How the WA town of Esperance transitioned off gas in just 12 months

400 residential and business customers had just one year to electrify after the local gas distribution company made a business decision to cut the gas off to the town of Esperance.

The pressure on states to ban new gas connections and phase out existing gas connections is growing.

Victoria – the largest user of residential gas – recently announced it will ban new connections from January 2024.

It follows the ACT bans on new builds that will come into effect in November. Existing connections will be phased out in the ACT by 2045.

The gas industry has unsurprisingly opposed the move.

But in Western Australia it’s a gas company that made the decision to cut the gas network to the town of Esperance on WA's south coast – not just for new builds, but all existing customers.

With the WA State government wanting to get more renewables into the grid, the economics for the Esperance Gas Distribution Company fundamentally changed. They made a business decision that it was no longer viable for them to continue supplying gas to Esperance.

Esperance, on WA's south coast, with its population of 14,000 people had 12 months to transition off network gas. (Image: Horizon Power)

“We had a year to get this in place. That is not a lot of time. And we had 400 odd customers to transition,” Stephanie Unwin, the CEO of Horizon Power, told the SwitchedOn podcast.

Horizon is the WA state owned utility company which services remote and regional communities, and it was their job to transition Esperance off gas.

At the end of March this year the gas stopped flowing. 75%of the 400 households and businesses in Esperance that were connected to gas have now transitioned to all electric appliances.

The others, including some industries like big grain drying businesses and laundromats that rely on gas to get the heat they need, are connected to bottled gas.


Widespread concern

When the gas company announced that they would no longer provide gas to residential and business customers in Esperance, there was widespread concern within the local community.

Even the Horizon CEO had to front up to community meetings to discuss the issue and reassure them that “we're here to make sure we provide you all with a good outcome and you will get an energy solution within the year.”

Every customer had their equipment needs assessed.

Unwin admits that the $10 million funding package was crucial to the transition – many households had to buy new appliances and the government agreed to fund every affected customer with a like-for-like replacement.

“It was self-evident very quickly that it had to be one on one, personal [communication]. You've got to walk people through the process, and really engage really deeply,” says Unwin. “Education and trust was key.”

Identifying every customer who was affected by the transition took some time. Landlords were particularly hard to locate since many were not living in the town, and were not coming to community events or accessing local notice boards.

Some customers needed to be consulted multiple times to ensure they understood the process and were familiar with the new appliances.

“We brought a celebrity chef from Perth down to Esperance to do a cooking demonstration on induction. And really interestingly, after we did that, we had quite a spike in customers saying, ‘Oh, I get this thing. Now, that looks really cool. I'd actually like to go with induction.’”  

Celebrity chef Tony Howell hosted induction cooking demonstrations for the Esperance community.

But with only a year to transition before the gas was turned off, Horizon had to work against the clock.

“We made it really clear, there were no extensions, so it was absolutely critical that every household who was affected got to transition on their terms and with their choices.”


Local tradies were critical

In addition to the funding package, Unwin says the local trades were critical to the success of the transition within the 12 month time frame.

“Our customers made a lot of their decisions based on the information the local trades gave them. So a really important part was also helping those local trades be educated in these new things like heat pumps, and the induction cooktops.”

Horizon coordinated all the trades, ensured they were fully qualified, completed the work to standard, and had all the necessary insurances, which minimised headaches for customers.

“We went to great lengths to make sure that we had local trades involved …. about 88% of the work went to local trades.”


Grid not renewable

Even though the community has transitioned off gas appliances to electric ones, Horizon is still transitioning the electricity grid which Esperance is part of from fossil fuel generation to renewable.

50% of the town’s electricity is now generated by renewable power – wind and solar – but 50% still comes from gas generation.

Unwin believes they can get to 80 to 90% renewable energy now quite cost effectively, “but we've still got to solve deep storage as we call it.”

“We don't really have great answers yet in the longer duration storage. We probably need more vanadium flow kind of battery deployments. We need to look at things like concentrated solar thermal, maybe hydrogen, as a storage mechanism.”


Looking to the future

Horizon will collect data over the coming year to determine what sort of household savings the Esperance community has made by transitioning from gas to electric.

"We expect households will save on average 38% of their energy bills," says Unwin, "while supporting the reduction of Esperance’s carbon footprint”.

Stephanie Unwin doesn’t underestimate the difficulties facing other jurisdictions which choose to phase out gas, but she believes they can learn from how Esperance has transitioned.

“You just cannot underestimate how important it is to engage really deeply with your community about why we need to change and what's involved in that change,” says Unwin.

“You do need an end date in order to help people through the transition, and you need a very clear process that has been funded.”

“If you don't have those elements in place, I think it's going to be very difficult to get to a fully transitioned economy or a community.”

You can hear the full interview with Stephanie Unwin on the SwitchedOn Australia podcast here.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
June 24, 2024
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