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Challenges and solutions for a renewable future

Nov 05, 2019

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The tran­si­tion to a renew­able ener­gy future is upon us, prompt­ing chal­lenges in pow­er sys­tems across Aus­tralia. An iso­lat­ed grid and enthu­si­asm for rooftop solar height­ens those chal­lenges in the Alice Springs pow­er system. 

Experts are work­ing to con­cep­tu­alise a future grid for the town, which makes the most of our sun­ny skies. The Intyal­heme Cen­tre for Future Ener­gy has been set up to facil­i­tate this tran­si­tion, as its Gen­er­al Man­ag­er Glenn Mar­shall explains…

It is some­times said that the only con­stant in life is change. In the infor­ma­tion age, this is acute­ly evi­dent in cer­tain areas of busi­ness – from fac­to­ry work­ers impact­ed by automa­tion, to the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of news through social media. Per­haps nowhere is it more evi­dent right now than in the busi­ness of sup­ply­ing electricity. 

We have start­ed tran­si­tion­ing to a renew­able ener­gy future, led by hun­dreds of house­holds installing rooftop solar sys­tems. As with all grids in Aus­tralia, util­i­ties must now adjust to man­age the changes cre­at­ed by these dis­trib­uted’ pow­er gen­er­a­tors and main­tain a reli­able grid.

The recent dis­rup­tion to our pow­er high­lights the impor­tance of reli­a­bil­i­ty in our ener­gy sup­ply. The cause of the Octo­ber 13 out­age will not be clear until the results of an inde­pen­dent enquiry are released. 

What we have here is about the most com­pli­cat­ed off-grid’ sys­tem you will get,” said engi­neer Clare Payn­ter, who works for local tech­ni­cal con­sul­tan­cy Ekisti­ca. Ms Payn­ter was one of the speak­ers at a recent pub­lic event called Our Bright Solar Future: Learn­ing from Our Lead­ers.

We’re a small place but we have a lot of dif­fer­ent enti­ties that need to work close­ly togeth­er in order for the sys­tem to work prop­er­ly,” Ms Payn­ter said. 

This is the job of Intyal­heme – to bring the major North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry ener­gy play­ers togeth­er with inter­state experts to achieve this tran­si­tion, and reach the NT’s 50 per cent by 2030 renew­able ener­gy tar­get. Intyal­heme is a flag­ship project of Desert Knowl­edge Aus­tralia (DKA) and has received $5 mil­lion fund­ing from the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry Government.

Intyal­heme (pro­nounced in-char-lum) is an Arrernte word, mean­ing a fire start­ing up again’. The name alludes to a revi­tal­i­sa­tion of the strong renew­able ener­gy his­to­ry in Alice Springs, with pro­grams like Bush­light and Alice Solar City putting the town at the fore­front of renew­able ener­gy innovations. 

The DKA Solar Cen­tre in Alice Springs

For those rel­a­tive­ly new to town, 2008 saw the launch of the DKA Solar Cen­tre, the largest mul­ti-tech­nol­o­gy solar demon­stra­tion site in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. The same year marked the start of Alice Solar City. The project, which ran until 2013, saw the num­ber of rooftop solar pho­to­volta­ic sys­tems in town grow from just two, to more than 700.

When the Uterne solar farm opened in July 2011, it was the largest track­ing solar pow­er sta­tion in Aus­tralia. The track­ing arrays at Alice Springs Air­port were anoth­er first for the South­ern Hemi­sphere. Vis­i­tors are not able to ignore the town’s com­mit­ment to solar ener­gy when they dri­ve in from the air­port,” the Alice Solar City report stated. 

By the time Aralu­en Arts Cen­tre had rooftop solar installed in 2012, about three per cent of ener­gy con­sumed in Alice Springs was pro­duced by solar — one of the high­est lev­els in Aus­tralia, per capita.

The Uterne Solar Farm in Alice Springs

At the moment Alice Springs is aver­ag­ing about 10 per cent solar input and there are numer­ous bar­ri­ers to this increas­ing. Fix­ing this is more com­plex than it might appear but, done well, Alice Springs would once again lead the way. Lessons learned here can be applied to much larg­er grids includ­ing one of the world’s biggest — the east coast’s Nation­al Elec­tric­i­ty Mar­ket (NEM).

One of the many chal­lenges is reduc­ing depen­dence on gas gen­er­a­tors for spin­ning reserve’, which requires machines be kept on per­ma­nent stand­by in case of tech­ni­cal prob­lems, or clouds inter­rupt­ing lev­els of irra­di­ance. Intyal­heme is facil­i­tat­ing a part­ner­ship between local util­i­ties and nation­al experts to incor­po­rate solar (cloud) fore­cast­ing into the system.

Rooftop solar makes eco­nom­ic sense for many house­holds, but new instal­la­tions con­tribute to grow­ing fluc­tu­a­tions in the grid. House­hold bat­ter­ies could assist the tran­si­tion, but exist­ing tar­iffs do not encour­age uptake at present.

A reli­able pow­er sys­tem has tech­ni­cal needs includ­ing fre­quen­cy con­trol, volt­age con­trol and sys­tem iner­tia. In Alice Springs these have tra­di­tion­al­ly been pro­vid­ed through gas gen­er­a­tion. The grid-scale Bat­tery Ener­gy Stor­age Sys­tem (BESS) at the Sadadeen Val­ley sub-sta­tion is being opti­mised to con­tribute to these needs. It is pro­por­tion­al­ly big­ger than Elon Musk’s big bat­tery’ in South Australia.

The tran­si­tion must be care­ful­ly man­aged if we are to reach a high lev­el of renew­able ener­gy pen­e­tra­tion, whilst main­tain­ing sta­bil­i­ty on the grid. 

Every grid in Aus­tralia is fac­ing sim­i­lar chal­lenges. Alice Springs has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get ahead of the pack.

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