By Steph Barker, Journalist, Energy Magazine
Australia has a long history of natural disasters, including fire, floods and storms. In recent years, the nation has seen some of the worst and most frequent natural disasters on record. These events have been devastating for many communities across Australia and have highlighted the need for better emergency planning and response to ensure the impacts of such disasters are minimised.
A resilient energy system is crucial to mitigating damage from natural disasters. Critical energy- dependent services can be lost if energy grids are not able to persevere through natural disasters. UNSW recently released its final report on the Energy Sustainability through Knowledge and Information Exchange and Sharing (ESKIES) project, Energy Resilience in Bushfires and Extreme Weather Events.
The ESKIES project aims to increase understanding of the role of solar, batteries and other distributed energy resources (DER) in maintaining electricity supply to regional and rural communities during bushfires and other disruptions to the electricity grid. Here, we take a look at how DER can positively impact proactive decision-making and help stabilise energy during difficult times.
The frequency of natural disasters in the past five years, as well as the increase in severity and duration of such events, has prompted much discussion and analysis on how to better prepare for such events.
A proactive approach to natural disaster is an absolute necessity if the impacts of such events are to be minimised. Energy grids in particular play a key role in disaster management – but knowing exactly how to prepare for these events can be difficult.
The UNSW ESKIES project was funded by the NSW Reconstruction Authority’s Bushfire Community Resilience and Recovery Fund in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires.
The project’s aim is to explore the options for increasing the resilience of households and communities during weather-related power outages, and to share the learnings with communities affected or likely to be affected by these disruptions, as well as with policymakers and other stakeholders. The report examined responses from individuals and households, as well as expert interviews and case studies, to better understand the current gaps in knowledge and infrastructure and identify potential fixes.
Building energy resilience
Grid outages affect communities in multiple ways. Loss of basic services, like water, refrigeration and sewage is a real concern. Equally important is communication – timely communication is one of the most important aspects of disaster preparation.
Text alerts and weather warnings are the primary means of warning communities of risks and dangers, while mobile phones and internet are key to keeping up to date with conditions. Communications rely on energy infrastructure. A key finding of this report was that a range of DER were used to cope with the impacts of power outages during natural disasters, each with different advantages and limitations.
While individual DER solutions, such as household generators or communal cooking, were helpful in many situations, participants in the study reported that governments and energy providers needed to play a larger role in improving energy resilience at a community level.
Distributed Energy Resources
But what are DER? According to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, “DER is the name given to renewable energy units or systems that are commonly located at houses or businesses to provide power. DER can also be referred to as ‘behind the meter’ resources, because the electricity is generated or managed ‘behind’ the electricity meter in the home or business.
Common examples of DER include rooftop solar PV units, battery storage, thermal energy storage, electric vehicles and chargers, smart meters, and home energy management technologies.” DER tend to be utilised on an individual, small-scale basis.
Many technologies that are currently used at an individual/ household level – such as solar, batteries and generators – can be scaled to provide resilience at a community level. However,funding constraints tend to limit uptake at a larger scale – government funding is limited and DER often require space and infrastructure that can be cumbersome and expensive.
The ESKIES report found that during natural disasters, individual homes with DER often became community meeting places due to being able to provide energy services which were otherwise inaccessible. This highlighted the use case for DER at a larger scale.
A tailored approach
The ESKIES report found that selecting DER technologies to support energy resilience is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires careful consideration of situational factors and socio-economic factors of each community, as well as capacity for infrastructure.
Engagement with communities is necessary to understand their needs and the DER configurations that best meet those needs, and building partnerships among stakeholders to achieve energy resilience is key.
Purpose-built community buildings and microgrids were two key recommendations for larger-scale DER for energy resilience. The report stated that with a resilient energy supply, buildings such as community halls or pubs can provide a space for people to gather and share information and resources.
These resilient energy centres are not the same as official emergency relief centres – however, they can increase community resilience by providing multiple energy services to the community during grid outages, including:
» Communications, including internet, phone and radio connection and phone charging
» Air-conditioning and/or filtration
» Refrigeration for storage food and medicine
» Cooking facilities
» Water supply for drinking, washing, laundry
Ultimately, the findings in the report highlight the importance of DER at both an individual and community level. While there is no single approach to DER implementation, it is clear that energy resilience is paramount in times of crisis.
The ESKIES report noted that “There is a need for a wider view of the different types of value that DER can offer, such as bill savings,emissions reduction, and resilience to power disruptions.
Engagement with communities is necessary to understand their needs and the DER configurations that might best meet them, while also taking into account that perspectives and needs within communities differ.”
The imperative for policy inclusion is clear, as is the emphasis for governments to integrate DER into disaster response plans.