Isolation brings positive push for microgrids

27/06/2019 - 14:11

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The vast emptiness of WA has proved to be an advantage when developing skills in the rollout of new electricity technology.

Terry Mohn says there’s a focus in WA on developing microgrids. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

The vast emptiness of WA has proved to be an advantage when developing skills in the rollout of new electricity technology.

There is a growing use of microgrids worldwide to provide electricity in places where it might otherwise be technically impossible or prohibitively expensive.

So it seems appropriate that the world’s most isolated capital city is now home to the International Microgrid Association, an organisation devoted to researching and advocating remote power solutions.

Microgrids are power networks available for towns, suburbs or mine sites, with decentralised generation and management that enables them to detach or operate entirely separately from main grids.

A related, smaller-scale concept is the standalone power system, used to support singular customers such as farmers.

International Microgrid Association founder Terry Mohn has been involved in microgrid projects across the world.

The US native was brought to Western Australia by Horizon Power, which is using the microgrid model in projects at locations including Onslow.

“Microgrids are being built around the world but they're kind of piecemeal, one-off projects,” Mr Mohn said.

“When I came here ... I looked at the opportunities, and I said, ‘You know what, this is where all the action is’.

“Some microgrid work is beginning to spring-up in other states within Australia but the predominant amount of interest is in WA.

“Interest in microgrids here is much more focused [than overseas] and there’s a tremendous wellspring of support from government and industry.”

Mr Mohn estimates there are about 300 microgrids in the contiguous US, 7,000 in India, 50 to 75 in Canada and Alaska, and 300 in Kenya.

In WA, there are about 40 microgrids in Horizon Power’s portfolio, supported by a strong financial and regulatory commitment from the state government to support power provision in regional areas.

There are 13 business members of the International Microgrid Association, which launched in May, including Cisco, Schneider Electric, and Atco.

Mr Mohn said the association had three major aims: sharpening business models around financing and construction of microgrids; arguing for improved regulatory frameworks; and technological standardisation.

Some local businesses are already taking expertise developed from WA projects into overseas markets, including Village Energy.

The company was founded by three former Horizon Power employees and plans to export microgrid software into India.

Mr Mohn said WA was a good location to springboard into potential new markets.

“This is a great launch point for Asia-Pacific, there’s a huge growth market there,” he said.

Decentralised

There are a couple of factors that make microgrids particularly useful in regional or remote applications.

Towns such as Kalbarri sit on the end of huge, expensive feeder power lines, which are expensive to build, maintain or replace.

The transmission lines are also likely to suffer outages, leading to reliability issues.

Mr Mohn said private microgrids could often be more cost-effective than state-owned grids.

“Many times we find that states that support energy infrastructure have insufficient capital to provide electricity for all citizens,” he said.

“We want to invite the private sector in to make investments in microgrids that not only provide for electricity for those that have been unattended, but also provide additional resources to the state utility.”

Kalbarri, in the Mid West, is a good example.

Western Power built a microgrid in the town of 1,300, with a 4.5-megawatt hour battery, a wind farm and rooftop solar panels.

Kalbarri is at the northern end of the South West Interconnected System, connected by a 140-kilometre, 33-kilovolt branch line prone to outages.

In June, two major microgrid projects worth $123 million were announced.

At the Agnew gold mine near Leonora, Gold Fields and EDL inked a deal for a $112 million microgrid, with $13.5 million coming from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

EDL, which is owned by a venture of CK Infrastructure, Power Assets and CK Asset Holdings, will install 18MW of wind turbines, 4MW of solar panels and a 16MW gas generator.

That will be backed up by a 13MW/4MWh battery storage system.

Gold Fields executive vice-president Stuart Mathews told Business News the mine had previously used power supplied by BHP Nickel West’s nearby generation assets.

But electricity transmission capacity to the mine was limited, Mr Mathews said, with expensive infrastructure upgrades potentially needed to meet demand if not for the microgrid.

At Port Gregory in the Mid West, Advanced Energy Resources is working on an $11.2 million microgrid to supply GMA Garnet’s nearby mine, with Arena to chip in $3 million.

The project will include a 2.5MW wind farm, 1MW solar farm and a 2MW/0.5MWh battery.

On a smaller scale, there are similar benefits from the use of standalone power systems.

They can be cheaper and more reliable than maintaining long feeder lines, and are less likely to cause bushfires.

The state government is rolling-out 57 standalone systems across the Western Power network, with a further 2,700 potential sites flagged.

But there are challenges.

In a recent report, Energy Networks Australia said existing regulations were not designed to support standalone systems.

Similarly, Mr Mohn said it was important to get the settings right to encourage private investment into microgrids.

A further problem arises through the burden of the cost.

Because legislation mandates pricing equality across all customers, incentives for individuals to make a change are limited, according to Energy Networks Australia.

 

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