Solar microgrid adds green cred to Lord Howe’s already lush paradise


Red-tailed Tropic Birds wheeling above Lord Howe Island off Australia’s east coast have a new feature in their view and the island is more peaceful than it has been for many decades, given the successful segue to a hybrid solar and battery energy storage system delivered by Photon Energy Engineering Australia to provide at least 67% of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s electricity and displace as much as possible of its usually diesel-powered generation.

This weekend, the daily updated cumulative annual average of electricity delivered by the more than 1.2 MW solar array and the 3.712 MWh Tesla Powerpack was shown to be 74.35%.

A weekend snapshot from Photon Energy’s real-time monitor of the Lord Howe Island microgrid performance.

Image: Photon Energy

For the past six months, the microgrid, which is integrated with the existing diesel-generation capacity and managed by a Tesla Microgrid Controller, has been supplying the island community of some 350 permanent residents, and its dormant-during-Covid-19 tourist facilities, which typically host 16,000 visitors each year.

Its successful operation was celebrated by Photon Energy Group headquarters in Amsterdam in an announcement on Friday.

“The experience we have gained through the delivery of the project demonstrates that solar power and energy storage not only reduce emissions and other environmental risks but are instrumental in ensuring energy security,” said Michael Gartner, Managing Director of Photon Energy Australia, and Co-founder of Photon Energy Group.

In August, the Dutch developer had cited grid-connection delays at two solar farms near Leeton, in New South Wales as part of the reason for a $1.4 million loss in the second quarter of this year, compared to earnings of $1.5 million in Q1.

This island microgrid, although it posed unique challenges, was at least free of the tyranny of National Electricity Market connection travails.

An electricity source at odds with the island’s natural beauty

Lord Howe Island’s community, isolated some 700 kilometres north east of Sydney in the Pacific Ocean, has long relied on shipments of diesel every two to three weeks for its energy needs. 

The shipments themselves posed a risk to the island’s coastal environment and its coral reef, which is the world’s southernmost reef formation; and reliance on diesel also exposed the community to fluctuations in global fuel prices and threats to its energy security.

A statement from Photon Energy says that since the system was installed, it has at times provided the island with renewable energy “for stretches of up to five consecutive days and nights in August without any diesel-generated power”, showing the reliability of solar-plus-battery technology, “even during the less sunny winter months”.

Partly funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), which contributed $4.5 million, the $1.1 million project also secured a loan of $5.9 million from the New South Wales Government and provided the balance of funds from its own capital.

The business case for the renewable energy project was first developed in 2014 by the Lord Howe Island Board, the statutory authority that manages the island.

Its plan originally included wind turbines as part of the hybrid mix, but a Lord Howe Island Lessons Learnt Report, published by ARENA in late 2019, said the wind component could not be delivered. Further feasibility studies undertaken since 2017, “identified that a reconfigured and resized solar PV and battery storage generator would provide the same benefits”.

A breath-taking moment

Photon Energy won the tender for engineering, procurement and construction of the project in 2019, and implemented a value-management consultation process between the clients and its design and management teams — a thought-provoking step it has found beneficial in all its projects, which have so far racked up a combined global solar-generation capacity of 110 MWp.

On Lord Howe Island, the process “resulted in substantial cost savings”, and “an increase of 8% to the size of the PV component and 14% to the battery component”, as well as permanent public toilet facilities at the site which is passed by tourists on one of the island’s many stunning scenic walks.

The Lessons Learnt Report concluded that, “Allowing a short period within the project timeframe for a value-management dialogue can result in a project delivering more ‘wins’ for the community and within the scope tolerance of the project.”

Lord Howe Island’s new microgrid delivers a battery of benefits to the island’s community and visitors.

Image: Photon Energy

EPC rises to the challenges of this dramatic setting

Given the island’s reliance on diesel for its electricity, it was also critical that the integration of solar and battery storage be seamless and maintain an uninterrupted supply.

The remote location of the island, often inclement weather conditions and the site of the power plant posed access, design and geotechnical challenges for the contractors. In addition, says the Photon Energy Group website, the project “required a great deal of adaptability and problem-solving due to complications resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Despite such difficulties, Photon Energy Engineering Australia successfully negotiated the constraints of this environmentally sensitive site and the project, commenced in February 2020, was completed in 14 months.

Mick Pettit, Acting CEO of the Lord Howe Island Board said on Friday, “The announcement of this project is a fantastic result for the Lord Howe Island community and visitors alike.” He added that improving the island’s energy security, along with reducing the environmental impact of its electricity supply, “without detracting from the World Heritage values of Lord Howe Island, is a result that everyone should celebrate”.


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