Two regional Victorian towns, Donald and Tarnagulla, are to take part in a trial with a local network operator that could see them become the biggest communities so far to cut ties with the grid and rely on local renewables and storage.
The trial is being co-ordinated by the Centre for New Energy Technologies (C4NET), an initiative founded by the Victorian government that aims to bring business, communities and research organisations together to find innovative ways of decarbonising electricity supply.
A new rule change working its way through the system will allow network operators to service remote customers, such as farms, with “stand alone power systems.” But it will also be applicable to larger communities, and Donald and Tarnagulla, could be the first in line.
Both towns are located near Bendigo, but are at the end of long rural power lines, which apart from being costly to maintain, also carry risks of failure due to storms, bushfires and dust. It is clear that solar and storage offers a cheaper and more reliable option, and the regulatory barriers are now being removed.
Other towns in Victoria, such as Yackandandah and Newstead, have been talking about sourcing 100 per cent renewables for their electricity needs, but within the overall grid structure. Other communities, such as Mallacoota, hit by last summer’s bushfires, are also considered candidates to go off-grid. It has already benefited from a new battery.
C4NET chief executive James Seymour said the aim of the trial was primarily to learn about how microgrids can be used, and to apply that knowledge more widely. He said the towns were chosen primarily because the communities were already actively engaged in the energy transition.
“The findings are all public,” he said. “If more towns can solve their challenges with microgrids in future and do it more efficiently because they’ve been informed by the study, then fantastic.”
If successful, the towns, which are both west of Bendigo, could be cut off from the main grid altogether, with a combination of solar generation and battery storage the most likely replacement energy source – although Seymour was keen to stress C4NET had an open minde about the outcome of the three-year trials.
Any microgrid, though, would likely use distribution network operator Powercor’s existing distribution infrastructure in the towns. Powercor is actively involved in the study.
Seymour said there were potential cost savings to distributors in creating microgrids in more remote communities.
“The economics are changing. It’s increasingly expensive to maintain a reliable supply to regional and rural communities, because of things like bushfire mitigation, vegetation management, asset management, and also changing supply dynamic. The generation capacity is changing. But all of those are opportunities,” he said.
However, he said there were regulatory hurdles that made it difficult focus on anything but reliability of supply, and those rules would have to change.
“The regulatory framework does not incentivise solving for a community’s need, it takes a ‘grid as a whole’ approach. That was entirely correct for the grid that we used to have. But let’s project forward for what the grid could be in the future, and it doesn’t have to be that.”
Along with C4NET and Powercor, the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance and renewable infrastructure company Ovida are also involved in the study. The three-year study is part funded by the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund. It will begin consulting the community at local forums next week.
Both towns are very small. According to the 2016 census, Donald has a population of 1,498, and Tarnagulla has a population of just 133.
Powercor’s head of network strategy and non-network solutions Greg Hannan said the purpose of the forums was to study how the town uses energy, and whether its demands could be better met by a smart microgrid. It will also look at the potential cost-savings and improved reliability of doing away with feeder lines.
“The future of energy is being driven by customer choices and Powercor has a big role in enabling them,” Mr Hannan said.
“This study will look at how we can best plan and structure microgrids to get the best outcomes for customers, communities and our environment.“Understanding what customers want, need and expect is a critical step in the planning.”
The announcement comes another small town in Gippsland also begins a three-year study to see if a micro-grid can improve its energy security and prices. See: Gippsland town volunteers for micro-grid trial to reduce dependence on main grid
James Fernyhough is a reporter at RenewEconomy. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and the Financial Times, and is interested in all things related to climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.