The way the town is powered is no exception. Arid and searingly hot, 1500 kilometres from the coast, and typically protected from the vagaries of extreme weather by virtue of its position in the geographical centre of the vast Australian continent, Alice Springs has only one commercially viable renewable energy resource: solar.
And it’s got solar irradiance in spades.
One of the sunniest places on the planet and home to a distinctly progressive cohort of residents, solar power was enthusiastically embraced after Alice Springs was declared a Solar City by the Federal Government in 2008.
With nearly 3000 Alice Springs households and businesses now benefiting from energy produced by their own solar photovoltaic systems, the question now is how we efficiently, safely and reliably integrate more clean energy, from a larger number of sources, into an electricity system created for the generation and consumption scenario of yesterday.
The Alice Springs Future Grid project is leading the way in this space: coordinating industry, delivering technical trials and informing the public.
Future Grid is a collaborative whole-of-system project considering how Alice Springs can achieve 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Recognising a future where the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in the electricity system will be different from those now, Future Grid is seeking to map out what these potential roles, responsibilities and technical capabilities will be.
“The uptake of renewable energy technology in Alice Springs has been particularly strong,” says Future Grid Project Director Lyndon Frearson, from one of the founding consortium member organisations, Ekistica.
“The system within which the generation and delivery of energy operates in Alice Springs – the technical system, the regulatory system, the commercial framework – has been tailored to a set of responsibilities and outcomes that are no longer consistent with the likely direction of the future energy system.
“It doesn’t mean the system we have is wrong – it’s just not necessarily optimised for the future. As a consequence, the requirement for a systems-level project that considers how all these factors can best work together has emerged.”
Led by Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), the Future Grid project brings together a range of local and interstate partners to interact in new ways to address the various barriers to further renewable energy integration.
Project partners include all three government-owned energy utilities – Power and Water Corporation, Territory Generation and Jacana Energy.
The project also draws upon local expertise within Ekistica and Charles Darwin University, and brings residents of Alice Springs on the journey, primarily through community engagement activities coordinated by the Arid Lands Environment Centre.
These efforts are bolstered with input from interstate experts including CSIRO, RMIT, the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, and Proa Analytics.
Future Grid is funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources through the Microgrids program, and the Northern Territory Government via the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, which provided the seed funding and direction that underpinned the development of the Future Grid project.
Having established the importance of having the right people in the room, the Future Grid team has designed a series of innovative trials, models and investigations, which will inform what may need to change in the Alice Springs electricity system, while also improving use of the present system.
The outcomes resulting from these activities will be synthesised into a document called the Alice Springs Roadmap to 2030. The Roadmap will outline pathways to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 on the Alice Springs grid and highlight the signposts along the way that can indicate to policy makers and industry the paths being pursued.
Lessons learned during the project will be transferable to other grids, including the Darwin-Katherine Interconnected System.
“Traditionally these systems have been built around the assumption that power is generated at a power station and flows to the consumer,” says Mr Frearson.
“Rooftop solar creates ‘generators’ at houses and businesses, which push power in the opposite direction when feeding into the grid.
“This has the effect of increasing the voltage in the system, causing unintended outcomes, which can result in reduced quality of supply for consumers. The more energy put in at a consumer level, the more significant voltage management becomes.”
Another condition of a reliable energy system is that enough inertia is maintained to respond to unplanned events, such as a cloud coming over and rapidly reducing solar generation, or perhaps a storm downing a power pole.
Inertia is the capacity for an object to remain in motion: in traditional power systems spinning generators have provided inertia and thus an ability to resist disturbances, giving the system time to respond to changing conditions. Inertia and operational reserve (generation capacity that is online, controllable, and ready to respond to meet demand) act like a shock absorber.
“The more renewables you add into the system, the bigger that shock absorber needs to be, which starts to become very expensive,” Mr Frearson says.
“So, the question is: are there other ways to provide that shock absorption into the system, such as batteries or other support mechanisms? This is part of what Future Grid is investigating.”
These challenges are being faced by grids across Australia and globally, as renewable energy becomes cheaper to produce, and is viewed favourably in a sustainability context. While many similar projects are underway elsewhere, the eyes of industry, nationally, are on Future Grid because of the town’s unique size and isolated position.
It is said the Alice Springs electricity system is “small enough to manage, big enough to matter”, which is why CSIRO is the project’s knowledge-sharing partner – helping to add national context and disseminate the lessons learned to those who ought to hear about them.
“Experiences through projects such as Alice Springs Future Grid are crucial in demonstrating how renewable energy can be integrated into our energy systems,” says Dr John Ward, Research Director at CSIRO Energy.
“Outcomes are expected to be far-reaching: at the 2021 COP26 Climate Change Conference, countries agreed on the need to demonstrate that power systems in different geographies and climates can cost effectively, securely and reliably integrate up to 100 percent variable renewable energy.
“Australia has committed to this international challenge, and the shared outcomes of the Alice Springs Future Grid project will help accelerate the global renewable energy transition.”
Although many of Future Grid’s activities take place “behind the scenes” and may indeed require technical deep dives to fully grasp or appreciate the challenges and opportunities; of public significance is the creation of the NT’s first residential Virtual Power Plant (VPP) – a Future Grid trial branded Solar Connect.
The Solar Connect VPP will begin operating in the coming months, with a swathe of Alice Springs residents involved. Participants have, in most cases, agreed to share their battery capacity so the batteries can be linked together and made available to the system operator as a single power source.
The results and data generated will likely inform future trials or might even mean VPPs become commonplace within the Alice Springs energy landscape.
While the implementation of ideas highlighted by Alice Springs Future Grid is yet to be determined, the project’s legacy is already noteworthy. Countless relationships that wouldn’t otherwise exist and are crucial to the Territory’s clean energy future have been formed.
The Future Grid website not only hosts information on project activities, but also provides a space for existing knowledge generated throughout Central Australia’s strong history of renewable energy expertise.
The Future Grid team is exploring, consulting, trialling and documenting things that will not only underpin the viability of Alice Springs as a great place to live into the future, but will directly inform Australia’s clean energy transition.
Applying the pioneering spirit of Central Australia in the most futuristic of ways.