Rob Law, Executive Officer of the CVGA (Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance) joins us to talk about alliances and collaborations between local councils.
After years of careful and persistent efforts the CVGA has been instrumental in helping numerous councils in Victoria come together and commit to 10 years worth of renewable energy AND install electric vehicle charging stations to connect small towns to the ever increasing cohort of EV drivers. We also discuss Rob’s creative life and what is next on the cards for the CVGA.
The film Rob has written the score for: The Magnitude of All Things
Bendigo’s bHive initiative
A quick note about the transcripts:
Some sounds in the podcast may not translate easily to the written word, we describe these when possible. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible.
Allie Hanly: Welcome to Saltgrass, a show about how local communities can engage with the climate crisis at a grassroots level. My name is Allie Hanly. In this episode, I’m speaking with Rob Law, Executive Officer of the CVGA, or the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance. We’re going to be talking today about alliances and collaborations between local councils.
And I promise it’s not as boring as it sounds. After years of careful and persistent efforts of the CVGA, they have been instrumental in helping over thirteen councils in Victoria come together to commit to ten years’ worth of renewable energy purchasing and also the installation of electric vehicle charging stations to connect small towns to the ever-increasing cohort of EV drivers.
You might remember Rob from the episode called End Game, which came out in January of this year. Rob was working on a podcast with Kyla Brettle about climate. Rob has also been involved in the team that’s been working locally to get our shire and region to zero net emissions. Also, interestingly, for those who’ve been following the show for a while, the CVGA was started over 20 years ago by another person you might recognize, Terry White. He was way back at the start of season two. So look up those episodes. If you’re interested in any of those links, I’ll put links to those episodes in the podcast description, and the show notes, and also on the website, saltgrasspodcast.com.
The other thing about this episode is that I’m using it as a launching point for the next four episodes which are going to be about a region that’s a five hour drive north of Castlemaine, which is Mildura. The Mildura region has been one of the councils that’s been involved with the CVGA and has been working with Rob and other councils to achieve this bulk buy of renewable energy for council use and also electric charging stations.
I’ve been up to Mildura a couple of times this year and there’s been some really interesting things going on up there. The next few episodes following this one with Rob will be all about that region so look out for those.
As ever, before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Djaara country. Djaara country is the traditional home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people who have been the custodians and caretakers of this land for tens of thousands of years. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app or at saltgrasspodcast.com.
Allie: Can you tell us what CVGA is and how it’s started and how it’s grown?
Rob Law: Sure. So the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance is a regional organization of local governments and it’s existed for 21 years now. So it’s sort of managed to ride through, you know, a whole range of flux in national and state climate action over the years and be really consistent over those 21 years in coming together and doing stuff at a local level. It was formed by a local man, Terry White, who I believe your listeners know.
Rob: And he, with a few other people, got together and recognized that there was, off the back of the millennium drought in 2000, that there was a need to look at doing things at a regional level. So rather than just each council and each community doing things by themselves and doing it alone, that they could actually do a lot more and have a lot more impact if they came together.
So that was the origin of it. And over the first couple of years, it started to formalize and became a not-for-profit organization. And that’s what it is today. It’s been able to work through those 21 years and do some really great things through collaboration and what we call “collabetition”, which is where you collaborate and compete against each other and, you know, have this nice, healthy sense of wanting to do better than the other council or other community.
Allie: Yeah, sure. So my understanding of it was that it was largely council and shires collaborating, but is it groups that are not council are also involved?
Rob: Yeah, so originally it started off being quite a motley group of organizations. It was a few councils. It was the Catchment Management Authority. I think even Bendigo Bank was involved and the university. So it was quite diverse. But for the last 10 years, at least, it’s been local governments. And so it’s 13 local governments in our region.
Allie: And does that simplify what the goals are if it’s just local governments?
Rob: Yeah. There’s something nice about all of them being the same type of organization that speak the same language and they all have the same risk profile and processes, and they’re all kind of a bit more patient with their own bureaucracies and that sort of thing.
Rob: As opposed to trying to get all of these different types of organizations to come together and do stuff, it’s quite challenging.
Allie: Yeah, definitely. So what’s the geographical size of this collaboration?
Rob: So it’s quite a large area of Victoria. It’s about a third of the state and it covers from, sort of, Bendigo across to Ballarat and up to Mildura. There’s 13 councils in that region. And it’s really interesting because it’s quite, you know, it’s very diverse politically and the demographics across that region are very, very different from down in the south where you’ve got, you know, probably more gentrified communities like Castlemaine, but also very small rural shires and very conservative farming towns and politics across that whole region are really quite interesting and diverse.
Allie: Yeah. Well, I’m gonna be speaking with the Mayor of Mildura about their involvement and I was not expecting Mildura to be as progressive in their council as they are, but I’ve got an extended interview with the Mayor and their Sustainability Officer, which I think will unpack some of that.
Rob: Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting because I think one of the challenges working in this kind of organization over the years has been how you frame work around climate change because it is such a diverse region politically. And I think one of the things that I really like about this model is that it manages to find that common ground across a very large region and a very diverse group of actors. And they might not all be on the same page in terms of climate change, but there’s reasons why they’re all involved in doing things together. Whether it’s because they support renewable energy or because they care about water. There’s a whole range of different intersections that bring them there.
Allie: And so just for listeners who are not from Victoria, the geographical size of what we’re talking about: From Castlemaine, Ballarat’s an hour’s drive southwest-ish, and then Mildura’s about a five hour drive north from us.
Rob: The distances for me, sort of become a little bit relative cause I’m often crisscrossing all over the place. But I think the distance from where we live in Castlemaine to Mildura, five and a half hours drive, is a good sort of idea of the size of the region.
Before the pandemic, a lot of these councils weren’t using the internet very well. So I often had to drive for four or five hours to do a half an hour council briefing. So I’m very pleased that— (Laughs)
Allie: Really? Wow.
Rob: So Zoom has been a great thing.
Allie: I noticed down below there’s an electric vehicle. Is that yours?
Rob: It is. We bought that for the organization a week before the pandemic hit so it pretty much sat in the garage for, for the rest of that time.
Rob: But we were also limited at the time by lack of charging infrastructure in regional Victoria. So we had this electric car, but we couldn’t actually drive around to our councils anyway.
Allie: So I know that that’s one of the projects we’ll be talking about in a minute that you have subsequently opened up across all these shires electric charging stations in strategic towns. That wasn’t just solely for your own purposes? (Laughs)
Rob: (Laughs) Yeah, there was a little bit of personal benefit in there, I think. It’s really trying to make sure that regional communities aren’t left behind as we transition to electric transport and that’s interesting because prior to those charging stations going in the ground, a lot of those communities and councils were really of the view that this was a city thing and not really gonna affect them much, but since it’s happened, it’s it sort of seems to have opened up a huge area of curiosity and interest now. So it’s been a really good advocacy tool just to have those charging stations actually go in the ground. And yeah, it’s been a good thing.
The main purpose of the organization is to bring these councils together to collaborate on climate change with the view that you can achieve a lot more and have a lot bigger impact if you work together. There is something inspiring about zooming out to the regional level. When you’re working at a local level, you can often sort of feel a little bit like you’re slaving away at this very futile or very big problem of climate change. But I think once you connect up regionally, it seems to be at that level that you really start to see how you can make a difference.
And we see that a lot in our members and our, the people that are involved with our Alliance is that they do feel this motivation that comes from being part of this bigger collaboration than just the work that they’re doing at the individual council level.
Allie: Absolutely. I think, I mean, my show focuses entirely on what people can do locally and I think it’s why the show has appeal outside of our small region. But the idea is if everyone’s doing this stuff together, then we will see really significant change.
But it can, and I’ve been involved in the local Z-NET movement and all of this sort of stuff and it can feel like “oh, even if we achieve it here, what does it matter if the rest of the world is not doing the same thing?”
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s the thing that you start to see at a regional level is the ripple effect. And you can see how not only what you are doing locally affects the region, but how your region actually impacts other regions too. So that’s the excitement I think about that level of working together. Once you go to the state level, it gets a bit harder to see how you kind of…
Allie: See through the politics.
Rob: Yeah. And how your actions influence other actions. But at the regional level it’s a bit more tangible, I think.
Allie: I guess you also get to see the “eyes light up” moment. That moment where people go, “oh, this is something that could really happen here”, and it becomes personal and it becomes relevant to people who perhaps thought it was out of their reach or unachievable in their region.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a process of normalization that goes on. You see, you know, another council or another town doing something, and they’re quite similar to your town, or you can relate to them a bit better than you could say, if the city of Darebin did something in Melbourne. So I think there is this process that starts off in one small area and then starts to balloon out from there, and climate emergency declarations are one example of that. We saw that start in the city but gradually it got picked up by a few rural councils and Mount Alexander, our council, declared one and then Mildura Council declared one.
So I think that process of normalization’s really important, and I think the more that places can see relatable places to themselves doing stuff, then that opens the door for them, rather than jumping straight from something that Melbourne has done, you know? It needs to be stepping stones.
Allie: And so I think this model that the CVGA has is starting to be picked up elsewhere, like globally.
Rob: So I suppose, to start with, the model was picked up in the late 2000s by other regions around Victoria. So now Victoria, all of the councils in Victoria, and there’s 79 of them, are part of these regional alliances that work together on climate change.
And so over the years, more and more, we’ve all worked together to be quite a strong network state-wide. And then, in the last few years, that’s gone into other states now. So we’ve had Queensland, WA and New South Wales all talk to us and learn about the model because they’re in the process of setting these up in those states as well. So that’s really great.
And also in places like Toronto, we’ve had calls from the city of Toronto to investigate the model, because they’ve been interested in it, and even in California. So it’s sort of starting to, you know, ripple out from that simple idea that Terry had back in 2000.
Allie: Ah, isn’t he great! It’s interesting with Terry because he’s been active for so long. And he’s still so passionate about making change happen.
Rob: Yes, I know. It’s yeah. It’s remarkable. And how you manage to not just get frustrated at the pace of change.
Allie: He is frustrated. (Laughs) A lot of us are frustrated.
Rob: Exactly. I know, but I think you also, midst the frustration, you can also see how that momentum has grown over the years. And I think you’ve gotta try to treat it a little bit like a game for your own sanity. You can start to see where you’re winning and where you still gotta go a fair way. But I think there’s all these wins that are happening over the last few years, particularly that are pretty inspiring and help you rise up from the depression of just watching what happens at a federal level.
Allie: Yeah. And I think it’s also really worth recognizing how far we’ve come. It can feel like nothing’s happening, but actually seeds he planted 20 years ago— How long has it been?
Allie: 21 years ago, are now bearing such wonderful fruit. That’s that metaphor of the person who plants the tree, but doesn’t expect to sit under the shade.
Rob: Yeah, you, you kind of just, one foot in front of the other and never really sure where something’s gonna go, but I think it’s nice to reflect on when something has really worked and led to much bigger things than you probably expected at the time.
Allie: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. So there’s two things happening. We mentioned earlier, the electric vehicle charging stations, but there’s also a power group buy basically.
Rob: So there’s, well, we’ll start with that one because that’s been the most intense and exciting project for me over the years, ‘cos it’s been going for about six years, this project, which is where all of the 46 councils have come together and basically entered into a 10 year contract for power in all of their facilities and their street lights with a hundred percent renewable energy.
So that, in itself, is a complicated thing to explain and of how that works, ‘cos it’s not, it’s not that they’re all generating their own renewable energy on site. They’ve actually got a contract with a wind farm in Western Victoria. But there’s a lot of background to getting to that point and it’s a lot bigger than them just buying green power off the shelf. It’s sort of a commitment to renewable energy. And it’s a form of divestment. They’re ensuring that their money, you know, is not going to any fossil fuel projects in the state. And it’s also contributing to going beyond what the state and federal governments set for their own renewable energy targets. So it’s an important thing to have got to where all those councils have got a hundred percent renewable electricity now.
But, you know, huge, huge undertaking, huge collaboration. I think I counted, back of the envelope, there’s probably been about 4,000 decision makers involved in getting to that point.
Allie: That’s huge.
Rob: And that’s, you know, really a result of all of these offices and councillors, but particularly officers working across the region, across the state on this project and—
Allie: Across six years.
Rob: Yeah. Across six years, at different points in time. And I did countless councillor briefings over the years to try to get councils to say yes to this and not just me, but all the officers doing all their own work to convince internally up the chain and through all those levels of council, that this was something that was, you know, safe, that was something that was gonna save them money. Perhaps it was something that was, you know, good for ratepayers, all the different ways they had to prosecute an argument to convince councils that are pretty risk averse to do something like this was huge. So, yeah, so it really was a huge collaboration and it was led by a city of Darebin Council in the end. So the alliances initiated it and facilitated it with all of the 46 councils, but Darebin Council were really important towards the end in doing all the work to get those contracts in place.
Allie: So how did Darebin Council get involved?
Rob: So they were part of our… so they’re part of the Northern Greenhouse Alliance in Melbourne.
Allie: So they’re our neighbours, basically to the south.
Rob: Yeah. Our neighbours to the south in metropolitan Melbourne. And so we, the alliances, set up this working group of all of these offices to come together and talk about this idea. And over a couple of years, we formulated the plans of how we’re gonna do it. And then we needed a lead council to do the work, and Darebin put their hand up to employ an officer that would really drive it, who knew his stuff with the energy market. Hugh Butcher was his name, and a really amazing asset to have someone like that. There’s probably nothing more complicated in the world than the energy market, I don’t think. (Laughs)
And I think having someone that can navigate and explain and communicate that across, you know, so many different levels of…
Allie: So not only negotiate the deal with the power people, but also then convince all the councils to sign on?
Rob: Yeah, that’s right.
Allie: And so is that an alliance of alliances? (Laughs)
Rob: Yeah, we do often say that, but it does feel a bit Lord of the Rings. (Laughs). There is the alliance of the alliances!
During that process, we would do the work of working with our members who we knew better at a more local level to know how to frame the arguments and how to sort of talk to the councils.
Allie: Yeah. So you’d go to a meeting in Darebin and talk about this bigger picture, the whole state, and then you’d go back to your individual councils and then talk to them, as the representative of that?
Rob: Yeah, and those offices would probably be involved at different points as well, but, you know, the language that Darebin uses is very strong in climate emergency language. There’s no way I would be using that language in some of our councils. So it was often making the case based on where I thought they were at. And that’s the idea is that you find where the common ground is and how people are gonna say yes to something cannot get turned off by language or identity politics.
Allie: Absolutely. I think that’s really important. And did you find that different councils needed the financial argument and others needed the, I don’t know, security argument or something? Like was there…
Rob: Yeah, I think, you know, it, it really, those councils who had declared a climate emergency, it was fairly straightforward. Not always easy, but fairly straightforward because they might have had an internal commitment to be a hundred percent renewable anyway. But those other councils where those things just didn’t exist, it might have been around that they actually do like renewable energy because they’re in a council that sees the benefit of large solar and wind.
Allie: So for example, Mildura has got massive solar farms going up. So for them renewable energy is obvious.
Rob: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s right. So they’re, you know, they’ve seen a big, a big benefit to their communities and council for that sort of transition. But yeah, in other cases, it was purely financial. It was sort of making the case that it would be, you know, the same cost as business as usual or slightly better and, and reassuring them about all those risks.
Allie: ‘Cause a lot of people, I mean, the old arguments still get trotted out that renewable energy isn’t as reliable as the coal fired burners that we’re used to here and that energy will flux too much and all of this sort of stuff.
Rob: That’s right. You find yourself in really weird debates sometimes doing these councillor briefings. Like, I remember getting blamed. I did a presentation on this. I think it was at Swan Hill council and one of the councillors, who’s not there anymore, blamed me for the recycling crisis in China. And I was sort of confused…
Rob: Yeah. Well, I didn’t, I didn’t know how it was relevant at all to what I was talking about, but nor did I understand how I was responsible for something at that level.
Allie: I guess people who are not that familiar with the breadth of all the topics that come up around sustainability and climate then lump them all together and go “if you’re talking to me about renewable energy, you must be also right across waste”.
Rob: Yeah, exactly. That’s right. Yeah. That’s the challenge of the language and the politics, particularly in Australia, is this how, you know, how it’s so attached to your identity. If you’re talking about these things then you must be from the left and you try to move beyond that, it’s really hard.
But I think it’s another positive about this model is that, you know, the Alliance itself, the board is quite bipartisan. It’s quite diverse, politically. Members of the National Party, Liberals and Greens are all sitting around the table together and in a fairly non confrontational way, making ambitions and decisions that are pretty much on the same page as each other.
So I think that’s the advantage of sometimes working at the regional level is you seem to be able to avoid some of that more toxic politics that happens both at a very local level and at a very higher federal level too.
Allie: Yeah. All right. So, the power, just to clarify, the power that we’re talking about is not to households or businesses, it’s purely what the council uses for their own use. And are councils starting to adopt things like electric vehicles in their fleets? Things like that?
Rob: Yeah. So, well they are, but it’s very slow and I think it’s a slow because of the state of electric vehicles in Australia.
And we can very much blame federal government for that and a little bit state governments. But I think for local councils, we’re really trying to push this view that the transition’s happening and they should start planning for it now. And that by 2030, at least a hundred percent of their passenger vehicles, their light vehicles will be electric. And then maybe, by a few years later…
Allie: For the council fleet?
Rob: For the council fleet. And hopefully for the community for new sales, but there’ll still be those people driving cars that haven’t converted yet. But definitely for, for new sales and for councils, definitely. It’s harder when you talk about the waste trucks and the heavy vehicles, but there’s technologies that are coming, that are there, but it’s just a slower transition, but hopefully not…
Allie: And a bigger investment, I would imagine, to replace those vehicles.
All right. So let’s talk about the charging stations, let’s talk about where they’ve been installed and how strategic you were about which towns to put them in. I’ve already seen people charging their electric vehicles in Castlemaine, but yeah, let’s, let’s talk about the map first.
Rob: Well, maybe I’ll talk about how it was when we started the project.
Rob: When we started this, when we bought our electric car, for example, there was no charging options in our region.
Allie: Just two years ago?
Rob: Yeah. I mean, there were options, but you’d have to stay overnight to charge it. So not very viable if you’re doing a trip a few hours away.
So basically we wanted to address the fact that there was a lot of interest in charging in the cities, but definitely not in the regions in regional Victoria. So we formed this group and we called the project, Charging The Regions and put the word out in expression of interest to councils right across the state. 55 councils joined in, which was pretty huge, to learn about what their role was in providing public charging infrastructure because councils always question what’s their role versus what’s the private sector. And we thought that there was a very good argument that councils need to be, you know, the ones out there creating this backbone infrastructure to really kickstart the EV transition. Because it’s a chicken and egg thing with range anxiety, and people don’t wanna buy an electric car if they think they can’t leave the city.
Allie: Yeah. Well, I think Australia’s such an interesting case for that. Isn’t it? Because we’ve got such big distances between our towns. Range anxiety has been huge.
Rob: That’s it. I mean, range anxiety is like is, you know, price is a huge barrier but range anxiety is number two.
Allie: Tesla have put in their own charging stations strategically for where they think their people wanna go and then there’s other private people trying to mimic the highway system but it’s actually not linking the smaller towns.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s what we were trying to address, encouraging people off the main highway route and, and that’s all well and good for Tesla drivers, but other EVs can’t use their chargers.
So we wanted to make sure it was gonna be putting in infrastructure that was for all types of cars or as many types of EVs as possible. And it’s interesting, digging into the history, councils used to own the first petrol stations and pubs and pharmacies used to have bowsers out the front. So they were, they were very different to what we’ve grown accustomed to with petrol cars, where you go to a dedicated spot to fill up your car and then drive on.
I think it’s really trying to shift the way we think about charging is, like, you can put a charger anywhere effectively so you may as well put them where people want to go and spend time and hopefully that’s not at a petrol station where you’re forced to eat McDonald’s or…
Allie: Yeah. Yeah. You don’t have many choices, do you?
Rob: So we brought together a lot of councils under these co-benefits of regional tourism, of economic development, of sustainability, and showing leadership, all those different things that they’d be interested in. And argued the case that they have a role to play, particularly in the first few years, and particularly in smaller towns where there’s not a good business case for private companies to go and put them in the ground when there’s… Less than 1% of cars on our road are electric at the moment so they don’t get used a lot, but they will.
Allie: And it’s interesting cos it is the chicken and egg thing. Isn’t it. As soon as you put them in, you’re gonna see people with EVs going “oh, I can go to that town now, I will!”
Rob: Yeah, exactly. That’s right. I mean, I think it’s like honeys to a bee when you open up the app and you see a little orange flag, which indicates a fast charger. If you drive an electric car, you just, that’s where you go. And you’ll definitely drive an extra 50 kilometres to avoid going to a slow charger if you can go to a fast charger, even if you stay there for longer. But yeah, I think it’s… Part of the attraction is that you’re allowing these towns to be included in the transition, and it really is… Something that I’ve noticed is every time I go to charge, someone will come up from, that’s walking by, that’s really curious, and wanna know about them. And I think that happens to every EV driver.
Allie: I actually saw that I saw someone with a Tesla at the Castlemaine EV charging station, the new one. And he was there chatting and he looked really like, he’s used to people coming up to talk to him.
Rob: Yeah. I think there’s a certain excitement that EV drivers have in the early adopters that want to talk about it. So they’re all happy to. But it’s, you know, the same questions you get asked over and over again. “How long does it take you to charge?” “How much does it cost?” “How far you can go.” And I guess the answer’s pretty different depending on what type of car you’ve got.
But typically we’re seeing people stop at these stations for half an hour. They usually pay about $10 for a top up charge and that might get them a few hundred kilometres.
Allie: So it’s still cheaper than petrol, isn’t it?
Rob: Oh yeah. Vastly. And for us, you know, I’ll charge at home with my solar panels whenever I can and that’s free. And then just use those public charges when I’m needing to top up, out on the road.
Allie: It’s interesting. I feel like Europe and America and Asia have adopted EVs so much faster than us. I feel like we are still having conversations that they’ve had 10 years ago.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. I think Norway is a hundred percent electric vehicles now, I just read the other day.
Rob: Yeah. Which is remarkable, but they’ve started a lot earlier and this is what I meant about, you know, really needing to squarely blame the federal government, because we have got very few models in Australia of electric cars that there’s no real incentives for bringing down the upfront costs.
Allie: Those countries waived the import tax fee and all of that sort of stuff to help people get those EVs.
Rob: Yeah. So, we don’t have any vehicle emission standards in Australia, which really means that we’ve becoming a dumping ground for all those polluting vehicles and a classic case of that was in WA, I think they received a lot of the London cabs because London introduced those measures and so we’ve ended up with these old inefficient petrol vehicles driving around our cities.
But, you know, I don’t wanna be too down and out about it. I think it’s just something that you work through and try to encourage despite the federal government and charging is one element of that.
This is part of a whole big conversation about sustainable transport beyond electric cars. I think that’s really important not to lose focus, that it’s also about moving away from private car ownership as well, and moving away from car dependency. And even for small towns, you know, trying to encourage electric bikes and walking and cycling and I think…
Allie: And electric public transport.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely.
Allie: And car sharing.
Rob: And car sharing, yep. There’s some really good models in our region. Bendigo’s bHive group, you know, the Villages that they’re doing up there where they’re trying to introduce more car sharing for electric cars.
Allie: So Bendigo’s a large regional city, just half an hour north of us. So they’ve got multiple, sort of, suburbs really. And so have they divided Bendigo up into villages as such?
Rob: Yeah. It’s early days, but they’re basically creating this new platform, which is an ambitious alternative to Facebook, where it’s really about creating a strong share economy.
Allie: And that’s called bHive?
Rob: It’s called bHive, yeah. And, there’s also Hepburn, down half an hour south of us who have been doing a second hand electric vehicle bulk buy for some time now as well.
Allie: We covered that too. The Good Car Company.
Rob: Yeah. So that all these little things help, but you know, I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic, and I don’t wanna talk it up too much cos there’s a lot of people still going through stuff with COVID and things, but I think it really has helped people value walking and cycling infrastructure locally a lot more now. And I think councils as well have been responding to that. We’ve seen councils all over the state put up “pop up” parks, or they’re putting in new infrastructure, that they’ve got state and federal funding for, for better walking and cycling.
Allie: So when you’re limited to your five ks when you’re in a hard lockdown, you still have a park to go to when you’re walking.
Rob: Yeah. It’s, it’s really shown up the inequity of that. ‘Cause there’s wealthy areas that have really nice places to walk and easy, nice shady routes in summer to get from A to B.
And then in the poorer areas, you are really exposed to the elements and you’re kind of…
Allie: A lot more concrete.
Rob: Yeah. And, that idea of this is all about this bigger conversation, not just about electric vehicles, but this transition is all about a whole bunch of other things. It’s also about urban forests and, you know, all the… what makes us happy and healthy, all these things that you need to do at a local level when you’re planning.
Allie: Absolutely. And hopefully the pandemic is also going to mean that some people are going to be able to stay with online meetings rather than driving five hours to get to a half hour meeting as you used to do.
Rob: That’s right. I definitely hope so for myself. Yeah. I think definitely. And I think there’s already a shift away from, you know, global conferences and that idea of different professions needing to fly around the world for a two day conference is also something that was a huge emitter that’s sort of been rethought.
Allie: Well people do, I mean, it’s a great excuse for a holiday, isn’t it? And it’s tax deductible. (Laughs)
Rob: I mean, You miss out on a lot of those other, you know, intangible human interactions, but I suppose you can find them in other ways.
Allie: So back to the EV charging rollout, Charging The Regions. I think I asked this before, but we kind of skipped it. (Laughs) So how did you guys think about placing the EV charging points? Was it really considered?
Rob: So with the Charging The Regions project, we’re rolling out 23 stations across regional Victoria at the moment. And there’s some in small towns like Ouyen and Sea Lake and Robinvale, which are very, very tiny towns, but they’re very far away from anywhere else. So they’re really important to get that coverage.
And so we worked with councils to try to work out: How do you identify the best site for an EV public charger? And there’s a range of different criteria, you know, want it to be, thinking about where it is in relation to other EV chargers, but you also wanna make it visible, you wanna make it close to amenities like public toilets and playgrounds, if you can. And then there’s a whole bunch of other considerations around the power of the site, et cetera.
So there’s a range of different criteria that councils have used to identify where to put these in the ground. And I think that’s the value of working together is that you can think more strategically about it being a network, rather than just each council going ahead and putting something in themselves.
Allie: We recently drove to Mildura and back. We stopped at Wycheproof, and it’s beautiful. It’s like there’s one street, which is the main shopping centre.
Rob: The Boulevard.
Allie: The Boulevard. I didn’t know it’s called the Boulevard, that’s nice. And so it’s this, just this stretch of shops and it doesn’t go for very long. It’s a very small town. And then around the corner, they’ve got a beautiful green park, public toilets, and the charging stations. And we just stumbled across them ‘cause we were like “oh, we need the loos”, and then there’s the charging stations. And I was like “This is great.”
Rob: It is great. And I think it is great because it, you know, it opens it up for those communities to think about it, that they’re involved in this transition too. There’s a lot of excitement and pride, I think, that they’ve got one.
Allie: And they’ll just see more and more people driving all sorts of different types of electric vehicles.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And that’s, that’s a brand new one that only went in a week or so ago, so you must have been one of the first people to see it.
Allie: And, and how nice is that if you’re stopping to not have to be in this concrete zone of a petrol station or a service station with fast food and not a green thing inside.
Allie: These EV charging stations, you’ve got this beautiful, even if you just sat in your car the whole time. Yeah. You have a beautiful park to look at. You could go for a walk, you have the local shops, which are all very sweet, and quaint, and old school, proper small town shops, you know?
Rob: Absolutely. Yeah.
Allie: And it’s just, it’s nice. I think it’s really nice. And you could do that for your whole trip around Australia. You’d never have to stop at a servo.
Rob: No, that’s right.
Allie: Maybe to pump up your tires.
Rob: Yeah, you’d always get a better deal, I think.
Allie: Are there air pressure pumps at the EV charging stations?
Rob: No, but good, good suggestions, but no, not yet. (Laughs)
Allie: Work on that. (Laughs)
Short musical break: bird calls and guitar.
Allie: How did you first get involved with climate and sustainability and environment stuff?
Rob: It’s… I don’t know why I was thinking about this the other day, but I was… There’s two things that stick out for me. One was probably really my dad growing up. And my dad was an architect, but he was also really involved, in the seventies and eighties in Australia, in this native garden movement and promoting moving away from Agapanthus and exotic plants…
Allie: Roses and Geraniums?
Rob: …to valuing indigenous and native plants. And, and so he forced us to learn plant names in the back of the car on the way to school. And I was always contrary and, you know, rebelled against it. And I didn’t wanna learn these names. I didn’t see the point, ‘cause it’s like “Why am I learning European names for Australian plants?”
Allie: Was he talking about botanical names? So the Latin?
Rob: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, and we’d have to learn all these, sort of, yeah, repeat them back to him.
Allie: That’s great.
Rob: But I was laughing, later on in life I went to Tasmania and did a science degree, in which I did botany and geography and I’m like “damn, he’s kinda won.”
Allie: (Laughs) He got you there.
Rob: “Here I am learning plant names!”
The other thing was that I came out of doing a music degree in my early twenties and I was kind of burnt out. It was a really intense time of introversion and spending a lot of time by myself. So I did a really amazing adventure as a young 21 year old and went to South America, to Ecuador, and worked on conservation projects for five months over there, so in the jungles and up in the Andes.
And that for me was really what hooked me into this whole other world of science, conservation, and climate change. It all started back then.
But it was also really interesting projects ‘cause they were about community based conservation. So it was all about people and how people interact with the environment, and so that’s what got me interested in geography, human geography, and then ending up in this role which is still about people and how we relate to where we live and our impact.
So all of those things coalescing and, and I ended up inTasmania. And then I ended up in Darwin and I spent a lot of time in Darwin doing science and environmental related stuff.
Allie: What sort of science was it?
Rob: Pretty, pretty diverse. I was doing some very strange things in Darwin. One of the things about doing environmental science is you find yourself in these really weird situations. I used to have to get up every morning and go off into the mangroves at 5am by myself with two dead birds on a stick and I’d put them next to these gerygone nests and then I’d sit there and I’d wait and I had to do all these measurements about bird ecology that were pretty bizarre and pretty unusual.
Allie: Yeah, right.
Rob: But you know, mangroves became a real heart place for me. I really love mangroves now. They’re not very nice environments and a lot of people would never go into them, let alone value them.
Allie: It’s swampy, isn’t it?
Rob: Yeah. And there’s mosquitoes. There’s snakes, spiders…
Rob: Yeah. There’s crocodiles. And I was always on the, you know, smelling…
Allie: And you’re carrying these two dead birds.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. And there’s a smell that crocodiles have. So you really like when I get that smell, you just sort of, the adrenaline kicks in.
Allie: Climb a tree.
Rob: Yeah. get out of there.
Allie: So what were you carrying the birds for?
Rob: Ah, it’s convoluted, but it’s basically, it was a bird ecology, behavioral ecology project that looked at how much a bird would value their offspring versus themselves.
Allie: Oh, really?
Rob: So, so would they, would they risk themselves to go back to their nest if there was a predator by their nest?
Allie: Oh, so you put the dead bird near the nest to make the bird think that another bird’s been killed near their nest?
Rob: That they were about to get their bird’s eggs. And so, and it was a, yeah, very strange project and not one that I came up with, but one that I was asked to do.
Allie: That’s really bird psychology, isn’t it?
Rob: And cruel.
Allie: Yeah. Well, there’s that, but it, it also goes into this age old argument about whether or not animals are self-conscious or aware and so it’s this really deep psychology, existential.
Rob: Yeah. I know. And you know, a lot of projection probably going on with the person that came out with it. But yeah, you do, you do find all yourself in all these interesting places. And, you know, I did some time in Borneo in a conservation project and, and in East Timor and, a lot in northern Australia. So really good fun when you’re in the early twenties and, and enough that I’ve kind of got it outta my system. I think I don’t need to do those sort of really exhausting pursuits anymore.
But yeah, anyway, long story short, I ended up backing Melbourne working for these greenhouse alliances. So I started in the metropolitan greenhouse alliances before moving up here five years ago and took over this organization.
Allie: And what’s your role officially here?
Rob: It’s Executive Officer, so CEO effectively. We have a board of 13 council councillors across the region, one from each of those councils. And then we also have a number of staff that work on different projects. One of them being Jo Kaptein, which I think you’ve interviewed before as well.
Allie: Yes. Yep. With MASH.
Rob: Yeah, with MASH. So we get a lot of projects come in from grant funding and employ people on a needs basis.
Allie: You started out as a musician and then you ended up in ecology and science, and now you’re sitting at a desk behind a computer all day. Do you, do you still make music?
Rob: So I don’t sit at a desk all day. I’ve got four days a week that I do this job, but I do a lot of music still and music for film primarily.
And I did work on a film nearly two years ago now called The Magnitude Of All Things, which was a Canadian film about climate grief and very biased, but I, I love this film and think it’s really amazing and that everyone should see it if they have a vague interest in climate change and dealing with these types of things.
And ‘cause of COVID it’s been a really slow rollout across the world and it’s been bubbling away in Canada and Europe and America, but it’s finally been launched in Australia at the Sydney Film Festival in November. So you can go to it in Sydney. We’re working on a plan to have it at the Theatre Royal here in Castlemaine, so it’ll be good. And the owner of the Theatre Royal actually sang on the soundtrack so she’s got a vested interest in showing it.
Allie: Oh really! Oh, there’s a, there’s a whole community of people. So where, where does the filmmaker themselves live?
Rob: So they’re Canadian, her name’s Jennifer Abbott, and she did a film called The Corporation back in 2000 that was all about corporations, obviously, and the ethics around the corporation. And so it was a really important film, had a big legacy that came with it, I think, around rethinking capitalism.
But this story is much more personal. It’s about her sister who died of cancer and whenever you tell anyone the plot of this film, people will rarely wanna see it. But I think it’s the, it’s the parallels between, you know, her grief around her sister and her grief around the planet and climate change. But it’s done in a really nice way. It’s very diverse in the viewpoints. It goes to the Amazon, it goes to Greta Thunberg. It’s got lots of different people in Australia talking about loss and how they’re sort of rising up above that.
Ultimately it’s inspiring. It doesn’t sound like it but
Allie: (Laughs) It’s not huge downer.
Rob: Yeah. And I found it really cathartic working on it ‘cause you know, it’s heavy in parts and it was very heavy making the music for it, but it was… I came out the other end feeling much better for it. So yeah.
Allie: Yeah. Allowed you to sort of like go into what you are feeling a bit and release it through the music. Oh, beautiful. Well, I look forward to seeing that.
So what’s in the works for the CVGA. What are you guys working on next?
Rob: So the other project is Community Sparks. So looking at community batteries in our region and we’re looking at across eight different councils where these batteries could go and what sort of models we might have where the communities can own them and get benefits from them.
So that’s early stages and we’re just really kicking that one off. We’re just starting that with our main partners at Hepburn Wind who have been very active in community energy for many years and lots of successes and the partner councils. So eight partners.
Allie: Do you feel like the councils that have been involved had a good experience so far, that there’s a lot of trust that’s been built and now that these things have actually happened with the EV stations and the power bulk buy, do you think that they’re now more on board?
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good thing to reflect on is that over, you know, these things work because you, you start small and you build trust over time. And that trust is, you know, hard won and easily lost as they say.
But I think that councils, particularly, you know, more recent years, they’ve done some really great things together. They did the largest street lighting upgrade project in Australia in our region a few years ago, which can sound boring to other people but it’s pretty significant in terms of emissions reductions.
Allie: So what did they do? They changed all the street lights to…?
Rob: About 25 thousand, I think, street lights to LED. They were very energy intensive globes before that. “How many people does it take to change a light bulb?”, I think, is a good question when you’re doing these projects, ‘cause they become very complicated and there’s so many different actors involved in actually changing the light globe.
Allie: (Laughs) You need an entire council and all of its staff to change a light globe.
Rob: Yeah, exactly. But they’re huge, you know, big benefits from emissions reduction and councils saving themselves money. And also, you know, light output is actually better for biodiversity and there’s a whole bunch of other benefits too, and safety in all those things. But, you know, as I say, not, not particularly exciting, but it’s one of those things that built council’s trust.
And then they moved on to other things and in the renewable energy agreement that they’ve just done, these are things that show them that there’s not just about an information sharing network. It’s actually that they can actually do things greater than they could do by themselves. And so each time you kind of move on and you ask what’s the next big thing? And that’s what everyone’s sort of asking now. And a lot of that is still around council’s own emissions, I suppose, in that it’s looking at getting off gas for all of the councils in the region and across the state. And that’s, you know, for big aquatic centres, that’s really important to look at electrification and electrification…
Allie: Of hot water services and things like that?
Rob: Oh yeah. Yeah. Whatever it is councils are using for, for energy and for heat and steam and…
Allie: And kitchens everywhere.
Rob: Mm-hmm yeah.
Allie: Because really, gas these days, a lot of people are still using gas heaters to heat the air and they don’t have electric split systems and gas hot water and gas cooking appliances. That’s really the three things people use gas for isn’t it?
Rob: Yeah. And for councils it’s all the heating systems around the pools and aquatic centres is the big one, and then electrification of council transport and all of that. As well as all the other stuff that’s really huge around adaptation, which we haven’t really talked about, but it’s thinking about the councils, really helping their communities protect against the risks of climate change and that covers every aspect of what council does and I think that’s been a really big thing of what we’re we try to do is try to really make the point that this isn’t just a little issue that your Sustainability Officer has to deal with. It’s something that’s right across the board that your CEO, your finance manager, your, you know, community development, assets manager, they all need to be thinking about climate change and they all need to be making decisions about climate change in the work that they do.
So we really try to help articulate that and make it tangible for them that, okay, I’m managing these bridge upgrades or I’m managing this library. How can I do that in a way that’s gonna be most resilient to hotter and dry conditions and more extreme weather.
Allie: And flooding.
Rob: And flooding and all those things.
Allie: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The projections for our climate in this region are hotter and dryer but then simultaneously more flooding. Because when the rains come, they’re gonna come in bigger dumps.
Rob: Yep. Yep. And I think, you know, ultimately you can dumb down all the climate science to that really.
It’s just, that message is like the conditions are changing. It’s gonna be hotter and dryer, but we’re gonna have more extreme weather and need to be thinking about that in every decision we make. So I guess a lot of the work we do, you know, is balancing focusing in on council’s own operations, but also out in the community.
And it’s all well and good to help councils get to be carbon neutral but they’re a very small sliver of the overall pie.
Allie: Of a shire’s footprint?
Rob: Of a shire or a region’s footprint. Yeah. So we’ve been doing, you know, a whole range of different programs over the years that address community emissions and a lot of them has been on the energy sector.
So. We’ve been doing programs like MASH, which have been promoting solar across households and businesses for many years now. But we’re finding that particularly in our regional and rural networks, that the poles and wires can’t handle all this influx of solar into the streets. So it’s creating lots of headaches where households are being told that they can’t send their excess solar back into the grid during the day.
So there’s a real need to address that problem. And one of the solutions for that that’s emerging is this idea of community batteries or neighborhood batteries where the batteries sit on the street and either owned by the network or they might be owned by the community themselves or a retailer. And they allow households to pump their energy out in the day when they’re maybe at work in normal circumstances, not in COVID, and then when they come home, the battery discharges and it creates that sort of localised energy bank, I suppose.
So I, I think it’s a really exciting area because it gets away from this sort of haves and have nots that we’ve seen with the energy transition. That if you can afford a solar and battery system, you might be better off, down the track than someone who can’t. Whereas this helps to create a bit more equity in the transition and it opens up with interesting models for benefit sharing and how you’re gonna value that energy that’s coming out of the battery. Those who put the energy in, do they get anything? More of a reward than those who don’t. And, these are all these, sort of, complexities that we need to work through.
Allie: I don’t know if this is just a rumor or how I heard it, but I heard something about the federal government looking to charge people for exporting electricity from their solar home rooftops.
Rob: Yeah. So it’s been a pretty difficult debate because it is so complicated and these ideas have actually come out of the, more of the social services. People like St. Vincent de Paul, who have been campaigning for many years that there needs to be better equity in the solar transition because from their viewpoint, those solar households have been highly subsidized with very high feeding tariffs. And so from their point of view, there’s a need to balance it out and actually charge those households when they aren’t benefiting the grid.
Allie: So, historically I guess for context, probably about ten years ago, there were major subsidies to try and encourage people to get solar at all. Because it was really expensive back then and people weren’t convinced of the benefit. And so you A, got a discount on the installation, and B, quite high rates of return for anything that fed from your house to the grid, but then the uptake was so much more than they thought it was gonna be, that there was this massive flood of interest. And then they cut the rate. So I was, I was very lucky, I got in just before the rate dropped, but it went from like 66 cents per kilowatt hour that you fed into the grid was paid to me. To something like 20 cents or even less. And now it’s even less than that.
Rob: And now it’s like six cents or something, minimum.
Allie: Six cents per kilowatt hour. Yeah. So it’s very, so they’ve been cutting it down. And initially, I mean, as with all things, I think the intention initially was really good just to get more solar.
We just needed to encourage the Australian populace to put solar on, but people wanted to, they really wanted to, because we know we’re a sunny nation. And then when the uptake got huge, they just had to reel it in. Quickly. So, but now we’ve got the opposite problem.
Rob: Now we’ve got, we’ve got a problem now, which I think is worth solar households acknowledging too, is that not every electron from the solar panel is, is useful to the grid. Like I said, not always gonna be the case that you are creating this energy that’s renewable. So therefore it’s inherently good. It’s actually creating problems that… Yes, the network should have been working to address for the last 10 years, but they hadn’t been, but I think now we need to sort of say “okay, going forward, how can we manage this transition so that everyone benefits, they’re not lumping the burden of paying for network upgrades or paying for the costs of the transition on the poorer households?”.
Allie: Also just for context with the grid, because we’ve been coal powered for so long, we’ve got this massive one power plant that powers the whole state, which affects how all the wires are laid out. This is the infrastructure problem.
Rob: Yeah. So it’s never… it’s always been one way, you know, energy’s flowed one way from the generator through the transmission, to the distribution, to the household, and now we’re actually got energy flowing in all directions and it’s… it requires a pretty radical rethink of the grid that we have.
The grid itself is a public good. I see it, even though it’s privatized in Victoria, it’s still something that is effectively… if it’s designed well, it’s a really important asset that we all have. So individually, all of us going off grid as a way to stick it to the retailer, to the network, I don’t think is the solution unless you live very fringe of grid.
So this is about “how do we design a future grid that is as local as possible?” because there’s lots of benefits in being able to be as self-sufficient as you can, I think, at a neighborhood level. And you’re more resilient to, you know, big freak storm events that will happen more and more that we’ve seen knock down big power lines in South Australia and then leads to blackouts in Victoria.
So the more we can localize and see distributed energy happen in these small neighborhood scales the better. So I think that’s what we’re sort of looking at the whole range of different ways to make that happen. But community batteries are just one exciting new frontier, I think.
Allie: And it also just makes the electricity much more efficient. We get more out of it. When I was interviewing Joe from MASH, I hadn’t realised it. And this is the sort of stuff that I think the general populace maybe doesn’t really understand, the nitty gritty of how our power system works, but the further the electricity travels, the less you get. So it dissipates the further it goes. So to have a local battery that gets fed locally and then bounces back to the local community is probably the most efficient aside from your own rooftop solar being on your house, it’s a really efficient way to make electricity happen.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you’re right. It, you know, it gets lost through heat.
And interestingly, you know, back in the day, a lot of these towns powered themselves anyway. So it’s sort of going back to the future a little bit. They might have had a butter factory or something that generated its own energy and had excess that it spread to the town. And as electricity arrived in these towns, there was no transmission networks, because that was a technology that was invented in Germany many, many years later and was brought over to Australia. And that’s when things radically changed where you had this much greater centralized system of generation, far away, being transported over vast distances and getting lost in the process.
So it is a little bit going back to those ideals that we had in the early 1900s. And so I think that’s… probably what’s gonna be interesting is just how we can do that at a local level in this really complicated energy system. There’s all these different players in it at the moment. There’s all these different regulations and rules about what you can and can’t do.
So you’re constantly trying to disrupt the system a little bit to see what is gonna stick and some things won’t stick and some things will break through and create a whole new way of thinking about things, but it’s gonna be messy. And I think it’s gonna be messy for 10 years.
Allie: We’re so aware of how powerful the fossil fuel industry is in terms of influencing our politicians and what they decide to create as the rules for all of these things.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Oh yeah. You see that time and time again, new energy market rules are introduced by small players and they get a lot of momentum behind them but at the 11th hour they’ll get shut down by too big incumbents and too big fossil fuel retailers. But those cards are falling and I think we’ve seen, you know, more and more, that those big players are losing out and they’ve probably never been so vulnerable. So that’s sort of an exciting time, I think.
Allie: Yeah. I just find it fascinating that companies can’t figure out that their business model isn’t gonna work and change. It’s been really clear for 20, 30, 40 years that fossil fuels aren’t gonna be the solution forever. And that they’re creating huge problems for the world generally, in terms of emissions.
And these companies have had a lot of time to know that and then maybe become a world leader in wind or solar as well as doing the fossil fuels. But none of them have really done it.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right.
Allie: But it’s like, if you’re a good business person, surely that’s what you do.
Rob: Yeah. I heard an interesting thing the other day about how, you know, we often see them as recalcitrant or slow, but what typically happens is that they often sit back and let a lot of the startups test and disrupt. But in the meantime, they’re always planning in the background to do the transition but they’re, they’re trying to wait it out until those kind of…
Allie: Until the technology’s proven…
Rob: All the failed attempts have happened and not through them. And then they jump in and then they, sort of, dominate. And I think that’s what Apple did, you know, many years ago with smartphones as well. They waited and watched a lot of these innovators and disruptors and people were like “why aren’t you moving with the times?” And they, and they were, but not in public eye.
So it’s, hopefully that sort of thing is happening, but at the same time, I don’t really want it to be a situation where they all…
Allie: They just come in and buy up everything.
Rob: They do have a big wholesale shift and they’re, they’re the big powers going forward. It would be nice to be a bit more democratic in how a new energy system works.
Allie: Yeah, and I really like what you were saying earlier about the importance of, especially as climate change happens, the need for localized power sources that are not a hundred percent reliant on a massive grid, far, far away.
And that individual places have, even just as a backup, these stations that can help keep power up. Because in bushfire situations and the heat of that, if people don’t have power. Like the heat alone. like, if they can’t run their aircon or do whatever, it can be deadly.
Rob: Yeah. I think this is the big argument for what we do in our region and what we get buy-in from is this idea of energy resilience, or energy independence, and we are doing a microgrid project. So looking at two towns in our region, Donald and Tarnagulla, and they’re quite remote and they’re very vulnerable to those sort of things happening because they’ve got one skinny line coming out from Bendigo, hundreds of kilometres, that feed them their power.
And they’ve got great anecdotes where they’ve lost power for two weeks and all their water pumps are down. They’re in a drought, they’re in heat waves, they’re in a high bushfire risk zone. So all these ideas about being better adapted to climate change and more resilient to climate change. That’s where it folds in and becomes part of the emissions reduction problem too, because you’re trying to solve all these problems at once. And that’s what’s interesting about these localisation of energy systems is that it can tick all those boxes and hopefully be low carbon and more resilient as well.
Short musical break: bird calls and guitar.
Allie: And that’s it from us today. You’ve been listening to Saltgrass. My name is Allie Hanly and I have been speaking with Rob Law today from the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance or the CVGA.
Don’t forget there are links to all of the things discussed, including the CVGA and all of Rob’s great creative projects and any of the previous episodes of Saltgrass that were mentioned. I’ve got links to all of that in the show notes in the podcast and also at saltgrasspodcast.com.
You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and please subscribe to our e-mailing list to get reminders and updates about the show. Again, you can do that by going to saltgrasspodcast.com/contact
This program was made possible with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at cbf.org.au
My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening.
Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.
Transcription by Lewis Adams