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by Andrew Dillon, Chief Executive Officer, Energy Networks Australia

After a catastrophic summer bushfire season, Energy Networks Australia Chief Executive Officer Andrew Dillon takes a closer look at Stand-alone Power Systems and the role they can play in reducing the risk of bushfire.

With about 918,000km of lines and more than seven million power poles, Australia’s electricity network is very vulnerable to bushfires.

At the edge of the grid, thousands of customers in remote locations are served by long, skinny connections.

Maintaining these is expensive, and power can be unreliable.

This bushfire season has seen unprecedented damage with more than 100,000 customers losing power.

Preparing for fires and restoring connections is also costly, with many power poles being replaced only to be again destroyed by fire or falling trees.

Stand-alone power systems (SAPS) may help reduce risks, time of outages and costs.

The damage so far

The devastation has been unprecedented. 

Thousands of kilometres of network have been damaged, more than 5000 power poles have been destroyed or require replacement, and more than 100,000 customers experienced power outages across the National Electricity Market (NEM). 

The efforts of networks to restore and maintain power to customers has been herculean. 

On New Year’s Eve, fires tore through south-east New South Wales leaving 37,000 Essential Energy customers without power. By 3 January, 25,000 had been restored. However, over the following weekend, further fire damage impacted power to more than 35,000 customers. 

Overall, Essential Energy has had 1.5 million hectares or 32 per cent of its network footprint impacted by fire. This is an area larger than the entire Greater Sydney Region and includes 14,000 network assets. 

And this is just one of the networks affected. 

NSW’s Endeavour Energy and TransGrid, Victoria’s AusNet Services and SA Power Networks also have experienced significant damage and managed power outages to thousands of customers. 

Bushfire preparation

Vegetation contacting power lines can damage infrastructure, triggering fires and power outages.

In a previous article, we outlined the steps networks take to mitigate risks, including year-round inspections and new technologies.

Settings on auto-reclosers can also be adjusted during the fire season, and some networks will de-energise to reduce fire risks.

Stand-alone Power Systems (SAPS)

Stand-alone power systems and microgrids can efficiently power individual properties or small, remote communities.

SAPS are usually a combination of solar PV, batteries and diesel (which serves as a backup) and do not require a connection to the main grid. 

These communities (or sometimes individual properties) are at the edge of the grid, sitting at the end of often long, vulnerable powerlines. 

SAPS reduce the amount of infrastructure exposed to natural hazards and therefore the chance of damage or powerlines starting fires.

Eliminating sometimes hundreds of kilometres of powerlines also drastically reduces maintenance costs.

In Western Australia, Horizon Power and Western Power are marching down the path of supplying selected remote customers with SAPS and disconnecting them from the grid. 

The result? Seventy-one fewer hours of power outages over a year, 90 per cent of electricity generated from solar panels and a significant rise in customer satisfaction. Also, the elimination of the risk of the old poles and wires starting fires.

What’s next?

SAPS and microgrids don’t make sense in suburban areas such as our larger cities. 

It’s not practical to have a diesel generator running in a Fitzroy apartment building. 

We need to let networks identify who would benefit most from these systems and how they can reduce costs for the wider community.

The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) has drafted the rule changes required to allow electricity networks to deploy SAPS in the NEM.

Energy Networks Australia and electricity networks have been working with the AEMC, providing feedback on the draft. 

The process is expected to be completed mid-2021.

 

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