Time Out features the incredible people who are shaping Melbourne’s future in this Future Shaper series. We asked a panel of esteemed judges including Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria), Pierre Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix tops), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Green Senator for Victoria), Pat Nourse (artistic director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon abraham (Creative Director and CEO of Melbourne fringe) and Kate vinot (president of Victoria Zoos) and to help us identify the people who are changing Melbourne’s future in food and drink; arts; community and culture; civic education; and sustainability. When it comes to sustainability, such a person is Hugues Boucher, Darebin City Council, and his work with the Victorian energy collaboration.
the Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO) is the largest emissions reduction project ever undertaken by a local government in Australia. The initiative has enabled 46 Victorian municipalities to switch to 100% renewable energy. These councils have bundled their energy needs into a long-term contract with Red Energy, which will provide them with renewable energy produced from two wind farms in Victoria.
The project was initiated and facilitated by the Victorian greenhouse wedding rings, a formal partnership between local governments working on climate change action in Victoria’s 79 municipalities. The VECO project is currently administered by Darebin City Council under the leadership of Environmental Energy Officer Hugh Butcher.
It is no coincidence that the town hall of Darebin is attached to this project. In 2016, in what was considered an innovative step in the fight against the climate crisis, Darebin became the first global organization to declare a climate emergency. Part of that statement included a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020, which it achieved. Now the board’s plan is broader and includes a goal of achieving negative emissions. But that was not all.
“Our approach to responding to the climate emergency has changed over time,” says Butcher. “We were talking about global warming, about climate change… and now we’re sort of moving to a ‘needs model’ because that’s the kind of response that’s needed.”
“As part of declaring a climate emergency, we also developed one of the first climate emergency plans, looking at how we can secure renewable energy for our board’s operations. Achieving better results was one of the key action items identified under this plan.
Butcher says this prompted Darebin to get involved in a project like VECO. “I am the project manager and I was 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 also part of the name. These types of projects would not work without collaboration.
“We weren’t happy with the way we got energy before and wanted to switch to a different model. Many times before, the boards themselves felt like they were price takers rather than price makers. And we really wanted a different product and a different result. And that’s really what motivated everyone to get involved in this project.
VECO’s councils will now use renewable energy to power infrastructure such as their town halls, community venues, performing arts centers, sports fields, recreation centers and streetlights. By switching to renewable energies, the councils will remove 260,000 tonnes of carbon emissions from the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of taking 90,000 cars off the road.
The advice came on board thanks to relationships already forged through Victorian greenhouse alliances. “We have 60 percent of all local governments in the particular project, which, compared to other states, is chalk and cheese. As for the position of Victorian local governments in a national context, I think we are above our weight and are leaders in the space around many climate actions. “
“It sounds really boring, but in terms of street lighting, Victoria was the first state to really start replacing old inefficient lights with efficient versions. There are councils that did this ten years ago, and in some states they haven’t even started yet or there are some just starting. There are a lot of things local governments can do and I think Victoria has taken the lead on this. “
But the VECO project does not stop there. Renewable energy will be supplied by two wind farms in Victoria. One is already built, the Dundonnell wind farm near Mortlake – it started exporting electricity 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 the next step? “We would like to think that we are now in a position to allow each individual board to take charge of this and manage it on their own, rather than having a large and ongoing presence of a lead organization,” says Butcher.
“One of the really great things that we see in both the name and the concept is, what can sit under VECO? Obviously, the name was inspired by this particular project, but it lends itself to being able to link to other projects that have a similar collaborative nature related to energy. I know that many boards are looking to explore the possibility of offering a similar type of project and / or product to local businesses. So at the regional level, being able to see several councils come together and actually help companies achieve the same type of result. ”
“I also think that the [electricity] network and the concept of using electricity will change dramatically over the next five, ten, 15, 20 years. I think a lot of projects that reinvent or transform the handle will have a natural connection or potential to sit under the VECO brand. So the charging of EVs and EV infrastructure and the way we kind of go from internal combustion engines to electric is something that local governments can have a very active role in.
Butcher knows this project will have a huge impact on how boards work – and knows that ambitious projects like this are hard to start. But it’s about moving 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 hard, and we were biting more than we could potentially chew… those kinds of statements. And what it has shown us is that if we had a clear vision of what we want to achieve and we can fix some of those issues along the way, I think anything is really possible. “