Western Australia’s government-owned regional utility Horizon Power has become the first utility in Australia to remove parts of its overhead network and replace it with an off-grid renewable energy power solution. The utility is installing 17 standalone power systems on fringe-of-grid properties east of Esperance, particularly regional farms that are susceptible to outages.
With its own solar panels, batteries, inverters and back-up diesel generator, a standalone power system can supply power 24/7. In addition to saving on grid upgrades, the transition to stand-alone systems reduces the risk of bushfires caused by lightning strikes and of incidents related to the operation of farm machinery near electricity lines.
Horizon Power unveiled its off-grid program earlier this year with plans to install 13 standalone power systems and replace 54 kilometres of ageing wires and pole. It has since expanded its program and announced plans to roll out 17 units for customers living in the Neridup and Beaumont farming areas in the Goldfields-Esperance region and enable 64 kilometres of poles and wires to be removed from paddocks by the year’s end.
On Thursday, the project reached a milestone with the disconnection of the properties from overhead lines. According to Horizon Power’s Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Unwin, standalone power is a viable alternative in remote locations where poles and wires are experiencing frequent and prolonged outages caused by lightning strikes, bush fires, vegetation and bird strikes.
“We only have to look back to the fires of 2015 to see how important this new energy solution can be for the safety of a community,” she said. “Over the last three years, we have successfully demonstrated technologies, such as SPS, which improves reliability of power supply and safety for our customers and can offer sustainable energy solutions at a lower cost than traditional solutions.”
Energy Minister Bill Johnston on Thursday visited a property in Neridup to view one of Horizon Power’s new standalone power systems. “The energy sector is undergoing a significant transformation, which is mainly driven by the rapid uptake of solar panels and battery storage systems at homes,” the minister said. “Improving our energy sector in Western Australia is essential and overdue, which is why the McGowan Government launched its Energy Transformation Strategy earlier this year.”
In Western Australia, the deployment of stand-alone power systems is a particularly attractive proposition. Earlier this year, WA grid operator Western Power announced it was all set to roll out 57 stand-alone power systems at farms, having inked $8.8 million in contracts for the first stage of its landmark off-grid program for regional properties. Servicing these units for their entire working life will save Western Power almost $6 million, compared to traditional network refurbishment, which would otherwise be needed to ensure reliable power supply to rural properties in off or edge-of-the grid areas.
The rollout builds on a stand-alone power trial program launched by Western Power at six farms in the Great Southern region in 2016. The trial found that there were on average 70 hours of outages avoided in its first year, and a whopping 92% of the properties’ power supply could be met by solar PV – buffered by battery storage.
Further uptake of stand-alone power systems across Australia may be expected once the changes recommended by the Australian Energy Market Commission are adopted, making it possible for utilities to service remote areas with such systems. While consumers can currently go “off-grid” they do so at their own expense and in most cases have very limited consumer protections. The AEMC reforms recommend that the COAG Energy Council require distribution networks to identify the opportunities for stand-alone systems and work with their customers where a transition to a stand-alone power system makes sense.
“The old-fashioned way of centralised generation being distributed by stringing poles and wires to the remote corners of Australia is giving way to solar and battery systems where energy is generated closer to where it is used,” AEMC Chief Executive Mrs Anne Pearson said. “These reforms mean that people living at the end of the line will get a better quality service with the same protections without paying any more.”
Trials of stand-alone power systems are currently underway in several states including New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.