Alice solar power future: Who benefits?

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

On the face of it, the Power Water Corporation (PWC) needs solar energy like a hole in the head.

PWC’s objective, and that of its subsidiaries Jacana and Territory Generation (TG), all Territory Government-owned with the Treasurer as the single shareholder, must be to protect and enhance their assets.

But the NT government’s 50% renewables by 2030 target has the effect of consigning a growing number of its electricity generating properties to the stranded assets corner.

Ultimately power generation is planned to be entirely from renewables and the current generators running on fossil fuel will have reached their use-by date, including the $75m Owen Springs power station put in place by the Giles Government.

With this clear conflict of interest in mind, the $12.5m Future Grid project in Alice Springs invites some questions.

It is preparing a report about the integration of solar with the existing system, currently using 85% non-renewable fossil fuel, mostly gas from Palm Valley. The rest is solar.

That 15% includes household solar PV, large installations such as the Desert Knowledge Australia Solar Centre, Alice Springs Airport and Town Council-operated buildings, as well as the Uterne Solar Power Station (3%).

Future Grid Project Director Lyndon Frearson, from the local consultants Ekistica, explains the group is seeking to map out what the potential roles, responsibilities and technical capabilities will be, pulling together the key findings from “various trials, models and investigations; noting location, environment, economics, politics, the role of consumers, demographics, and technical challenges are all factors to be considered in the Alice Springs energy transition”.

We asked Mr Frearson: Some of the world’s best brains have occupied themselves with the question of integration, by and large making things work just fine in many countries. Are we re-inventing the wheel? Has that voltage problem been resolved elsewhere in the world?

He replied: “It’s certainly a problem acknowledged elsewhere … on the Alice Springs grid there is greater urgency because there are fewer options for managing such challenges. The Alice Springs grid does not have a variety of generation assets to bring online or options for loads that can easily be shed.”

It would seem, given that Alice Springs is a power “island” not connected to the national grid, it’s either the 10 gas-fuelled Jenbacher generators at Owen Springs, south of town, or the sun.

So, what’s the problem?

The three government giants, PWC, Jacana and TG are members of the Future Grid research group, along with some advisory companies.

Presumably representing the public are the Town Council and the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC).

The report, once finished, is likely to be quoted ad nauseam whenever the renewables question comes up, which puts a heavy load on the council’s and ALEC’s shoulders, to make sure the public gets a fair deal in our march to solar.

Should the public be involved in the power generation beyond their own homes? Should the report be looking at the massive opportunities for a town that has more sunshine than most?

So far ALEC’s participation is limited to protestations about the importance of protecting the environment.

Future Grid says on its website: “Minimum demand has been decreasing as more people consume power from their solar PV systems.”

Could this be pushed further, with the NT Government $6000 battery grants being combined by several households to form private Virtual Power Plants and get off the grid?

People selling power from their roof systems used to receive 26.65 cents per kilowatt hour, the amount PWC consumers buy it for. This month that has been reduced to 9.13 cents.

We asked Mayor Matt Paterson and ALEC’s Hayley Michener: If more private solar generation is a good thing, why is it not being encouraged by a 1:1 feed-in tariff (FiT) instead of reducing it by two-thirds?

Should people who don’t use the grid still have to pay for it?

Mayor Paterson replied: “As Council are not experts in the field, but instead partners in this project, these technical questions are better directed to more technically-minded experts from Future Grid.”

Ms Michener said: “In the early days of solar, the 1:1 FiT provided a fantastic incentive for homeowners to install solar.

“However, the feed-in-tariff doesn’t account for the true cost of electricity which includes things like grid stability, and network and transmission costs, in other words reliable, ‘black-out free’ power being available to our homes at all times of day and night.”

Further, Ms Michener appears to suggest if poor people can’t benefit from FiT, then neither should the well-off.

“The FiT largely benefits home-owners,” she says.

“There are limited ways that renters and low-socioeconomic residents can access renewable energy and the benefits it provides.  

“For example, ALEC is not aware of any public houses – including Town Camp households in Alice Springs – that have solar.

“This also means they are unable to access any rebates such as the $6,000 Home and Business Battery Storage Scheme by the NT Government. 

“Around 42% of our town’s residents are renters and we are yet to find solutions, let alone rebates for solar on these households.”

What does it matter who provides electricity, so long as it comes from renewables?

A Jacana spokeswoman says: “The premium FiT was introduced in 2008 to households and businesses … when incentives were needed to overcome high solar costs.

“Over the past decade, the cost of installing rooftop solar systems has reduced significantly and this type of incentive is no longer required.

“This feed-in tariff is considered to be ‘premium’ because the price paid now significantly exceeds the value of the electricity produced.

“While increased uptake of rooftop solar is helping electricity become more affordable for some customers, the reduced demand on the grid can also create system stability issues.

“On average, residential customers with rooftop solar on their homes can still save around $1800 per year (about $450 each quarterly bill).”

Money is of course an interesting element in this field. Would private producers with their rooftop panels, perhaps sharing a battery, do a better job than PWC?

For example, Ausgrid has installed three community batteries across metropolitan Sydney, the first of their kind on Australia’s east coast, according to the firm’s website.

It says the benefits of community batteries can be shared between local customers, the wider community and electricity networks, and they can help deliver cost savings.

Trial areas are in Cameron Park, Bankstown and Beacon Hill, including some 50 dwellings in each area.

Uterne solar power station in Alice Springs, during its opening in 2011.

It’s a scheme of a kind that the NT Government clearly wants to keep out of its monopoly’s hair: The $6000 battery subsidy is just for one house.

It’s a scheme that could be an indicator of PWC’s performance.

In its 2021-22 Statement of Corporate Intent PWC states: “Total borrowings, which are forecast to be $1.16 billion at 30 June 2021 are expected to increase slightly, to $1.2 billion during 2022-23, then return to current levels by 2024-25.”

In 2021 the government owned company paid $58.8m in interest after $53.7m in 2020.

“Will you have a vested interest in discouraging private production to keep your assets busy?” we asked TG. Its CEO, Gerhard Laubscher, replied: “No loss is forecast.”

Is that going to change when the Jenbacher generators, one by one, will be sitting idle?

“No,” says Mr Laubscher. “The Jenbachers will continue to play an important role for capacity in the power system, particularly at peak system loads and through variable weather events.

“The units are highly efficient and alternate fuel capable which means they can play a part in the renewable future. In meeting the first government target of 50% renewables by 2030, traditional generation assets are maintained to support the power system and supply energy. The Jenbachers will be a part of this solution.”

Does “alternate fuel capable” in respect to the Jenbachers mean other non-renewable fuels?

“The units run on natural gas but are capable of running on natural gas blended with hydrogen. They cannot be run on diesel or other non-renewable fuel sources.”

Gas, of course, is non-renewable and polluting.

There is always the “what if the sun doesn’t shine” argument.

Starting up the Austrian-made engines is a significant feature: “The Jenbachers are capable of achieving maximum capacity in under six minutes.

“Under normal operations, the units are usually brought to full load in about 10 minutes,” says Mr Laubscher.

Good-bye “spinning reserve” – keeping engines running while not needed.

The Centre’s rare cloudy periods are very predictable – for example, by looking out the window.

Progressing installations of batteries will make these engines obsolete, which of course is the ultimate objective of the renewables policy.

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