The Alice Springs energy trial could become a blueprint for other remote centers, according to proponents of a decentralized, fossil-fuel-free power plant.
The main task of the virtual power plant project is to study how to facilitate people’s access to the benefits of clean energy, regardless of wealth or location.
As a historical whim, the city has an electricity grid much like a small version of the National Electricity Market.
This means the system can be used to test how electricity is generated, measured, stored and used – without causing nationwide blackouts.
The small population served by an isolated grid will show how the participants in the power system – consumers, generators, retailers, network operators and power system technicians – can interact in new ways.
Alice Springs Future Grid Project partners announced Thursday that SwitchDin Energy has been selected to operate the Northern Territory’s first virtual power plant (VPP).
Mark Sheldon, chief operating officer of SwitchDin, said the AAP.
“It’s about making it controlled, visible, within reach of all the parties that need to engage with it to fulfill all of those obligations.”
SwitchDin will connect rooftop panels and batteries to commercial-scale solar farms via software that can manage uncontrolled, previously unmetered generation and storage.
Future Grid Project Director Lyndon Frisson acknowledged the intense debate about what proportion of renewable energy is possible by 2030.
“Everyone loves a goal – is it 30 percent, 40 percent, or 50 percent?
“The simple fact is that no matter how many, the energy system we will have in 2030 will require a whole group of participants to engage and interact in ways they don’t currently do,” he said.
“In effect, it would require them to interact in ways that are specifically prohibited from doing under the legislation and regulations we currently have in place.”
Crucially, Future Grid intends to benefit all residents associated with the 12-month trial period, including public housing and private renters, unlike most government schemes that don’t offer much to outside homeowners.
Mr. Frison said testing extends to remote Indigenous communities in Santa Teresa and Hermannsburg, which means First Nations members make up a quarter of the project’s networked population.
“Many First Nations people in Alice Springs live in township camps, so Future Grid is working with representative organizations of city camp residents, to map how to participate in the clean energy transition,” he said.
Alice, located in the arid Australian geographical center, does not have wind and hydro power resources available to other regions, but it has maximum solar capacity.
Winter temperatures often top 40°C in summer, and winter temperatures can dip below zero at night.
VPP operators can use all data sources, including weather forecasts, to manage the load on the system from high generation rather than heavy use – or vice versa.
“A day like today where it’s relatively cool but not cold, and a bright sunny sky, is a day where you get a lot of generations and very little use of the grid itself,” Sheldon said.
“You know it’s about a day ahead, so electricity and water can plan for that.”
SwitchDin will use Stormcloud to securely connect distributed power resources and make the system more secure and efficient.
In addition to reducing dependence on the traditional gas-powered electricity grid and thousands of kilometers of transportation, the decentralized VPP should give communities more benefit from investing in solar panels and batteries.
The use of agreed feed-in tariffs that reflect demand at different times of the day is expected to encourage rooftop photovoltaics and more energy storage behind the meter.
The introduction of new technology to modernize and stabilize society’s energy could end idle solar farms and power outages, including the nine-hour power outage that hit Alice Springs in October 2019.
The $12.5 million project is an important part of achieving 50% renewable energy by 2030 in the city and beyond.
In 2017, the NT Roadmap Report set a target to go from just 4% renewable energy to 50% by 2030.
To end almost total reliance on gas-fired power and diesel generators as a springboard for emergencies, the goal is to replace fossil fuels with cheaper solar power.
But privacy is a major concern, as the project needs to see data from within the community to work.
“It doesn’t require you to know what the customer is doing,” Sheldon said.
“Some of it will provide more insight into user behavior, and then be a decision that each asset owner makes for themselves about what they feel comfortable with.”
He said the activity is only visible to the asset owner and possibly a retailer or other party if a deal is made, and not “at all” to everyone in the network.
Future Grid leads the Intyalheme Center for Future Energy on behalf of the Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) land research agency, and also has federal funding.
Intyalheme (pronounced in-char-lum) is Central Arrernte, meaning “fire again.”
Project partner engineering firm Ekistica will work with the Center for Arid Land Environment, Jacana Energy, the NT electricity and power system market operator.
Although the entire town is not intended to be a power plant, the experience will be closely watched as a pilot for other centres, particularly by the NT government, said Mr Frearson of Ekistica.
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