Beacons of Light

Words by Marguerite Marshall


Along Main Road, Eltham, it’s encouraging to see some Eltham businesses being beacons of light and good sense by covering their rooves with solar panels.

The Zen Den and Eltham Veterinary Practice say they installed these because they wanted to contribute to a safe climate future. As a bonus these panels would also save them money. 

But Zen Den at the corner of Franklin Street, has hit a glitch, which might dismantle their efforts.

Nillumbik Council told them that they had to remove 26 of their 50 panels because the building had a heritage overlay. 

The Zen is one of only three remaining shops in Eltham built in the early 20th century. The others are the Barber Shop at 820 Main Road and the boot maker’s shop beside the White Cloud Cottage on Main Road opposite Dalton Street.  

Tony Rizk who co owns the Zen Den with two family members Spencer and Stephanie, said that if the panels were removed, the remaining 24 would not be of much benefit to the business and so to the environment. 

So at a ‘substantial financial cost to us’ Tony said they hired a heritage specialist to challenge this at a VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) meeting on September 9.  The heritage expert said only 10 panels needed to be removed and three other panels had to be reorientated. 

Nillumbik Council accepted this but VCAT is yet to make a decision, which Tony says will hopefully be made before Christmas. 

As I enter the Zen Den at lunch time on a week day, I’m struck by the café’s buzz. It’s almost full, mainly with young people. 

The small roof was covered with solar panels about two years ago. Tony said he did it for environmental reasons, strongly urged by his children.

The panels supply 20-30 percent of the café’s electricity. Lack of roof space stopped them from buying enough to provide all of their electricity needs. 

Now the panels save them around 15-20% in costs and they hope to pay them off in five to six years. 

Eltham Veterinary Clinic

Tony said: “We are all obliged to do our bit for a safe climate future – if we are able.” He said he did this for his children’s future, and they were very strong advocates for effective action. 

He’s had positive feedback from his clients. But a neighbour has objected to the panels.

Tony said he was very disappointed at the heritage requirement, because, as Eltham was part of the Green Wedge Shire, even heritage overlay buildings should be able to install solar panels. 

However the Eltham Veterinary Practice has escaped problems and is already reaping the benefits of covering their huge roof with solar panels. 

When I visited Steve Pryor, co-owner with Gus Braniff, it was obvious that this busy practice would need much electricity. These panels provide half of their electricity. So Steve said that they might add panels to two other buildings on their property. 

He said that using solar panels made economic sense when running a business. The electricity was generated during the day when it was needed.

The panels had more than halved their power bill.  But some trees, which shaded the panels, needed to be pruned to make them more effective. 

Steve said the panels would be paid off in four years and then they would make a profit as the panels should last about 20 years. He hoped that the panels could then be recycled.

Steve said he worried about climate change and he belonged to Vets for Climate Action. “As scientists we’re very concerned about the science of climate change. If politicians made decisions based on science there would be more action.”