Australia’s Energy Minister Instructs Utility To Investigate Microgrids

West Australia to “beef up” its capacity with renewable-microgrid developments.
Published: Tue 09 Dec 2014

West Australian Energy Minister Mike Nahan has instructed state-owned utility Horizon Power to investigate the possibility of adopting renewables-based microgrids in an effort to provide cheaper and a more reliable power supply to regional areas.

This is a big turnaround for Nahan since he has in the past spoken out against new large scale renewable investments in the state. He says that it is now clear to him that a power grid, extending over significant distances, and a heavy reliance on diesel power, is costing consumers and the utility a fortune and is not always a reliable source of power.

Nahan told state parliament that if there was a place in the world where the cost and nature of microgrids could work, it would be in Horizon’s service area. Nahan’s comments around microgrids were made in parliament in response to a complaint from Graham Jacobs, the member for Eyre, who had complained about the electricity supply to Ravensthorpe, a mining town located in the south west of the state at the end of a 300km power line.

The need for reliable power

West Australia boasts some of the world’s best wind and solar resources. The 207MW Collgar wind farm runs at a capacity factor of around 50%.

Despite the abundance of natural resources, the region still relies on central power and diesel during blackouts which are common place. The area also pays some of the highest electricity prices even though the cost is largely subsidised by the government – approximately US$600 million a year. Subsidies are paid mainly to deliver electricity to outlying regional areas. In 2009, in an attempt to address the outage problem, the town went off the grid and relied on a diesel generator instead. The fuel cost the town so much that the town was forced to re-connect to the central grid.

Blackouts continue to occur three times a week for periods between 30 minutes and up to four hours. This is mostly because electricity poles and wires are exposed to natural elements such as bushfires, lightning, and strong winds. Switching to the diesel generator can also prove to be a fire hazard since it has the potential to throw a spark in hot and dry conditions.

Renewables may be the answer

Nahan says that the alternative may be a combination of wind and solar, with some diesel for back-up.

“I am not a technologist. We could tell everybody in Ravensthorpe to put in solar and have a wind–diesel–solar combination. They already have a microgrid. These are the things that Horizon is supposed to look at, and we will go down and discuss it.”

Nahan said Horizon had been asked to look at such solutions – not just in Ravensthorpe, but across Western Australia which has a number of areas with long isolated grids, and many off-grid areas that rely only on diesel. Networks in Queensland and South Australia are looking at similar options.

Engerati reported recently that Australia is expected to become one of the leading markets for remote microgrids in the Asia-Pacific region with the need to supply remote communities and mining sites. [Engerati-Investment in Microgrids In Asia-Pacific To Near US$31 Billion By 2023 and Doomadgee To Demonstrate Hybrid Solar-Diesel Minigrid in Remote Australia.]