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Why new housing estates and whole towns will go off grid

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Experts say new housing estates may be built that do not connect to the grid, offering instead free electricity, and even free EVs to residents. Meanwhile, numerous towns are looking how to buy back their grid.

Imagine this: Newly built housing estates that are not even connected to the main electricity grid. Solar and battery storage come standard in new homes, included in the purchase price and mortgage, and effectively providing free electricity. The package may even include an electric vehicle in the garage.

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Sound like a dream into the future? Maybe, but not very far into the future. According to players in the battery storage and smart technology markets, it is already happening and housing developers in Australia are exploring exactly these sort of options.

“This is technology of now,” says Philip Keogan, the head of Australian operations for US-based storage software company Sunverge, pointing to developments already under way in California. “We are beyond pilots, beyond trials, this is the technical reality today.”

Not only are developers looking to keep new estates off the grid, but dozens of councils around Australia are looking to do the same with existing communities. They are exploring ways of sourcing all their electricity needs from renewable energy and are considering ways they can buy back the grid from the local operators, just as is happening in Europe and in the US.

And remote towns, up to now reliant entirely on imported fossil fuels, are looking to dump that reliance by using battery storage and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy.

This dramatic change from the centralized energy model that has dominated for the past century or more is not just the pipe dream of developers and technologists. The network operators themselves – particularly those in regional areas – recognize it as reality. They are just trying to figure out how they fit into this new reality.

Richard Turner, the head of Adelaide-based Zen Energy Systems, says numerous housing developers want their new developments to be fully sustainable and micro-grid based.

This is not just for “green reasons” or a point of difference, although that plays into their thinking. It actually makes economic sense. It costs millions to connect a new housing development to the grid, but renewable based micro-grids can deliver electricity for an effective levellised cost of energy in the low to mid 20c/kWh.

That is significantly below the retail rate currently charged for grid-based power, and will likely fall rapidly, as the cost of storage falls and the cost of renewables continue on their downward trajectory.

Turner says he expects to announce his first projects in coming months. He hinted at this in a recent speech in Adelaide, which we reported on here. The SA government appears to be fully supportive. Regulatory exemptions have been obtained in some instances. Different options are being considered on the local energy model, and who acts as the electricity supplier.

It could be the property developer, or a specialist energy services company, or the local network – after all, houses will still need to be linked to each other and community-based facilities such as renewable generators and storage, even if they are not connected to the main grid.

There are some examples, already, of small steps property developers are taking. In Darwin, Defence Housing Australia is creating a “solar suburb” in a new development near the CBD, with each home to feature a 4.5kW rooftop solar system and charging points for electric vehicles.

In WA, property development groups Lend Lease and LandCorp are installing a major community-level battery storage pilot that could change the way that residential communities source energy, including not being connected to the grid.

The next step, though, will be even more dramatic, and may come sooner than expected.

“Many housing developers nationally are coming to us now to tell us they want their developments to be fully sustainable and micro grid based and offer a long-term low cost of renewable energy,” Turner says.

Each locality will focus on its own advantages, be it in wind, solar, biomass, co-generation, or hydro, or a combination of some or all. “These will become standard for new developments and townships, particularly in regional areas,” Turner says.

Sunverge’s Keogan points to the experience in California, where the city of Sacramento is creating zero net energy communities, and KB Homes, the biggest property developer, is offering zero not energy homes that combine solar PV, with energy storage, energy-efficient appliances, and may even throw in an electric vehicle.

“This demonstrates what is possible in the property development space.”

The opportunities of micro-grids are not just attracting the attention of new developments, but also that of existing towns.

Turner says there are numerous councils now looking at the possibility of buying back the grid, or cutting their links altogether. That is a more complicated transaction than new housing estates, because of the sunk investment from networks, but it is sure to become a reality.

This has been recognised by SA Power Networks, which says it makes sense for remote communities to look after their own needs. Ergon Energy in Queensland has suggested the same. In Western Australia, the local grid operator is looking to create a micro grid for the mining town of Ravensthorpe because the grid connection is too expensive, and often damaged by storms and fire.

And, Turner says, communities that are already off-grid, but are dependent on diesel or gas, are also looking to ditch fossil fuels and use renewables and storage instead. Coober Pedy in South Australia is currently building a project lead-funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which is looking to integrate 2MW of solar PV, 3MW of wind, and a 2MW, 750kWh battery storage set up. This could account for 70 per cent of the town’s needs.

 

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  • Miles Harding

    As has often been the case, remote power lines also cause fires, so eliminating them would be beneficial.

    Perhaps consumer behavior change could account for most, if not all of the remaining 30% in Coober Pedy.
    To this end, a useful tool would be a short term energy forecast to allow consumers to decide what to do on a daily or hourly basis. Perhaps supplied as a web application and via an M2M interface so the washing machine and air conditioner etc can automatically run at the best times.

    I need something like this at home to prevent crashing the battery overnight.

    • juxx0r

      Do you reckon in Coober Pedy they call ground mount solar, rooftop solar?

      • Pedro

        They should try geothermal, wouldn’t have to much further to dig 😉

  • juxx0r

    I’m still crossing my fingers that the Lend Lease/Landcorp development in WA realises that their current plan is a little bit too easy and they try to move to a full microgrid through a bit of optimisation.

  • T.G. Crewe

    So nice to see that despite Abbott and his FF supporting agenda common sense is prevailing.

  • phred01

    Good old Jeff stole the council grids to create city power so he could flog them. Now that citi power is part of power cor & owned by the chinese don’t c buy back happening soon

  • News Views

    Pie in the sky stuff – it may happen but not for a long, long time. As for councils buying back the local grid? They could not afford the asking price and ongoing maintenance let alone all the mandated rules and regulations to keep the power flowing and lights on. .

    • Mike Dill

      They can finance it just like the power companies do. With more distributed renewables they should have even lower distribution grid maintenance costs. I am sure that they can get someone to maintain it for them if the skills are not available locally. There are many local and city owned power utilities in the USA (Palo Alto, CA., and Boulder CO. for instance), I am sure that the how-to information is readily available.

      In the short term they might even have a power purchase agreement with the NEM, for those times when they produce more power than they need, and for the infrequent times when there is no wind or sun.

  • Blind Freddy of Cairns

    Sure Giles, but when? And when it has been overcast and rainy for a week, will everybody be firing up the diesel genset, belching out probably more CO2 in a few days than what a coal fired power station would generate for the same amount of power over a few months.

    • Jacob

      The problem is the coal power stations are on for more than “a few months” per year. They are on 24x7x365.

      So even if houses get diesel generators to use 100 hours per year. It is still better for our planet than status quo.

    • Pedro

      I would expect that an estate that provides its own onsite power would have a central power plant with multiple back up gensets with a battery bank it could charge up.

  • Jeff.H.

    Gallium Arsenide solar panels and liquid Sodium energy storage is coming.
    So the big power companies better pull their heads in or they will have NO! customers if they continue their pigheaded ways!

  • Cooma Doug

    Giles
    Perhaps it is not so daunting if you dont say “disconnected from the grid”. Best to note that the cars will be the poles and wires. There are many advantages having access to the wind and large scale solar via the main city infrastructure.
    I dream of the day my google car manages my energy profile at home and the travel plan. When it is driving me to work we will discuss changes to the travel plan and the energy use ahead. Maybe when I am shopping at Woolies the car will be charged for free in the car park.

  • Rayna Hay

    Well I’ve been banging on this alone for some time now, I’ll just add domestic properties off grid, actually freestanding not connected to each other at all nor to any other community based source is still the most effective answer, solar backed by gas or diesel generator 8KW system is ample to run the most modern home with energy efficient appliances and charge a vehicle at work or where ever you park the damn thing when out, when at home you could use the generator if batteries are under load from all other domestic demands! That is actually being free of power bills, as mentioned, and I know by experience in the building industry while earth moving and interrogating the developers just how bloody expensive are the set up costs for the works involved in mains grid connections that are factored into home price, without this the cost to build would be neutral if not cheaper today already! No need to be interdependent on neighbours or council as suggested, but those suggestions tell me that developers and producers of said green energy are still reliant on CONTROL over supply even sneaky way as this and I’d think maintaining an upward pressure “justification” on cost of new developments. They are half way to the best solution! As noted the buy backs are difficult! Once in its expensive and difficult to reverse! and truly free obligations for ongoing bills for all sorts of “Unforeseen Problems” with any joint projects! After all those who can or do have more “expensive” demand [bigger home, more appliances, 4 electric vehicles to your 1….] and could, will still suck up most power at maybe your expense when other sources are required! INDEPENDANT FREE STANDING POWER SOURCING AND SUPPLY is the domestic future smart way.
    Good work, keep thinking about it, but headed in the right direction.