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HomeVolume 27Going solar without the millions

Going solar without the millions

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Can a do-it-yourself initiative by volunteers convert a town’s electricity supply into one that is 100% powered by renewables? It sure can, if you take Yackandandah – Yack (photo at top) to its friends – as an example. 
In terms of progress it is streets ahead of the Alice Springs Future Grid project, its cost is a fraction of the mind numbing $12.5m now beginning to be spent in The Centre, not counting the $5m for the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy.

Yack’s group, Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY), is run by volunteers – not a single one is being paid.

Modestly describing itself as “one of Australia’s prettiest villages” the former gold mining town in north-eastern Victoria is chasing another treasure these days: Solar energy.

Starting in 2014 a group of locals, headed up by a committee of 12, have been not just talking about saving the planet: TRY say they are on track to 100% renewables in two years’ time.

It’s a different story in The Alice: Its Future Grid team includes Intyalheme, CSIRO, Ekistica, Jacana Energy, Arid Lands Environment Centre, Power and Water Corporation, the Town Council and Desert Knowledge Australia – no doubt a recipe for lots and lots of meetings.

We asked Future Grid in the morning of Thursday last week for break-ups of its income and expenditure and other questions:-

• In addition to web information, what is the role of the 50 household participants?

• How many staff does the project have and what do they do?

• Are there similar projects in Australia (such as Yackandandah) and overseas?

• Is the Alice project in touch with them? If so, what has Future Grid learned from them?

We will report the answers when we get them.

TRY has no paid staff and – by comparison – minimal public funding: They have received a total of about $1m during the group’s eight years in existence from various sources including the Victorian government in special grants, mostly for purchase of renewable energy assets.

Says a committee member, Matt Charles Jones: “TRY has received generous grants from Australian communities and the Foundation for Regional and Rural Recovery, and support from other foundations and local donors.”

In 2020 it received a Federal grant of $346,000 for advice, whenever possible obtained from locals. The money has been used for a feasibility report.

With those – by comparison – meagre assets TRY has put significant runs on the board, including encouraging householders to put solar panels on their roofs. 60% of the buildings have solar installations so far, producing 60% of the town’s usage. The group is also accumulating assets and operating structures.

That’s high compared to the average across NSW, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and SA which is 7.7%. Rooftop PV generation in Yack grew by over 14% each year for the past three years.

As it stands, according to its website: “TRY’s record has been cemented via multiple hot water, solar system and battery offerings, three microgrids, a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) of 210 properties [Alice Springs’ current trial VPP has 50], including 10 community buildings with solar systems [three with batteries], a 274 kWh community battery named Yack01, an independent community energy retailer and social enterprise Indigo Power, on top of the 60% solar installation density on Yack rooftops.”

Meanwhile the multitudes of Future Grid participants in Alice are apparently just in their early phase of getting a handle on the issues:-

• Modelling the stability of the electricity system as renewable energy is inserted into the grid, as well as accounting for financial and consumer behaviour, “factors rarely included in technical models”.

As it happens, controlling the insertion of renewable power from a multitude of producers, including households, into the existing grid is an issue the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is currently looking at. TRY is collaborating with this Project EDGE (Energy Demand and Generation Exchange) in a practical way, according to Mr Charles Jones.

According to ARENA the three-year project will “demonstrate how a ‘two-sided market’ and power system could work”. (Clearly that is a task Alice’s Future Grid won’t need to worry about now, re-inventing the wheel. Or will it?)

(EDGE is a partnership between AEMO, AusNet and Mondo alongside communities across northeast Victoria, including Yackandandah.  ARENA is the project sponsor.)

Future Grid also plans to:-

• Identify and overcome technical and regulatory barriers by privately operated, renewable energy microgrids, including 50 homes with solar panels (that’s fewer than a quarter of the participants in Yack), as well as understand liabilities for supply during periods of disconnection from the network. 

Look at the results when multiple batteries are linked through a Virtual Power Plant (VPP). Such services can be bundled up (aggregated) and directed by the system controller. Customer engagement will underpin this. (Isn’t that the same as Point 1?)

• Conduct tariff trials that will show how customers’ respond to different price signals and the effect of their altered behaviour on the power system.

• Write a “Roadmap towards 2030” report identifying the optimal pathways and timelines for achieving the NT’s target of 50% renewable energy by 2030, on the Alice Springs grid. (Yack is shooting for 100% six years earlier.)

“Rather than using words, TRY has crafted a solution in actions,” says its website.

Yack’s network feeder area has a population of 2,959 in 1,189 dwellings (ABS 2016).

It’s a small population but expressing the number of consumers, investment, consumption and so on in per-head-of-population terms makes Yack an enlightening (excuse the pun) example of what a resolute community – no matter what size – can achieve.

Mr Charles Jones says the TRY report concluded that a mixture of rooftop generation, small solar farms and imported electricity – increasingly produced from renewables – makes the most sense.

He says to locally generate the entire demand would cost 10 times as much as report’s preferred option. An estimated $5m to $8m a year in subsidies from governments and philanthropists would be needed.

On present trends rooftop equipment would reach 100% by 2027 “if we did nothing new”. He is confident that could be shortened to 2024.

TRY itself is currently managing solar integration through its VPP, dealing with “intermittent and predictable” availability of renewable energy from individual producers by controlling Front of Meter (to public) exports while not interfering with the supply of Behind of Meter consumption (homes, businesses).

According to the TRY website, Mach2, a local consultancy, coordinated the study.

“They performed the analysis and modelling of existing and projected energy use from de-identified (no names disclosed) electricity data.

Pollies are going to love it: Ministers Chansey Paech (front, 2nd from left) and Selena Uibo (4th) at the launch of the Alice Springs Solar Connect VPP alongside Future Grid project staff and participants. ALEC photo. 

“Data was obtained [also] from the local Distribution Network Service Provider, AusNet Services, the Australian Photo Voltaic Institute, University of NSW and the Australian Energy Market Operator.

“A project control group with representatives from Mach2 and TRY oversaw the project, identified potential sites for arrays and liaised with contractors, the funders and the public.”

Typically, individual households would use as much solar power as they require and then feed their excess into the local grid.

A major obstacle in Yack is shortage of land for solar farms: The fertile valley is home to profitable agriculture and costs of country are at a premium.

Access to free land would make a “massive” difference to the viability of the stand-alone renewable power system, says Mr Charles Jones.

Alice Springs, by contrast, stands in a vast area of undeveloped land. About half the municipal area has nothing on it. Its south-western edge adjoins 3000 square kilometres of the former cattle station, Owen Springs, now owned by the NT Government.

That’s among the factors that should have made all the difference to Alice’s solar future.

“The Federal Government Solar City grant of $12.3m will be spent over six years.”

And the vision after that?

“By then Alice consumers are expected to have become ‘energy champions’ and the industry and infrastructure to have been given enough of a kick start to be self-sustaining, with the town ‘a model for the rest of Australia and the world to follow.”

This was stated by the chair of the Alice Springs Solar City Consortium, Grant Behrendorff – in October 2007.

Under the heading Solar city hits straps the News quoted him: “Alice is unique among the Federal Government’s Solar Cities for being driven by a community-base consortium. 

“The three major partners are the Town Council, the Territory Government and Power and Water Corporation, joined by Tangentyere Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Desert Knowledge CRC and the Arid Lands Environment Centre.”

Will the new $12m plus take the same plodding pace towards powering one of the world’s most prospective solar towns, still languishing at 10% of the electricity grid coming from renewables?

We’ll see. At least we’ll have yet another report.

Related stories:

Government solar plans step backwards

Alice solar power future – who-benefits?

PHOTOS of Yackandandah from a video promoting TRY.

1 COMMENT

  1. Heads in the sand? The limit of thinking outside the box does not only apply to electricity generation. It permeates the whole thinking and has done for years.
    Yack is only one of a number of communities throughout Australia that have picked up on the possibilities that are around but again we failed to look around.
    The Alkinos project in WA done by Lend Lease was up and running while we stood with our heads in the sand. Thats what could and should have happened at Kilgariff, and we could have been a first to show visitors.
    I recently ran into a former resident / visitor who thought that she was in the sprawl of southern Adelaide when she saw what had happened South of the town. Her word was “disgusting” and I have heard the same description around Aldinga and now intruding on the vineyards of Mclaren Vale.
    Having spent five weeks in and out of the tourism office in Mclaren Vale, where they intercept visitors with every experience a district such as this can offer including copious car, caravan and bus parking, a restaurant. child care, meeting facilities, local foods and wine (of course) and everything that ours does not including magnificent toilets.
    The magnificent roadside display of old equipment on the highway out of Isisford east of Longreach illustrates the point, while ours sits rusting behind the Transport Hall of Fame.
    This is not the fault of the hall management but lack of vision from community and Government. Never mind the vested interests in town. Let’s move on.
    The design of public toilets in use at Isisford could be of more use here but doubt if anyone bothered to look.
    Record numbers of mall re constructions will happen before the powers that be, recognise that the CBD was NEVER intended to take the traffic flows that it has.
    Nothing will change that and that the solution is south of The Gap and centred on the proposed cultural centre and a brand new tourist centre proactive and entirely powered communally as has happened at Yack and elsewhere.
    Beware of the coming avalanche of electric trucks with their immense cost benefits but don’t bother to look for signs of preparation for them.
    Heads in the sand has to be a massive understatement and electricity is only one of its manifestations.

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