When environmentalists and political commentators talk about the Kimberley it is usually to discuss the sensitivity of the precious eco system, the need to protect biodiversity, or the divisive issue of on shore gas processing at James Price Point.
Rarely does talk lead to solving the energy needs of regional and remote communities dotted across this wilderness.
The high energy cost of generation is masked by levelised state pricing and treated as just another cost of being remote. However, the future energy needs of Broome and the Kimberley region generally are anticipated to increase as population growth, and industrialisation put the current energy supply arrangements under pressure.
Many Kimberley communities are currently beholden to fossil fuel energy generation. But the current combination of diesel and gas-fired generation also brings with it a substantial carbon footprint and, with the introduction of a price on carbon, the likelihood of increased power costs.
Notwithstanding the anticipated access to gas as a consequence of planned on shore processing, there are legitimate concerns about the need for diversity in the way energy is supplied to Broome and other Kimberley townships.
As is well understood by the many households that have installed domestic solar PV systems, the Kimberley is one of the most solar rich regions in the world. Residents of Broome have taken to grid connect solar power with such enthusiasm that they have nearly outstripped the capacity of their local power station to handle it. As a consequence regional electricity supplier, Horizon Power, has stepped in to control the situation. On March 2, Horizon announced future applications under its Renewable Energy Buyback Scheme would be restricted to systems no bigger than 1.5kW. This has recently been increased to 5 kW. Those fortunate enough to afford the upfront costs can have their energy needs met though roof top installations and others with larger installations can export significant power back to the grid and earn a nice income.
Horizon Power currently supplies electricity to 34 grids that service small communities throughout regional WA but these isolated grids lack the size, flexibility and diversity of infrastructure of large interconnected grids such as those in the southwest of the state. Finding a solution that will allow greater solar connectivity is currently being investigated by Horizon engineers that are looking at all sorts of technical and engineering solutions.
However for business, local government and the many households that cannot afford the upfront costs of their own solar installations, there is a need for thinking beyond the roof.
In South Australia, the state that pioneered the feed-in tariff, serious consideration is now being given to diverting future funding to support community-scale installations. The intention is not to support a model that provides financial dividends to investors in the project. It is expected that the model will provide a non-cash benefit in the form of reduced power consumption or reduced power bills.
Community owned power generation is a new phenomenon in Australia with Hepburn Wind in Victoria being a leading example. Community-scaled projects can provide non power-based benefits (e.g. reinvestment in other community renewable activities) and the financial benefits of reduced power bills can also be reinvested and used to reduce fee structures associated with community.
Increased renewable energy generation capacity and energy efficiency can enable greater security of supply and provide an opportunity for increased competition in the market place. Community scale local energy generation will stimulate local economic growth, lead to the development of new skills and new jobs, reduce the cost of power and enable the retention of income generated to be spread across the community.
Peter Hansford is director of Regional Cleantech Solutions and is a former manager of Clean Technology with the Victorian Government.