Make mine micro

As Australia grapples with the energy transition, one small solution is popping up all over the country – microgrids.

Microgrids are like energy islands, small-scale renewable power systems that don’t depend on the main electricity grid.

They come in all shapes and sizes, from the wave, wind, solar and battery storage combination in place at King Island off Tasmania’s coast, to the solar, battery storage and hydrogen combination planned for the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland.

Australia’s largest naval base, HMAS Stirling off the coast of Western Australia, has been powered by solar power and battery storage through the Garden Island Microgrid since 2019.

Australia’s biggest microgrid to date was launched in 2022 in Kalbarri, Western Australia, with 1.6MW of wind, up to 1MW of rooftop solar and a 5MW/4.5MWh storage battery.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) says microgrids in regional and remote Australia “offer a pathway to a renewable energy future”, with benefits including coordination of local energy sources, increased resilience and reliability, cleaner energy, and mitigation of the effects of natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and cyclones.

The small town of Cobargo in New South Wales has been targeted for a feasibility study for an “island mode” microgrid that would remain connected to the main grid unless the network connection was offline. The microgrid would be designed to prevent a repeat of the situation that followed the 2019-2020 bushfires, where the town was left with no power or only interrupted power for months afterwards.

The Australian Energy Regulator has thrown its support behind “innovative projects” such as microgrids and virtual power plants with the development of an Energy Innovation Toolkit to help get projects off the ground.

Australian Energy Regulator (AER) Chair Clare Savage said an AER trial portal would smooth the path for innovative energy solutions such as microgrids.

“Regulation is an important function to ensure energy markets are operating efficiently and competitively, and to protect consumers, but it’s important we don’t let it be a barrier to the adoption of new technology and innovation,” says Savage.

“Australia’s energy transition will be influenced by how quickly new technology and innovation can enter the market, and the ability for businesses to undertake trials is a crucial step.”

The federal government last month opened the Regional Microgrids Program, with a new allocation of $75 million to develop and deploy microgrid technologies in remote and regional First Nations communities.

Aerial photo of the save energy machine off of the coast of tasmania's king island.
Wave energy is part of King Island’s microgrid in Tasmania. Credit: Wave Swell.

“It’s vital we make sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities are able to participate in the electricity transition and share in the benefits of Australia’s renewable future,” ARENA CEO Darren Miller says.

“Remote communities relying on fossil fuels like diesel have unique challenges in transitioning to renewables and this new funding will help overcome barriers to broader deployment of microgrid solutions.”

At the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, the Australian Power Quality Research Centre (APQRC) is working towards Australia’s first mixed-use, precinct-based microgrid with the help of $1.1 million in funding from the NSW government.

The Clean Energy Living Laboratory (CELL) at the university’s Innovation Campus will include 468 solar panels to power a commercial building and student accommodation, including the kitchens, laundry and street lighting.

“The biggest point of difference of this project is it is being built as research infrastructure,” APQRC Research Coordinator Sean Elphick says. “Tech developers will be able to bring their technology into the university and test their equipment. This will be at a scale much larger than we can do at any of our study labs.”

Elphick says the project is multi-dimensional, allowing not only research about the performance of a microgrid, but determining the practicality of various energy sources working together, how to predict and manage demand, and demystifying technology both within and outside the university.

The ultimate goal is to power the whole campus through the microgrid.

“I think this will be applicable in any sort of installation – commercial buildings, apartment buildings – there will be a lot of work in microgrids going forward. Lots of people are looking to source their energy needs locally.”

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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