An outside look at our $12.5m solar study

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

An international solar power expert has assessed, from sparse information in the public arena, the Future Grid project whose brief is advancing Alice Springs towards 50% renewable energy by 2030.

The group, under the umbrella of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), is spending $12.5m on a report due out later this year. Future Grid will not disclose how much of that is public money, how many people are employed and what they are doing, and what is learned from contacts – if any – with hundreds of similar research projects elsewhere to avoid duplication.

That amount could have paid for 3000 domestic roof mounted solar plants.

DKA is the responsibility of Minister Chansey Paech.

Anthony Seipolt (pictured), a director of Cadency Consulting, asked by the Alice Springs News, says his overarching view is that this sort of research investment is critical and timely, closing many of the social, policy, technology and regulatory knowledge gaps that we currently have.

However, about the price tag Mr Seipolt says: “If we look at the $12.5m as a standalone project, it makes very little financial / economic sense. It is not cost competitive in isolation.”

The project and its Virtual Power Plant (VPP) is touted as the only one in the NT.

In fact there are “hundreds of others occurring around Australia, to help inform us of how we can put all these pieces together in the future,” says Mr Seipolt.

And that’s a task in which Totally Renewable Yackandandah (TRY) is playing an extraordinary role.

Staffed entirely by volunteers the former gold mining town in north-eastern Victoria is running a VPP with 120 participants (Alice has 50) and with a budget of around $1.5m – about one-tenth of the one in Alice.

“The TRY project was innovative and has made some great inroads,” says Mr Seipolt.

In his spare time he is a keen bike rider.

“It was very much a passion project in some senses and strongly supported by the local community.

“Without this community support, the TRY project could not have occurred. That said, TRY did make some incredible steps in this process.”

Says Mr Seipolt: “The following is one picture of how a 2050 Alice Springs microgrid might operate. This is by no means the only model, and will inevitably be wrong as new technologies render my guesswork outdated.”

 • 2050: The major generation plant for Alice Springs is photo voltaic (PV) solar – 50% from two major sites, and 50% from commercial and residential rooftops. A local windfarm or two would also appear possible. When the sun isn’t shining and the wind not blowing, batteries and demand response pick up the slack. Electric vehicles (EVs), residential, local busses and company fleet cars, can also provide energy into the system when necessary.

 • The amount of PV generation is substantially (3 times) more than required for the town, and the spare capacity is used for potable water and hydrogen. The hydrogen supports local industry and can also provide backup supply if required.

 • Residential and commercial EVs and batteries are connected to the Alice Springs VPP. This means that they charge and discharge to help balance the system. Customers can see all this on their home energy app and override at anytime if necessary.

• In the 2020s, the Jenbacher gas generators [10 of them installed at a cost of $90m under the Giles Government] were critical in supporting the energy transition. They plugged the gaps and filled in when the fledgling wind and PV systems fell over. Over time the generators relied on less and less as the over-supply of PV and batteries (and wind?) picked up the slack and the supporting technologies matured.

• Eventually the Jenbachers were mothballed in 2035 after a number of years of inactivity. They are now part of a historical museum on the early life and times of Alice Springs.

Says Mr Seipolt: “I recognise that this all may sounds a lot like wishful thinking.

“However, from looking at the technology and economic trends, this sort of model seems most likely of all the scenarios we have come up with so far.

“Trialling [such as by the Alice VPP] new technology can be valuable for a number of reasons, even if it is not currently cost competitive.

“One reason is that it can help an industry or policy makers stay at the forefront of the technology and be better prepared for future developments.

“Additionally, trialling new technology can help identify potential areas for improvement and cost savings, which can be used to make the technology more cost competitive in the future,” says Mr Seipolt.

“Furthermore, testing new technologies can also help a company or organisation to understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of a particular technology, which can inform future investment decisions.

“Additionally, it can help to improve customer satisfaction, that is battery and EV customers of the future.”

The scale of PV today is such that it now needs to be treated as if it were a major system generator, he says.

Up to now, residential PV has just done its own thing and the system has managed around this: “The scale of residential PV today means that we need to understand how to ramp it up and down to match demand.

“This is not something that is possible today (outside of trials like this one) but is critical for maintaining a secure and stable grid for the future.

“The same learnings and technology solutions will also apply to EVs and home batteries as these reach a similar level of scale and capacity,” says Mr Seipolt.

If we observe the last decade of price trends for PV, wind and batteries, we can see that they will form the central functions of energy generation in Australia (including Alice Springs).

“Even if you ignore the climate benefits, these price trends mean that renewables will push out every other form of major generation.

“Given the scale of investment, manufacturing and R&D in this space, it is inevitable that these price trends will continue in the longer term. This makes it imperative for trials like the Alice Springs VPP, and the hundreds of others occurring around Australia, to help inform us of how we can put all these pieces together in the future.

“I recognise that Alice Springs is essentially a microgrid. Some of the broader grid-balancing questions and policy questions that are vexing the National Electricity Market do not apply to Alice Springs.

“However, there are still an uncomfortably large number of questions about how a future microgrid will operate.”

Mr Seipolt is a director of Cadency Consulting delivering projects in the US, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. He also worked on electricity reviews for Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania.

He specialises in distributed energy resources (home batteries, solar PV and Electric vehicles), energy policy and grid integration.

PHOTOS: The Owen Springs Brewer Estate power station (Google Earth), some 30 km south of the town, currently the main source of electricity for the town, is destined to become a historical museum on the early life and times of Alice Springs • Part of the solar array at the Alice Springs airport.

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