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Small town’s big reputation powered by clean energy

It’s not often that a town with a population of just 11,000 people has a global profile. Yet the NSW town of Parkes is world famous for its role in broadcasting the first images of man walking on the moon, an event immortalised in the movie The Dish, and for opening its doors each year to more than 25,000 Elvis enthusiasts at the Parkes Elvis Festival.

But there’s another thing that Parkes is famous for – being one of Australia’s first and most enthusiastic advocates for renewable energy. And while perhaps not quite as notable as inter-planetary space travel or the King of Rock and Roll, the town’s embrace of renewable energy has made a real difference in the lives of the people who have first-hand experience of Australia’s changing climate.

Parkes solar farm 1
Parkes Solar Farm

Renewables bring hope from hardship

Parkes first recognised the need to do something different with its energy requirements during the Millennium drought, which hit the town’s residents particularly hard.

“During the Millennium drought, people were very concerned about climate change, the changing weather patterns and the huge social and economic impact it was having on our community. Farmers and their families were struggling,” recalls Parkes Mayor, Ken Keith.

Parkes farmer Mary Smith says it was the worst drought she has seen. “I have lived here since 1970 and there have been some very tough times and droughts, but at the time, during the Millennium drought, our farm was the worst I had ever seen,” she says. “We had no harvest for years and couldn’t afford to live. It was an incredibly stressful and depressing time.”

After the drought finally broke in 2009, the residents of Parkes recognised that tackling climate change wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity. So in 2011, the town embarked on a comprehensive plan to use renewable energy to minimise its carbon footprint while reducing its increasingly high electricity costs.

The first step was the council’s commissioning of the Distributed Energy Plan, which resulted in the installation of solar PV panels on all operational council buildings. This show of leadership encouraged people in the community to learn more about the financial and environmental benefits of solar energy, igniting a strong desire among many local residents to invest in their own rooftop solar systems.

Interested locals were given the opportunity to purchase solar through a bulk-buy scheme to reduce installation costs. Residents and businesses overwhelmingly took up the offer, resulting in the town becoming one of Australia’s earliest and biggest adopters of rooftop solar.

While some residents were initially sceptical of the benefits of solar, most came around after the council’s strong consultation process and when they realised the significant benefits offered by solar. “It’s great that we’re involved in the decisions our council makes for our area. You’ve got to be. You need that in a small town. I guess you need it in any size town really,” said 30-year Parkes resident Simon Whitehart. “For a place to grow, and things to change, everyone has to be on board. You don’t have to agree with every detail – I certainly didn’t – but we’ve all been in it for the long haul and it’s paid off. We’re still here. Going strong.”

In 2017, the town’s enthusiasm for solar continued when it became one of the early supporters of the large-scale sector by welcoming the 55 MW Parkes Solar Farm to the town. The solar farm was one of 12 projects supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to demonstrate the substantial benefits of Australia’s burgeoning large-scale solar industry.

Parkes solar farm 2
Parkes Solar Farm

Powering on into a renewable future

Today, Parkes generates twice as much electricity as it needs to serve its population, including powering the world-famous Parkes Elvis Festival with 100 per cent renewable energy. And the significant electricity cost savings have made a noticeable difference to the town.

Before the council embarked on its solar program, it was spending up to $1 million a year to provide the town with water, which has to be pumped uphill from a river and aquifier 35 km away. The subsequent savings have allowed the council to invest in essential community services and programs, including the revitalisation of the town’s main street, the construction of a new multipurpose centre and an upgrade to the local library.

The NSW Government’s recent announcement that it will build the state’s first renewable energy zone just a few kilometres from Parkes means that the town’s embrace of renewable energy, and the benefits that it provides, is likely to continue well into this decade and beyond.