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by Andrea Johnston, Alice Springs Future Grid

At the height of the winter energy crisis on the East Coast, a community in the heart of our wide brown land was watching on, contemplating how it may soon have some useful secrets to share. In recent years the isolated Alice Springs electricity system has been trending towards negative demand and grappling with how to use more solar energy while also maintaining the grid; prompting action to address the challenges and harness opportunities of the renewable energy transition – long before the issues were front of mind for most Australians. The collective action is called the Alice Springs Future Grid project.

The iconic Northern Territory town lies exactly halfway between Adelaide and Darwin, both 1,500km away. Arid, remote, and sometimes extremely hot, Central Australia experiences more than 300 sunny days each year. These environmental factors, combined with an unusually progressive population, have caused the uptake of rooftop solar to be particularly strong. Pleasant temperatures in the shoulder seasons, leading to low consumer power use, high solar generation and high self-consumption mean demand can come close to being too low for what the local generators are regulated, to supply.

While the threat of negative demand on the Alice Springs grid was somewhat halted by the planned connection of a new industrial load, the vagaries of the clean energy transition remain. The traditional assumption that power is generated at a power station and flows to the consumer has been disrupted by rooftop solar, with ‘generators’ now ubiquitous across the grid in the form of homes and businesses. This situation was, until recently, encouraged by one of the highest solar feed-in tariffs in the country.

Additional immediate technical issues caused by this extra generation, such as increased voltage, need to be managed. Meanwhile, increasing the amount of solar energy in the system while maintaining system stability presents challenges with inertia. With no significant bodies of water and a yet-to-be-established business case for wind power, solar remains the only commercially viable renewable energy resource in Central Australia.

Location, environment, economics, politics, the role of consumers, demographics, and technical challenges are all factors to be considered in the Alice Springs energy transition, set against a backdrop of regulatory requirements designed for the grid of yesterday.

As such, the Alice Springs grid can be viewed as a microcosm of the National Electricity Market (NEM) where interventions can be trialled and tested, with relatively quick and measurable results. The Alice Springs grid is said to be “small enough to manage, but big enough to matter”. A fact not lost on the diverse group of stakeholders who have come together to create an extraordinary project.

The grid of tomorrow

Combining the brains of the Territory’s energy industry and community leaders, with input from national energy experts, Alice Springs Future Grid was born. Supported by the Northern Territory Government, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Australian Government through its Microgrids program, Future Grid investigates ways the existing electricity system can be configured to support a much higher fraction of renewable energy.

This sounds like a technical challenge; but is in reality, largely philosophical. Relationships and knowledge sharing are found at the core of Future Grid, while ‘place’ defines all thinking. Future Grid is a whole-of-system project considering how Alice Springs can achieve 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. The project recognises that in the future the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in the electricity system will be different from those in place today. Future Grid is seeking to map out what these potential roles, responsibilities and technical capabilities will be.

The $12.5 million project is led by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy on behalf of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) and brings together almost 20 stakeholder organisations. These include all the Northern Territory Government-owned corporations involved in energy generation and supply (Territory Generation, Power and Water Corporation, and Jacana Energy) along with Alice Springs environmental advocacy group the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), engineering consultancy Ekistica, and the project’s knowledge sharing partner, CSIRO.

Future Grid incorporates input from various universities, works with the solar and battery installers of Alice Springs, and brings residents along to take part in its trials, including the creation of the Northern Territory’s first Virtual Power Plant (VPP), Solar Connect.

Alice Springs Future Grid Director, Lyndon Frearson. Image credit: Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy.

Alice Springs and renewables: history informing the future

The story of the project’s existence begins with the Northern Territory Government’s Roadmap to Renewables Report, but the Red Centre’s relationship with renewable energy extends much further back. Alice Springs was once a ‘Solar City’ as per the Australian Government program of 2008 – 2013.

This period saw the birth of the DKA Solar Centre, the southern hemisphere’s largest multi-technology solar demonstration facility, now home to more than 40 arrays of all shapes and sizes. There had also been huge early adoption of solar in remote bush communities, in particular through Bushlight, which led the installation of more than 150 new standalone power systems across Northern Australia and conducted maintenance at around 250 sites.

It stands to reason that solar has long been popular in one of the sunniest places on earth. But what happens when solar is the sole renewable energy resource and the economics for enough batteries to support such a small population don’t stack up?

“The Alice Springs grid is said to be small enough to manage, but big enough to matter”.

Some might argue project funding could have been spent on a single technical intervention, but just as we are seeing in the NEM, there is no silver bullet. The system within which the generation and delivery of energy operates in Alice Springs – the technical system, the regulatory system, the commercial framework – has been tailored to a set of responsibilities and outcomes which are no longer consistent with the likely direction of the future energy system.

While many similar projects are underway elsewhere, the eyes of industry, nationally, are on Future Grid. This is both because of the town’s unique size and isolated position, and the way the various trials, models and investigations that comprise the project are designed with interdependencies and will elicit results that can be measured more rapidly and accurately than on larger grids.

Activities include a wind monitoring study to establish the extent to which there may be a business case for incorporating wind into the Alice Springs energy mix and improved system modelling and forecasting with the use of cloud cameras.

Other activities include dynamic export trials for solar from large PV systems previously curtailed with a zero-export limit, and community engagement to help empower the community to advocate for ever- increasing renewable energy penetration after the project has wrapped up, and with the nuanced understanding that the solutions to these issues require long term engagement, planning and development.

The 4MW Uterne Solar Farm is one of three commercial power generation sites in Alice Springs. Image credit: Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy.

Leaving no one behind

A low-socioeconomic energy study will help determine how to prevent people from these demographics, of which there are a high number in Alice Springs, from being left behind or penalised by the energy transition. The Alice Springs grid extends to the remote Indigenous communities of Santa Teresa and Hermannsburg, meaning First Nations People make up approximately one-quarter of the grid-connected population.

The Future Grid project recognises solar has the effect of enabling those with the financial means to do so to reduce their power bills, while those who would arguably benefit more from a reduction in power bills can be left behind.

Many First Nations People in Alice Springs live in town camps, so Future Grid, through the low socio-economic energy study, is working with representative organisations across the town, to consider how they can participate in the future energy system. The major public-facing activity of the Future Grid project is the Solar Connect VPP trial. It has recently started operating and is a first for the Northern Territory.

About 40 households have been recruited to take part in the year-long study, which is trialling variable tariffs for batteries, dynamic exports for solar, and discovering residents’ willingness to involve themselves in the energy system of the future. Although smaller than many other VPPs around Australia, Solar Connect represents one of the most complex integrations of multiple energy technologies in Australia to date.

It has invited people with multiple types of batteries and inverters to join the VPP, with the unusual additional option of joining on a solar PV-only basis as these represent the majority of home systems currently. By participating in Solar Connect the residents of Alice Springs are helping to discover and design how their town can embrace a clean energy future.

These activities are informing what may need to change in the Alice Springs electricity system to accommodate increasing amounts of renewable energy, while also improving use of the current system. Future Grid is now designing a pathway to achieving the Northern Territory’s 50 per cent by 2030 renewable energy target in Alice Springs, with lessons learned transferable to other grids. These lessons will be captured in the Alice Springs Roadmap to 2030 report, with publication expected next year.

The roadmap will establish decision gateways for implementing change in an uncertain environment and consider how to build engagement with new participant roles. While the combined outcome of these activities will help define the structures required to achieve the probable, Future Grid is ultimately working to determine the boundaries of what is possible.

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