A new big battery, incentives to encourage more home battery storage installations, and a battery-based virtual power plant are to be fast tracked for Alice Springs after a nearly $2.1 million funding boost from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
The ARENA funding, announced on Friday, will go towards the $9.3 million Alice Springs Future Grid project, which is being led by Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy to bolster the reliability of the sometimes problematic local grid and pave the way for a much larger share of renewable energy.
The funds add to $3.19 million from the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Microgrid Fund, that went to Desert Knowledge Australia – a statutory authority of the Northern Territory that oversees the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy.
The Future Grid project will focus heavily on battery storage to address the technical, regulatory, social and economic challenges to the Alice’s isolated grid, which has experienced blackouts in recent times, including – outrageously – in the middle of last year’s AFL final.
Included in the plan is a large-scale grid-connected battery system (further to a 5MW battery already installed); a residential battery virtual power plant trial for up to 50 customers, to provide voltage support to the network, and; tariff reforms to incentivise greater uptake of home batteries with solar.
Intyalheme, which led an ARENA A-Lab workshop to help nut out a 50 per cent renewables roadmap for Alice Springs back in December 2018, said on Friday that the Future Grid plan would take a unique approach to a multi-faceted challenge, in a rapidly-changing environment.
“Alice Springs is ‘small enough to manage but big enough to matter’ and we are confident the project will not only help secure a clean and reliable energy future for the town, but the knowledge generated will have a positive flow-on effect, well beyond the other isolated electricity networks in the Northern Territory,” said the Centre’s general manager, Tristan Simons.
Currently, Alice Springs’ grid sits at around 10 per cent renewables generation and – like the rest of the NT – faces the challenge set by the Territory government to take that number to 50 per cent by 2030.
For the Alice Springs grid, this challenge includes serving approximately 30,000 people in communities spread as far as 130km from the town.
On top of that, there have been some local energy industry issues to overcome, too, after the NT’s Labor government sacked the Territory’s two most senior energy chiefs last December following a damning report from the market regulator into a “system black” that hit Alice Springs in October.
As RenewEconomy reported at the time, investigations into the outage found it was not a problem of technology – despite some trying to sheet the blame on the amount of rooftop solar in the local grid and the impact of passing clouds – but of corporate and energy culture. And of incompetence.
“Alice Springs has long battled the energy challenges that come with being a remote Australian town and the government is committed to ensuring our regional communities have access to an affordable energy supply they can rely on,” federal energy minister Angus Taylor said in a statement on Friday.
“Despite having a wealth of solar resources, Alice Springs has not been able to take advantage of this. Through this project and with the government’s support, we hope to see that change.
“Geography shouldn’t be a barrier to keeping the lights on and access to affordable power in remote areas of our country which is why we are investing in the energy future of Alice Springs,” Taylor said.
ARENA CEO Darren Miller said the Agency expected the lessons learned from the Alice Springs roadmap to contribute to the broader Northern Territory and other remote Australian microgrid communities.
ARENA’s Phil Cohn, an investment director in the Agency’s Business Development and Transactions team and A-Lab’s project lead for the Alice Springs Future Grid project, has described the Alice system as having a lot of the characteristics of many places in the broader NEM, but at a scale where innovations could be meaningfully tested without being too cost-prohibitive.
“Really importantly you’ve got government and community buy-in for progressively driving on renewable energy as well,” Cohn said, back in 2018. That mix of the scale and the physical characteristics alongside the community buy-in make it a great place to trial new ways of working the grid.
“Alice Springs has this history of being a bit of a leading light nationally. They were a solar city a decade ago and they’re wanting to retake that initiative … to show how you can run a grid with high penetration renewables.”