ACT’s majority power provider and partly owned by the territory government.
The reverse auction mechanism for 200 megawatts of capacity was also used in September to attract wind power proponents, with 18 expressions of interest received, with more than 1000MW of capacity nominated for consideration.
ACT environment minister Simon Corbell said the strong competition for the feed-in tariff was partly caused by the uncertainty created by the Commonwealth’s Renewable Energy Target review, which has hindered other investment in the industry.
“Wind is currently a buyer’s market and because of this the ACT can expect lower prices now than if the required investments were deferred to a later time,” Cobell said in a media statement.
Successful proponents will be granted a feed-in tariff at a fixed rate for 20 years.
Corbell said that as the price of coal-fired electricity also continues to rise, ACT customers will actually experience declining prices “in real terms” once wind generation commences.
Once operational from 2016, the new wind capacity will reduce the ACT’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 8.5 million tonnes over the first 20 years of operation.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency late last month said it would allocate $305,000 in funding for a $743,000 partnership to strengthen the South East Region of Renewable Energy Excellence initiative.
ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht said SERREE would establish a Regional Renewable Energy Industry Cluster in the south-east NSW-ACT region, forming a model that could be adopted by other regions.
“The ACT and NSW governments and key renewable energy industry stakeholders are partnering with ARENA to support SERREE to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing across the south east region,” Mr Frischknecht said.
“There is a wealth of renewable energy projects throughout south east NSW and the ACT, making it an ideal place to trial a regional approach to knowledge sharing and skills building.”
Reducing energy consumption and water consumption are also major priorities, as ACT residents and business are big consumers of power for both heating and cooling due to the climatic conditions.
Eklund says that because Canberra has much cheaper power than NSW, and very little competition in retail energy providers, policy to drive renewable energy and changing consumer behaviour through campaigns and public engagement have been the mechanisms to reduce consumption.
Energy efficiency has been a territory priority since 1995, when it introduced the country’s first star rating for energy use in homes and buildings.
Ms Eklund said the ACT government also has a program called Carbon Neutral Government by 2020.
“In our building we have reduced energy use by 68 per cent in five years,” she said.
Measures include bigger moves like the installation of motion sensors and zoning for all lighting, and small moves like installing all timers on hot water urns for tea and coffee making so they shut off on evenings and weekends.
“We’re looking at what we can do next, like solar on the roof,” Eklund says.
In waste, Eklund says the ACT has been a large consumer of resources, and one of the reasons a substantial waste tax has been imposed is to increase the recycling rate.
Car dependency and therefore fossil fuel dependency is also an issue the government is keen to address, both through public transport and through increasing density in the inner-urban zones of Civic and the other civic centres such as Belconnen and Woden.
“Because Canberra is a relatively affluent community, people consume more transport,” Eklund says.
“One of the things that is clear is that even though Canberra is small by the standards of other capitals, people travel more kilometres per capita.
“As per other cities, a proportion of the population is deciding to trade off how much space they have [in terms of their home] for proximity to amenity.”
The smaller home in a context of increased density is a lifestyle she says the government believes will lead to greater sustainability overall.
There have been “little periods of density” in the past, when the National Capital Authority “did some experimenting”.
“The new density trend is like New Acton, where we marry art, culture and density up to 18 storeys with heritage.
“In Belconnen, we are building on the ACT planning strategy that density should be located in town centres and along transport corridors.”
The ACT’s increasing numbers of tertiary students have contributed to the increase in density, through meeting their accommodation needs, and they have also boosted the local economy, making it more resilient to shifts in the employment levels in the Commonwealth public service.
Eklund says the planning framework is very aware of the need to keep the balance of green throughout the city, such as with open space in the new city centre of Molonglo and the new suburbs between Weston Creek and Belconnen.
This continues the “good bones” type of planning originally created by Walter Burley Griffin, which the ACT government is continuing through investments in public bushland and trees.
Lake Burley Griffin, the centrepiece of the Parliamentary Triangle designed by Burley Griffin, is being brought into the new century through plans to “bring the city to the lake” and create an activated retail, cafe and open space continuation of the CBD through the New Acton precinct and down to the lake foreshore between the National Museum and Commonwealth Avenue Park.
Eklund says this is being envisioned as something similar to Brisbane’s Southbank.
A recent development at Kingston Foreshore that combines residential, retail and cafes has proven that Canberrans are keen to embrace the concept.
Ultimately, Eklund sees two different Canberras evolving – the suburban Canberra, and the centre of the city with its funky, artistic, student and cafe culture.
The Planning Strategy Transport for Canberra has clear objectives to increase public transport, walking and cycling.
“Physically protected cycling paths are under construction in the centre of Canberra, because our research shows that while MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) are daredevils and quite fearless, those of us who are a bit more sensible won’t participate in cycling if we have to battle traffic,” Eklund says.
“Let’s make sure cycling is available for the broader population, and enhance the opportunities for safe routes.”
For the ACT a “jewel in the crown” is the work to develop light rail.
The full Capital Metro Business Case for a Canberra light rail network, released at the end of November, flagged an expected $1 billion in benefits to the city.
The Business Case outlines a cost of $783 million for the Phase 1 Gungahlin to City line, with construction to be awarded to the successful private consortium contracted to build and deliver the line. The document also predicts an expected patronage of 15,120 passengers a day in 2021, with operations to begin in 2019.
Chief executive of the Australasian Railway Association Bryan Nye said light rail adds to the “socioeconomic and environmental performance of a city, by reducing road congestion; decreasing travel times on roads; improving road safety; emitting less greenhouse gas emissions; and promoting healthier, more active lifestyles”.
“Public transport commuters are five times more active than those who drive to work, and with Canberra being one of Australia’s most car dependent cities with only 7.9 per cent of people commuting to work by public transport, the nation’s capital needs this project more than ever,” he says.
“A Canberra light rail will transform the city’s public transport network, integrating into the existing ACTION bus network, providing greater mobility and accessibility to residents.”