Hydrogen, batteries, and standalone power systems are a major focus for WA’s regions.
Regional Western Australia has, by necessity, been at the cutting edge of technology uptake in terms of energy production and usage.
After the big investments in gas liquefaction in the early 1980s, more recent moves have been at the smaller end of the spectrum, including the use of renewables.
This year, the regions will be a focus of the state’s post-COVID stimulus strategy, with about $57 million of funding provided through government-owned enterprise Horizon Power.
Chief executive Stephanie Unwin said Horizon would be progressing projects such as a renewable energy demonstration microgrid in Denham, batteries in regional communities, and standalone power systems.
The Denham project was one of nine to share $22 million in funding from the state government in August, with others including Fortescue Metals Group’s hydrogen mobility project in the Pilbara.
The project will include produce hydrogen through electrolysis of water.
Hydrogen is seen as a way to store electricity for extended periods, and offers advantages over batteries in scalability.
While renewable hydrogen was not yet commercial, Ms Unwin said the technology brought opportunity.
“We do need to have a go with some of these technologies,” she said.
“If we’re right that they do work, in time they’ll scale up and become economic.
“If we can get hydrogen to work as a viable generation and storage solution in high-cost regional towns, over time we can get costs down.”
Hydrogen could have uses beyond storage at scale, including for standalone power systems, Ms Unwin said.
Those systems use solar and batteries, backed up with diesel, to provide power for single users.
But Ms Unwin said the next generation of standalone systems could use hydrogen fuel cells to provide security of supply in place of diesel.
“We’re working hard on a hydrogen version, so you can take diesel out of the equation,” she said.
“[In future] we’ll do them as a fully renewable solution.”
One of Horizon’s ambitions was to eliminate new diesel generators by 2025, Ms Unwin said.
In the meantime, Horizon has plans to roll out a further 50 standalone power systems around the state to improve reliability for remote customers and reduce servicing costs.
Another series of projects would be in battery storage, with nine batteries to be installed across regional towns including Broome, Exmouth, Gascoyne Junction, and Carnarvon.
That would support customers in those towns to install their own rooftop solar, Ms Unwin said.
“We’ll get a better outcome overall, and lower costs,” she said.
“Over time, the system becomes cheaper because you’re not building centralised power to support it.”
Horizon identified the highest-cost towns first, and those with the greatest potential for rooftop solar, Ms Unwin said.
Batteries are increasingly used to support rooftop solar because the panels have intermittent power production, and are particularly disadvantaged at night time.
Ms Unwin said regional communities had been affected differently by COVID-19, with those in the East Kimberley and Esperance hit harder than elsewhere.
The Pilbara region had fared better thanks to the strength of the mining industry, she added.
However, the Pilbara’s electricity network is heading towards a major regulatory change.
Use of the network will become open access in July next year, which will encourage competition among power retailers.
Customers using more than 1,200 megawatt hours a year will be able to buy electricity from any retailer, with more than 40 businesses likely to be eligible.
Ms Unwin said Horizon was working to develop rules for the new arrangements.
Horizon owns about 460 kilometres of transmission lines in the North West Interconnected System, linking Dampier and Port Hedland.
Rio Tinto has the largest network, at 700 kilometres.
Alinta operates a small transmission line in Port Hedland, and another connecting Roy Hill to Newman.
A new line is being built by Alinta linking Fortescue’s sites, together with a 60MW solar farm.
Ultimately, Ms Unwin said the reforms could help support big renewable energy developments supplying miners.
“We’ll see a different mix of energy up in the Pilbara,” she said.
“Think about how amazing it could be for very large scale renewable [zones].”
This also meant big projects would require lower capital investments into generation, relying on the broader network and accessing competitive alternatives.