The Unstoppable Advance of Distributed Renewable Energy: Major Utility Western Power Setting Up and Operating a Microgrid in Western Australia

Anthony Vippond, CEO of Lotus Energy Co-operative

Jun 25, 2019

The centralised system of electricity generation, transmission and distribution has been dominant for over a century. In recent years this dominance has been challenged by distributed or localised energy resources, due to substantial sustained advances in the efficiency and comparative economics of renewable energy sources such as solar PV and wind. A clear indication of this trend is the initiative of Western Power in commissioning a renewables-powered microgrid to service the needs of the Western Australian town of Kalbarri.

Western Power, a Western Australian State Government-owned corporation, is responsible for building, maintaining and operating the electricity network within the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), i.e., the poles and wires or energy grid. It does not generate electricity or sell electricity to customers.

Operating a conventional centralised system of electricity distribution in Western Australia presents a huge logistical challenge, given the State’s enormous geographical area and sparse and widely-scattered population. The State Government has to heavily subsidise power supply to remote communities. One of these is the town of Kalbarri, a coastal resort town located 600 km north of Perth. It has a permanent population of around 1,600 which virtually doubles during the very brief Christmas and Easter holiday periods.

In 2016 Western Power began planning for a microgrid as a means of achieving reliable power supply for Kalbarri. At the time main grid electricity was supplied via a 140 km, 33kV radial Kalbarri feeder from Geraldton. This feeder was exposed to environmental factors including wind-borne marine salt and dust pollution. These issues were compounded by the feeder’s length and remoteness, leading to frequent and extended outages at Kalbarri.

To overcome these problems Western Power initiated a tender process which was not restrictive in terms of the technology to be used. In February 2018 it awarded a $6.8 million contract to Carnegie Clean Energy’s wholly owned subsidiary Energy Made Clean (EMC) and joint venture partner Lendlease Services for the supply and operation of a 4.5MWh battery which can supply 5MW of peak capacity with at least 2MWh of energy storage. This will be linked to an existing 1.6MW windfarm sited approximately 20 km south of Kalbarri, plus residential rooftop solar panels in the town to form a 5MW microgrid, one of Australia’s largest to run in completely renewable mode. It will retain connection to the 33kv rural feeder line from Geraldton for back-up. In addition, the design allows for future renewable generation sources to be integrated as they become available.

There are obvious similarities between the Kalbarri microgrid and Lotus Energy’s concept of the ‘optimised community grid’ (OCG), the first of which is being implemented with the construction of a 12MW solar PV farm in the NSW town of Cootamundra. However, the rationale for establishing for Kalbarri microgrid was to secure reliability of power supply. By contrast, the main driver for an OCG is to very substantially reduce the cost of power to residents and businesses within the community.

At Kalbarri, residents with rooftop solar will be paid for feed-in of their excess energy to the microgrid. This facility is also available in the OCG model, but there will also be the option to buy, sell or exchange clean energy on a peer-to-peer basis within their community or elsewhere through Lotus Energy’s Energy Transfer Network which is based on advanced blockchain and distributed ledger technology.

Lotus Energy also has an ongoing policy of encouraging residents of its various communities to share in the success of its operations by becoming members of the Lotus Energy Co-operative.

Finally, operation of the Kalbarri microgrid is just a side issue for Western Power, whereas optimising the performance of an OCG is absolute core business for Lotus Energy which will be rolling out many such installations throughout Australia and also globally.