The integration of a significant amount of renewable energy into the power system requires new technology, new perspectives and new ways of working.
For the past two years Alice Springs Future Grid, a $12.5 million collaborative project, has been running a number of trials, investigations and models to consider what can happen now and, more importantly, to identify key markers on what needs to be navigated in the future.
Although isolated, and relatively small, the electricity grid in Alice Springs has a number of characteristics that make it comparable with larger grids in the National Electricity Market.
This includes the combination and location of thermal and renewable generation, the overarching regulation of the network and system, the mix of customers, and the complexity of issues in maintaining system strength. The Alice Springs Future Grid project, in demonstrating the opportunities, has also highlighted a number of challenges and lessons, which have informed its own approach to trials and can help nationally with research and similar projects.
With funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and the Northern Territory Government, project partners were Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), Ekistica, Power and Water Corporation (PWC) and Territory Generation.
Other significant partners included, Jacana Energy, Charles Darwin University, CSIRO, Greensync, AZZO, SwitchDin, GridQube and the University of Technology Sydney.
Through collaboration across all the partners, Alice Springs Future Grid has been able to undertake a series of innovative trials. For example, over the past 12 months people in Alice Springs have been taking part in the Solar Connect Virtual Power Plant (VPP) trial. Managed by Jacana Energy, using a software platform provided by SwitchDin. PWC has been integrating these platforms into its operating centre through advanced control systems that give vital insights as to the performance of behind the meter solar and battery systems. VPP participating households with a solar and battery system have also been taking part in a tariff trial. As part of the VPP, the 5-9 Tariff was developed to encourage solar storage during the day to tackle minimum demand challenges in the middle of the day, and to also shift peak demand by using stored energy in the evening.
Fifteen public housing sites have also been tied into the VPP program, with solar and battery systems installed at these sites. The development and implementation of the VPP was a particular highlight for Louisa Kinnear, CEO of Jacana.
“Jacana Energy is delighted our collaboration with Future Grid partners has seen the delivery of the first Virtual Power Plant in the NT, a significant milestone toward helping our customers connect more renewable energy to the grid.”
At the Desert Knowledge Precinct, just south of the CBD, a 300kW/350kWh battery was installed this year. This state-of-the-art energy storage system can island the Desert Knowledge Precinct in the event of a blackout for over three hours. It is the first battery of this size to be connected by a community organisation. In taking a collaborative approach to designing and connecting the battery, the project has been able to demonstrate how these projects can be delivered under the current framework.
In other firsts for the Northern Territory, Alice Springs Future Grid has completed a 12-month wind resource study, using industry leading sonic detection and ranging technology, which has investigated the potential for wind turbines locally. The results of the study indicate the potential for wind power to complement solar generation in providing energy to the grid at times of low solar production.
A key output of Alice Springs Future Grid is a roadmap to achieving the Northern Territory Government’s 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, in Alice Springs. The roadmap explores likely technology pathways and system challenges that will arise within a changing system to provide key recommendations to policy makers and provide insight on the key signals that will indicate when investment is needed and where.
The Roadmap to 2030 has been informed by techno-economic modelling of the whole system, led by Ekistica, and update to the dynamic energy models used by the network operator. These models are essential in allowing new connections to the grid to be assessed and approved.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future and how it effects Territory Generation, Eddie Mallan, General Manager Commercial was able to appreciate the value that Alice Springs Future Grid was able to deliver in Alice Springs and beyond.
“The Alice Springs Future Grid Project has delivered positive outcomes, knowledge sharing, and insights into the challenges faced in Alice Springs and by larger grids worldwide. The valuable learnings can be applied to other electricity systems, including the Darwin-Katherine system, where Territory Generation is building the region’s first high-specification security battery.”
While the individual outcomes of the project have been a core focus of the team, six key themes have emerged as being critical to success of these types of projects:
Collaboration: Build a common understanding, actively coordinate the group, and allow organisations to learn from others
Technology: Recognise the need for flexible solutions where technology is involved
Risk: Each organisation will have a different risk level and appetite in promoting a project position – risk may be more manageable
Customer/community: Early effective community engagement is needed to build a positive experience, and to be part of the journey
Institutional/culture: Organisations should be willing to invest in flexible systems and processes that are solutions focused and to allow for staff turnover
Strategy:A staged approach that allows for learning to be incorporated along the way, with short-term, and long-term goals are necessary. Alice Springs Future Grid has been able to traverse a global pandemic, resource constraints and multiple competing interests to provide a number of firsts. The legacy of the project is not just in the physical trials, updated models, but also in the people and organisation. That by working together, across the system, goals can be achieved.
For Lyndon Frearson, Managing Director of Ekistica and Project Director for Alice Springs Future, collaboration as a means to have difficult conversations was the standout element of the project.
“If we are to achieve the significant challenges associated with decarbonisation, collaboration in the power system is absolutely necessary to meet the complex needs of the power system and its stakeholders. As a result, we built trust between the project partners, we were even able to contemplate how we would manager a power system without traditional generation.
“That is a huge change in thinking and, while it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily happen, this would not have been possible without collaboration.”
The future of renewable energy in Alice Springs continues to be bright, and the lessons learned here can provide the path forward for other regions as we collectively work towards a more sustainable energy future. As we keep our eyes on Alice Springs, we can continue to rewrite the script for our energy landscape, and a future powered by renewable energy.