Town finding new solutions to the problem of instability in a renewables’ grid

The central Australian town of Alice Springs – bathed in fierce desert sunlight –  is on track to achieve 50% renewable power generation by 2030. But the good news is tempered by – of all things – the hugely successful uptake of rooftop solar in the town.

In Alice, distributed (or uncontrolled) rooftop solar now accounts for 9% of the power generated for the town up from zero in 2008, a terrific success story, though one not unique to Alice. Uptake of rooftop solar is high across the nation.

Unsurprisingly then, consumer demand for solar in Alice Springs is forecast to keep rising, even as gas continues to generate about 87% of the town’s power.

And there’s the snag: grid managers say more solar for Alice Springs will cause “instability” in the grid, where the amount of electricity produced is not matched to the amount being used. This comes on top of regulatory barriers and as part of a set of complex social “drivers” around power generation.

These problems are faced across Australia and much of the world – the electricity grid isn’t built for renewable energy.

Lyndon Frearson is Project Director of Alice Springs Future Grid (ASFG), a $12.5M collaborative effort to find a way for Alice Springs to reach 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Lyndon Frearson

An joint initiative of the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy and Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), ASFG has support from ARENA and from the federal and Northern Territory governments.

In 2018, Frearson and the Future Grid team started asking: How is Alice Springs powered? How is that changing and why? What might a future power system look like? And what risks and opportunities might arise from changing the town’s electricity supply?

In November ASFG launched its final report: Alice Springs Roadmap to 2030 at Desert Knowledge Australia, a research hub on the outskirts of the town.

“As far as large OECD economies,” says Frearson, “[Australia has] more solar per capita than anywhere else in the world.

“If you look at the issue [of instability in Alice] purely from a technical perspective… we’ve reached a threshold where the amount of solar in the middle of the day cannot be absorbed any further without there being substantive storage.”

One of a raft of ideas considered was to aggregate some of the town’s many smaller rooftop and other discrete power sources into one bigger source. In a first for the Northern Territory, a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) was set up.

Other ideas examined were: “battery clusters” in places where many households have rooftop solar; the viability of wind to complement solar; a commercial microgrid, say, for a hospital or school; better ways to integrate solar energy from places like schools into the grid; and better forecasting of solar outputs and loads.

Frearson envisages electricity generation as part of a broader system, one embracing communities, governments and regulatory requirements, as well as technical knowhow and complex machinery.

He says many Australian regional energy markets are similar to Alice Springs, with centralised system operation, competitive generation and retail markets or frameworks, and separate and regulated network access with an open access regime (where service providers may offer consumers new products and services).

“All of those markets deal with the issues that we’re dealing with in Alice,” says Frearson.

The Alice Springs Roadmap to 2030 poses four possible scenarios for any future grid, all with high levels of solar energy from either distributed or centralised sources. Two of the scenarios involve intermittently turning off Alice Springs’ main power plant, a long-standing challenge for operators of gas-fired generators.

Frearson is confident that the town will reach 50% renewables by 2030, but admits it’s a case of “tight, but achievable”.

“What our work highlights is that the margin for further delay is decreasing,” he says.

Subscribe to energise from riaus

Are you interested in the energy industry and the technology and scientific developments that power it? Then our email newsletter Energise is for you. Click here to become a subscriber.

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

Please login to favourite this article.