Rural Australia believes in self-sufficiency, so let’s set the terms of the renewable energy boom | Gabrielle Chan

I recently discovered the chest freezer in our shearer’s huts had blown up in a lightning strike. The power had been out for two weeks. It felt like a CSI plot: I’m the woman with the torch, pushing the creaky shed door open to find a cloud of blow flies hovering around a bad smell.

The little bastards had found a tiny breach in the freezer seal. I did my best rendition of Brad Pitt in Se7en – What’s in the box? When I opened the lid, even the maggots had gone to fly heaven. The vestiges of splendid homegrown lamb were a grey mush at the bottom of the freezer.

While I donned rubber gloves and started cleaning, a hotchpotch of protesters were gathering outside parliament house with a cocktail of complaints about renewable energy developments, transmission lines, the United Nations, paedophiles and the World Economic Forum.

The combination of this protest and my own rotten mess underlined the intersection of power – electrical and political – in rural Australia.

When the power goes out, every bit of technology resets with a cacophony of beeps. The modern farm is a wifi web of tank monitors, water pumps, electric batteries, solar panels and computer systems. Tractors and cars cannot be fixed with a spanner but with computer diagnosis (and let’s not even start on the right to repair).

This complex and interconnected technology can make our lives both easier and harder, in the short term. In the long term, we know that electricity sources are changing rapidly to try to limit the damage from global heating.

As coalmines approach the end of their useful lives, more renewable energy developments are coming online and its decentralised production requires more transmission lines to connect power to populations – including our own rural communities.

Renewable energy development in the regions is highly contentious. Demand for sites has rapidly accelerated in recent years because Australia’s mind-numbing climate wars stopped development of cleaner energy sources for a decade.

So it’s all happening in a rush and every community has developers sniffing around the hills and flats near population centres.

As the recent report by Andrew Dyer found, some energy companies are operating in a way that has created distrust, anxiety and uncertainty, not to mention consultation fatigue.

Dyer’s report highlighted the lack of nationally consistent planning to identify competing land uses. We see these conflicts regularly across rural reporting: farming versus mining versus energy versus housing versus environmental assets versus tourism.

So yes, government planning around land use has been less organised than your average pub chook raffle. National consistency is a no brainer, but do we really think we can hold back the tide on the energy transition when rural Australia will need closer, more reliable, more abundant power than ever?

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In rural places, we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency and inventiveness. Great solutions have come from finding yourself a long way from home, with a piece of number eight wire and an assortment of tools. And I don’t just want cheap or free power, I want to be a self-sufficient power producer in my own right – and I am not the only one, judging by solar take-up on our main street.

So if we are fierce defenders of our rural land, waterways and communities, the kings and queens of our own destinies, will we also take responsibility for the solutions to these existential problems?

If we do think rural people are capable of lateral thinking, we need as communities to collectively bargain with governments and power companies about how we want this change to happen.

There are two obvious options. Communities can establish their own power systems like the little town of Yackandandah in Victoria has done. Or we can negotiate as a community with big power companies to ensure large energy projects provide benefits including cheaper power and cleaning up their own mess in our back yards.

A third option would be to establish a local power plan and a web of decentralised agencies, as proposed by Indi MP Helen Haines in 2021, with a multimillion dollar fund to help communities establish their own energy security. Haines’s private member’s bill on this proposal got short shrift from the major parties.

The funny thing is decentralisation has been a mainstay of traditional rural policy. The National party has touted it to try to get infrastructure, products and jobs spread around the country. That’s how we ended up with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority in Armidale. Yet last week, David Littleproud told protesters renewable energy developments – and all the money they bring – should be sent to the cities where the population is.

But while the headlines on the rural reception to renewable projects appear hostile, if you look closer, some unlikely people are welcoming renewables in their own back yard. The National Farmers Federation president, David Jochinke, hosts wind turbines on his farm even though he and the NFF has been critical of the affect of renewables on agricultural land. A former NFF president Brent Finlay has also welcomed the chance for new income streams from wind turbines.

Sure there are a lot of dumb plans drawn up in rural areas, not just with renewables but with good old fossil fuel mining – like say an open cut mine on some of the best food growing country in Australia.

So rather than saying “Piss off (insert company name)“, is it not better to knock the dumb edges off power projects that could supercharge our regions for current and future clever industries?

Rural people are not culturally inclined to accept solutions designed by “outsiders” and very few people trust Labor in rural seats. This is even more reason to design our own solutions for particular projects that benefit us.

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Gabrielle Chan