Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Pat Nourse (artistic director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In sustainability, one such person is Hugh Butcher, from Darebin City Council, and his work with the Victorian Energy Collaboration.
The Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO) is the largest-ever emissions reduction project undertaken by a local government in Australia. The initiative has allowed 46 Victorian councils to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy. These councils have pooled their energy needs into a long-term contract with Red Energy, which will provide them with renewable energy generated from two wind farms in Victoria.
The project was initiated and facilitated by the Victorian Greenhouse Alliances, a formal partnership between local governments that work on climate change action across Victoria’s 79 municipalities. The VECO project is currently being administered by Darebin City Council under the guidance of senior environment officer for energy Hugh Butcher.
It's not a coincidence that Darebin City Council is attached to this project. Back in 2016, in what was seen as an innovative step towards tackling the climate crisis, Darebin became the first worldwide organisation to declare a climate emergency. Part of that declaration included a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020, which it achieved. Now the council’s plan is broader and includes a goal to achieve negative emissions. But that wasn't all.
“Our approach to responding to the climate emergency has changed over time,” says Butcher. “We used to talk about global warming, climate change… and now we’re sort of moving to a 'needs model' because that’s the kind of response that’s needed.”
“Part of declaring a climate emergency, we also developed one of the first climate emergency plans as well, looking at how we can secure renewable energy for our council operations. Getting better outcomes was one of the key action items that were identified as part of that plan.”
Butcher says that spurred Darebin to get involved with a project like VECO. “I’m the project manager and I’ve been responsible for delivering the project from day one. But the project itself is a collaboration. It’s at the heart of this project, and it’s part of the name as well. These types of projects wouldn’t work without collaboration.”
“We were really unsatisfied with the way we were procuring energy previously and wanted to move to a different model. A lot of a time, previously, councils themselves felt like they were price takers rather than price makers. And we really wanted a different product and a different outcome. And that is really what motivated everyone to get involved in this project.”
VECO councils will now be using renewable energy to power infrastructure like their town halls, community venues, performing arts centres, sports grounds, leisure centres and streetlights. By going renewable, councils will be taking 260,000 tonnes of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking 90,000 cars off the road.
Councils came on board thanks to relationships already forged through the Victorian Greenhouse Alliances. “We’ve got 60 per cent of all local governments in the particular project, which, compared to other states, is chalk and cheese. In regards to where Victorian local governments stand in a national context, I think that we punch above our weight and are leaders in the space around a lot of action on climate.”
“It sounds really boring but in terms of street lights, Victoria was the first state to really start replacing old inefficient lights with efficient versions. There are councils that were doing that ten years ago, and in some states, they haven’t even started on that yet or there are some that are just beginning. There’s a lot of things that local governments can do that I believe that Victoria’s taken a lead on that.”
The VECO project doesn’t stop there, though. The renewable energy will be provided by two wind farms in Victoria. One is already built, the Dundonnell wind farm near Mortlake – this started exporting power to the grid in March 2020. Next is the completion of the Murra Warra II wind farm near Horsham, which will be fully operational by June 2022.
So what's next? “We’d like to think that we’re in a position now that each individual council can kind of take this and run it themselves, rather than having to have a large, ongoing presence of a lead organisation,” says Butcher.
“One of the really great things that we see both in the name and the concept is, what else can sit under VECO? Obviously, the name was spurred out of this particular project, but it lends itself to be able to tie itself to other projects that have a similar collaborative nature that’s energy-related. I know that a lot of councils are looking to investigate being able to offer a similar type of project and/or product for local businesses. So looking at a regional level, being able to see multiple councils come together and actually help businesses achieve the same kind of outcome.”
“I think as well, the [electricity] grid and the concept of how to use electricity is going to change enormously over the next five, ten, 15, 20 years. I think a lot of projects that are reimagining or transforming the grip will have a natural connection or potential to sit under the VECO brand. So, electric vehicle charging and electric vehicle infrastructure and how we sort of transition away from internal combustion engines and move to electric is something that local governments can have a really active role in.”
Butcher knows this project will have a huge impact on the way councils work – and knows that ambitious projects like this are hard to get off the ground. But it’s all about pushing forward and striving to do better. “One of the things that was suggested to us at the start of this project was that it was too hard, too difficult and that we’re biting off more than we could potentially chew… those kinds of statements. And what it showed us is that, if we had some clear vision of what we want to achieve and can address some of those issues along the way, I think anything is really possible.”