Teaming up and powering down
SO FAR, the carbon trading debate has been cast as a battle between greedy businesses on one side and rabid greenies on the other. That's not how it works in Castlemaine.
There, under the Maine's Power scheme, the four major employers in the region have quietly teamed up with the local sustainability group and CSIRO to slash their ecological footprints. The employers are committed to cutting their greenhouse emissions by 30 per cent by 2010 (from 2006 levels) and working towards zero net emissions by 2020.
Together, the big four - Don KRC, Flowserve, Victoria Carpets and Mount Alexander Hospital - consume about half the shire's electricity and natural gas. "They also employ about 2000 people and without them, our economy would collapse," says Dean Bridgfoot, co-ordinator at Mount Alexander Sustainability Group.
MASG founded the project 18 months ago, launching it in February 2008. "We went to (the employers) and said, 'You're crucial to the town and we want you to stay here. We're also concerned about climate change and we want to take action,' " Bridgfoot says.
He stressed their common goals and the businesses were receptive. "It was important that they could see that we were going to listen, be respectful and take their position seriously."
The project is part of CSIRO's Sustainable Communities Initiative, which promotes regional action through partnerships between business, government and local groups.
But Maine's Power isn't just about greening the town. With higher electricity prices on the way, the project also aims to secure the region's electricity supply and the future of local industry.
The Mount Alexander shire relies on manufacturing for much of its employment, but it's a long way from the power generators. Nearly one-fifth of its power is lost in transmission from the Latrobe Valley. The project began with a study of energy use and needs at each site. Then, CSIRO's experts analysed technology options for the facilities, from solar panels and wind turbines to onsite gas-powered cogeneration (which makes both heat and electricity).
Soon, the scientists will hand over the final report and it will be time for action. The four employers must decide what investment they'll make.
"What's good for the environment is usually good for business," says Bill Youl, manager at Don KRC. "We've approached it that way." The smallgoods manufacturer is the biggest employer in the shire, making up to 1000 tonnes of hams, salamis, sausages and bacon every week.
"It's an industry that has environmental impacts," Youl admits, "but it also does a lot for the local community, in terms of employment. We're keen to make sure we have a sustainable business."
Don KRC is planning to expand its Castlemaine operations after closing factories in Altona and Spearwood in Western Australia. The company will double production but anticipates that its water use will barely increase. Power-wise, CSIRO's research suggests that gas-fired cogeneration could satisfy the firm's electricity and heat needs, while slicing its CO2 emissions.
CSIRO's expertise has been crucial to the scheme's success so far. "We've had some really eminent people looking through our factory," Youl says. "It helps you be confident about decisions when you know you've got the best in the world giving you advice."
For Victoria Carpets, the research has shown that cogeneration would be the cheapest strategy for cutting emissions. The regional spinning mill produces wool and wool-blend yarns to supply its Dandenong factory. Mill manager Tony Breslin enthuses about the co-operative process but admits the company has recently become hesitant about its next step.
New carpet is a deferrable expense and since the financial downturn, sales have fallen. That will make any eco investment harder to make. "These last four to five months have created a fair degree of uncertainty," Breslin says.
The Mount Alexander Shire council will be hoping they decide to go ahead with it. The Maine's Power project is a key plank of the council's ambitious green goal - in 2006 it committed to cutting the region's carbon footprint by 30 per cent by 2010 (from 2000 levels) and to plan for carbon neutrality by 2020.
"It's a big ship to turn around," says new Mayor Philip Schier. They're challenging targets, but there is strong local support. The sustainability group boasts more than 800 members. "It's an exciting community to be involved with, particularly because the major industries are willing to take it on," Schier says.
Partly, the council's policy is about self-preservation - by pursuing early climate change action, the community will adapt ahead of the pack. But it also offers a model for other regions and levels of government. "It's got to be a local, regional, national and global approach," Schier says. "Unless you get in there and start tackling it, you are only forever going to be saying it's somebody else's problem."
At Don KRC, cutting emissions isn't just a sacrifice for the greater good. "It sends the right messages and it makes monetary sense as well," says Youl. "In the future, companies will see sustainability as one of their key business planks and not something you bolt on the side to keep the community happy. It's really about what's good for your business."