West Australia flags end of centralised energy network

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Western Australia finds itself at the cutting edge of energy market reform, and its main grid operator is imagining a future totally different from the past – where many towns and cities look after all or most of their energy needs with renewable-based microgrids.

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What will the death of centralised energy networks look like? Turns out, what’s going on in Western Australia right now paints a pretty good picture.

As the head of asset management at WA network operator Western Power explained at last month’s Local Energy and Microgrids conference in Sydney, co-hosted by RenewEconomy, when you have a service area equal in size to the entire United Kingdom, but with just one million customers (as opposed to 73 million), it’s a big challenge – economically and logistically.

“When I refer to edge of grid, I’m talking about edge of the edge of the grid,” Seàn McGoldrick told the conference on Thursday. “And there’s a lot of it. Customer density is so low, it’s practically impossible to make a cent.”

And its conditions like these that call for the sort of “non network” solutions depicted in the image below, from a slide used in McGoldrick’s presentation.

The slide presents four different options for the future of the main WA grid: from business as usual; to the disconnection of fringe of grid communities; the creation of a modular network of made up of a variety of renewable energy-based inter-connected grids and microgrids; or even a fully decentralised network.

western power

A McGoldrick noted, concepts like these are not always an easy for network types to wrap their minds around.

“A fully decentralised future goes against my very marrow,” he confessed. “When I entered the business, we were still busy connecting everything.”

And it is, perhaps, a particularly difficult notion in Western Australia, where – as McGoldrick puts it, “as a broad community we’ve invested billions in developing the …grid, and we don’t want to abandon that.”

That’s why he favours the idea of a modular grid, number three in that graph above. But even that represents a wholesale change in the thinking of the network industry. Some towns will be cut off completely, and operate their own renewables-based mini-grids; others will have “thin connections” as a back-up; for others not much will change.

Of course, Western Power is not the only network to think that the future will be different from the past – networks in South Australia and Queensland have also toyed with the idea of micro-grids, and still are – but this is the first time we have seen a blueprint of what that new network might look like.

This is a complete rethink on the old centralised model, and is driven as much as it is by the arrival of cheap renewable power and the emergence of battery storage, as it is by the huge costs of maintaining hundreds of kilometres of power lines, and the threats of storm and bushfires to those connections.

As McGoldrick says, and this is illustrated in the graph below, the WA network makes little money. Only those areas in green generate a return on investment. The WA government currently subsidises electricity consumers by more than $500 million, or more than $500 per household.

That level is unsustainable, and is one reason why energy minister Mike Nahan is implementing the most radical reform agenda in Australia, and one of the most radical in the world. He has embraced solar and storage, and ordered the shut-down of excess capacity, a move likely to see the closure of a significant slice of coal capacity.

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“We believe that the future will see a modular version of the current grid, where we will still have those strongly meshed areas, other areas of thin-pipe connection, and micro-grids, both inside the mesh network and on the fringe,”  McGoldrick said.

Western Power is now involved in seven different projects that will test some of those theories. Three of them are micro-grid projects, one is an edge of grid project, one is an island (literally), and another is in the heart of the metropolitan area. They include battery storage, virtual power plants and demand-side management projects.

Western Power is currently testing out a number of new approaches, at various different points of its network, including at Ravensthorpe and Esperance.

One of these is Kalbarri – which as McGoldrick describes it is “a tourist town of around 3000 souls” at the very north-western edge of the grid – where the company is currently testing a microgrid solution using wind, solar and battery storage to address problems with reliability of supply.



“Frankly,” he told the conference, “it’s a nightmare from a utility perspective: remote, trips out all the time… prone to bush fire…

“It is very poor when we can’t meet the needs of the customers up there, particularly during the tourist season.

“We’re very excited for the potential of a microgrid up there.”

But there a lot of questions the network needs to answer first, said McGoldrick: How do we operate the mini-grid? What tariff regime do we employ? Do the national regulations inhibit newtorks from taking charge of things like this? What are the regulatory implications? Is it commercially feasible? Does Western Power have the capacity and capability to do this?

But, as the “appalling, absolutely appalling” outage data shows (see table below), “we’re getting those outages when the sun is shining. So it (the micro grid proposal) is going to work.”

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11 Comments
  1. Stan Hlegeris 4 years ago

    Let’s hope this is the beginning of the end. The de-centralised solution is the obvious winner across most of Australia.

    But, as Mr. McGoldrick admits, senior managers in the system just can’t bring themselves to think in the necessary new way. The trick is to get rid of deadwood management throughout the electricity system without losing the technical skills. The existing managers will tell you that’s hard. Maybe there will be some challenges, but the sooner we get on with it, the better.

    • suthnsun 4 years ago

      Fantastic to hear “We’re very excited for the potential of a microgrid up there.”

  2. john 4 years ago

    $500 million dollars per year this is $5 billion over 10 years.
    Sobering indeed so there is an imperative to reduce this huge cost to society.
    Fully Decentralized networks are obviously the way to reduce this huge cost.
    In the areas where some may be Decentralized it will happen.
    Implantation of every sustainable RE resource is beneficial to everyone and results in lower energy costs to all.

  3. Ian 4 years ago

    these remote edge of grid situations for WA are a fantastic opportunity for Australia’s very own Redflow . The silly twits have been trying to match Tesla with a domestic offering with very similar specifications of peak capacity and storage to lithium batteries when they have an enormous need in their own backyard for STANDBY storage. Storage of electrical energy sufficient to last a couple of weeks. Flow batteries have electrolyte storage tanks that can be made to any size and represent the cheapest part of the battery. Instead of a 10 KWH/ 10 KW peak battery they can adjust the electrolyte volume to produce a 100 KWH / 10 KW peak battery. If the manufacturer won’t come to the party, then minigrid designers could easily modify Redflow’s offering to increase the electrolyte storage capacity. 10 x 10 KWH batteries of the current domestic variety cost in the order of $100 000, 1 x 100KWH standby battery could cost a 1/4 of that amount

    • Ian 4 years ago

      The biggest loads in these hot remote places is air conditioning and water heating. The Water heating problem has already been solved with both solar thermal water heating and heat pumps with hot water storage. Some of that $500 million needs to be thrown at solar thermal and ice storage air conditioning. Remove these two loads from the nighttime electricity requirement and there is not much left for batteries to supply. The whole weight of the CSIRO and Australian universities should be applied to this one problem. Solar thermal air conditioning.

      • Alastair Leith 4 years ago

        all depends of the generation mix, if there’s a lot of wind, it tends to peak at night, when demand is also lowest. especially with one QLD network operator shifting off-peak metres to midday due to the midday peak of solar generation.

    • Pfitzy 4 years ago

      Hackett and co are being “silly twits” to match Tesla because it makes business sense to do so. A lot of the suburban consumer market will be the bedrock on which the R&D is funded and the tech gets cheaper.

      There are still going to be more grid-connected consumers than any other situation for the first generation of home storage (until 2020 at least) and most players have recognised that.

      The lithium offerings are never going to sell well in northern and inland WA because of the temperatures – the Tesla is the only one rated above 45C operationally, and it isn’t going to have the capacity for long-term microgrid work in its current iteration, unless you go with the industrial level storage.

      The points about solar thermal and ice storage you state in the other post are entirely valid, and what would help those remote areas even more is a move underground to earth sheltered housing.

      Takes away a lot of the concerns about the cooling aspects, can contribute to more efficient heat storage, and also water cooling.

      It isn’t practical for every application, but for domestic living, it would be a boon. Making the housing more efficient is the key to limiting the future costs.

      • Ian 4 years ago

        Good reply, and you are probably correct about Redflow’s business case, but my point was this. They have a technology which intrinsically favours very large storage capacity over peak demand. Lithium and other similar batteries favour cranking amps over storage capacity. Whatever electrolyte the lithium batteries have its closely juxtapositioned to the anode and cathode. Flow batteries on the other hand have pumps that bring the electrolyte to the anode and cathode and then carry it away again. There is no limit to how much electrolyte can be stored in tanks separate from the reactor chamber. They can have large storage of zinc bromide solution without affecting the battery’s efficiency or peak power output. Lithium batteries on the other hand are very limited as to how much electrolyte surrounds the electrodes. Redflow’s current offering is mediocre when pitted against its lithium rivals, but it can shine if they used its intrinsic Flow characteristic. As said before the expense of a flow battery is not its electrolyte or storage tanks, the expense is the pumps, reactor chamber, electronics etc. A remote community needs oodles of back up storage in terms of KWH to keep their minigrid reliable on prolonged solar-poor days. They don’t need a massive KW peak power output. Ten tesla power walls might well punch out 100KW for an hour but these people are not trying to power up a Deloraine time machine, all they need is the usual 10 KW over 100 hours! Also what’s good for a remote off grid minigrid is good for a suburban off grid home. Anyone trying to go off grid needs daily cycling of a battery and occasional standby storage. I would say a Redflow ZBM with extended storage would beat a Tesla Powerwall any day. I would spend $10 000 on a 10 KW battery that has 100 KWH storage even if a lithium battery with 10 KW / 10 KWH cost $3000

      • Ian 4 years ago

        Pfitzy, your point regarding energy efficient housing is spot on. Insulation and correct Passiv Haus principles are essential for inland communities where heating and cooling requirements demand so much electricity storage. Most houses are designed with very low thermal mass specifically to accommodate air conditioning. This is a good idea near the coast where temperatures don ‘t vary much diurnally. Inland where diurnal temperature changes are huge, the average temperature tends to be within a liveable range. These homes would probably be better off with a high thermal mass – big thick solid walls. To average out the diurnal variations. A couple of small retreats within a solid wall structure with thin and well insulated walls could be air conditioned such as a lounge room or bedroom. You mentioned underground housing. There is no real need to go to this extreme when ground source hydronics can be used. tying the floor to the ground to create one thermal mass would achieve the same effect as building underground.

        • Alastair Leith 4 years ago

          and digging, simple though it is, is one of the most expensive parts of the building process. makes sense if you have abandoned opal mines, but if you have to pay for that digging, usually forget it, insulation is way cheaper and you can even have the novelty of windows.

  4. BsrKr11 4 years ago

    Generational change- just give the old fellas a golden handshake, say thanks for your service and replace them ….

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