As ideas go, it’s a big one: the development of a completely new and sustainable community in the Gippsland Lakes district of Victoria, based on world-leading Regenerative Design principals, and powered entirely by locally sourced, off-grid renewable energy.
But it’s also completely doable, its promotors say. The idea for the Seacombe West Project – named for its location, west of Seacombe on the southern shores of Lake Wellington – was conceived some years ago by engineer and developer James Troedel, whose sheep and crop farm would host the 680 hectare town (and potentially supply it with fresh, locally grown produce).
It has since gathered the backing of a rather formidable team of more than 50 people, ranging from academics to industrial design and sustainability experts. The number includes Troedel’s son Harry – a leader in sustainable projects at Melbourne University for nearly a decade; Jason Bank from Melbourne solar and electrical firm Corospark; and Dr Dominique Hes, who is Director of Melbourne University’s Thrive Research Hub, and the 2015 winner of the Deni Greene/ Bob Brown award for leading Environmental Professional.
The idea – which has the in-principle support of the Wellington Shire Council, but will require the land to be rezoned – is that the waterfront development would bring tree-changers, tourists and jobs to the region, regenerate the severely degraded bushland, and boost the local economy.
And there is growing community support, too, with a overwhelmingly positive response to a community consultation session held by Seacombe West last month.
But it has yet to get a hearing from the state government.
To this end, the project’s design team is holding a two-day workshop at Melbourne Uni on April 11 and 12 next week, to map out the regenerative development strategy.
This will be led by Professor Brian Dunbar, who is executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University, along with Dr Hes.
To add to Seacombe West’s potential significance, it would also be the first Regenerative Designed project in Australia, built on the principles to deliver regenerating vitality environmentally, socially and economically.
This is Dr Hes’s field of expertise, and the subject of a book she co-authored in 2014, called Designing for Hope; pathways to regenerative sustainability.
Leading the energy side of the project is Corospark’s Bank, who is working closely with the head of Atelier Ten’s Melbourne branch, David Ritter, whose environmental design CV includes the design of multi-residential Passivhaus developments in China.
Also working with Bank and Ritter is leading renewable energy academic and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Lu Aye, who will also be presenting at next week’s project workshops.
Bank, says the project presents an exciting prospect, in that the team will be creating everything from scratch, with the possibility of using an innovative and unlimited range of energy technologies, including wind, solar and even geothermal, as well as battery storage.
It’s not new ground for Bank and his team, who are currently working on a number of projects that are looking at taking whole businesses off grid. But Seacombe West would, of course, be on a much larger scale.
At this stage, the size of the community is still fluid, but is expected to grow to as many as 2000 houses, depending on the “designed and organic growth” of economic opportunities and residential demand.
“With this project we’ve got the ability to shape what we need, in terms of renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Bank told One Step Off The Grid in an interview on Tuesday. “There is plenty of solar and wind power available on-site and possibly even geothermal.
“(David Ritter and I) have been working together to start looking at the high level design of what we think will be the way going forward,” he said, as well as putting together rough numbers on what these might cost.
“There is the option of having every single dwelling stand alone – using rooftop solar and battery storage – versus having the total development on a mini-grid, with solar, geothermal and central storage.”
The team are also looking at the option of having separate energy precincts, or even solar on each home with a centralised wind farm, centralised geothermal and centralised storage.
“We’ve qualified that wind is potentially viable, solar is definitely viable,” Bank said, adding that geothermal was something the team was exploring – bore drilling in the area in the past has found a suitable resource at around 2km deep.
“But the reality is that a simple thing like running a (geothermal) pipe to every households would probably be cost prohibitive compared to solar and storage, or other proven technologies.”
Bank said they had started “modelling up” and giving some direction on the best energy solutions for Seacombe West, factoring in the highly energy efficient design of both the commercial and residential buildings planned for the project.
“The heating energy load is really the major requirement down there,” he said. “There is very little cooling needed.”
And while Seacombe West’s ultimate aim is to exist independent of the local electricity grid, Bank says a comparison will also eventually be drawn between the cost of keeping the development off-grid, versus hybrid renewable plus grid connect.
“We have done studies with large sets of domestic consumption data with readily available PV plus storage systems that supports a payback of less than eight years,” he told One Step. “So when compared with grid connect that offers no payback, a solution of renewable energy plus battery storage will no doubt be a large part of the energy solution,” he adds, especially in light of the rapidly falling cost of storage.
“What really works in favour of this development is the timing. We all know that energy storage is a must in solving our electrical grid demand constraints and problem. In my opinion the prices will be driven down and in the next few years and the leaders here will become prominent and well priced by the time this project requires the storage solution. I’m confident that we can make this economical now.”
For Harry Troedel, the project’s manager, Seacombe West’s biggest hurdle has been getting the ear of the state government. Everything else is a no-brainer: a win for the regional economy, for the environment and for sustainable development.
“Having held this land for over 30 years it is high time that the accessibility to this magnificent lake is provided,” Troedel said.
“Policy in the past has supported the idea of a safe harbour at the Western end of the Gippsland Lakes system which is what Seacombe West will provide, also helping activate the Port of Sale development.
“The Seacombe West project will be a demonstrator of the best – new and existing – technologies to deliver a resilient and healthy community, with positive impacts from a carbon sequestration perspective as well,” Troedel said.
“The community… will be a blueprint of how to live from both an energy and water perspective – beyond zero emissions effectively.”