The federal government’s $20 million show of support for microgrid projects around the country in June was a rare bullseye for the dart-throwers in Canberra. The 17 recipients of the Region­al and Remote Com­mu­ni­ties Reli­a­bil­i­ty Fund round are solving problems in the toughest parts of the country, where energy supply can be expensive and patchy.

In the Northern Territory, Alice Springs company Desert Knowledge Australia was awarded $3,197,507 – the largest grant of the bunch – towards its modelling project to solve the town’s energy problems. Things are so serious that about half the residents in the town of about 25,000 went without power last October, with some left in the dark up to 10 hours.

The Northern Territory is targeting 50% reliance on renewable energy by 2030, and there’s plenty of work to be done between now and then. “Alice Springs is effectively stuck on about 10% annual solar load at the moment, because of various barriers in our grid,” says Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy general manager Glenn Marshall. “The microgrid funding is going to help.”

The Intyalheme (pronounced: In-char-leme) Centre for Future Energy is a project of Desert Knowledge Australia, supported by the Northern Territory Government. Intyalheme will lead the implementation of project.

The grant will fund modelling to work out the best ways to increase the amount of renewables – in this case solar energy – in the local grid. A separate project, yet to be announced, will look at implementing the required changes that the modelling suggests.

“If we want 50% by 2030 we need 100% in the daytime by 2030, which has all sorts of implications for spinning reserve, etc,” Marshall says. “We’ve got the same duck curve as everyone else with morning and evening peaks.”

“We’re going to bring all these complexities together,” says Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy general manager Glenn Marshall. Photo: Andrea Johnston.

The project team will use an optimization tool developed by RMIT to find how battery storage assets in the town can be best utilised to encourage additional PV. What are the best sizes for batteries, the best energy offset intervals and energy ratios, locations and state of charge set points? “We’re going to bring all those complexities together,” Marshall says.

Alice Springs needs more batteries if it wants to make most of the abundant solar energy released daily onto the town’s PV systems. Hopefully the findings from the project will encourage town folk to understand the potential for batteries, because the territory government is already doing its best to boost the technology with a $6,000 rebate for new battery purchases.

Alice Springs already hosts a 5MW battery at Territory Generation’s facility, but there are not many residential batteries. Marshall says owners of home PV systems have probably been discouraged in adding a storage mainly thanks to a one-for-one feed-in tariff which only expired early this year.

“The [modelling] will help optimize how we set up and manage a battery suite across the town,” he says.

Access to FCAS

In June, the Northern Territory Government released an issues paper on the electricity market that suggested an improved ancillary services market, with the possibility Alice Springs will be included. “That’s very important for us,” says Marshall, pointing to the local 4.1MW Uterne Solar Farm as a possible beneficiary. “There’s been no incentive for them to put a battery into that system because there’s not a separate FCAS payment. That means their solar farm is often curtailed – a lot of their power can’t go into the grid.”

The FCAS changes, slated for late 2021, will be a plus for the whole town if Uterne takes the bait and buys a battery.

Home-owners need to be encouraged to take part, Marshall says, if solar is to push down reliance on thermal generation. “It’s particularly around upskilling people in the language of grid-talk,” he says, “so they understand things like FCAS – that’s probably the main part with our residents, bringing them along for the ride so they understand there are complexities around getting to 50%. We can’t get to 50% if we don’t have a high buy-in from the residential sector.” The town currently runs off gas generation, sourced from the Bonaparte Basin to the north.

It’s not always easy asking your everyday folk to stump up money to pay for rooftop solar PV systems to help the local government hit an energy target, and many residents of Alice Springs simply do not own their rooftops in the first place. If they did, spending thousands on a private powerplant might look like a luxury.

“We’ve got a significant public housing sector here in town, we’ve got many Aboriginal town camps which are all on the grid, and a reasonably high rental population, too,” he says. “How do we incentivize better for renters to be engaged?”

An energy solution for the town that provides FCAS revenue to households will make up for perceived losses on the back of the feed-in tariff falling this year from 26c to 8c, he says. There is no rebate for PV in the territory. “The feed-in tariff was always the big [incentive to invest in solar].”

The one-for-one feed-in tariff is grandfathered, but it does not transfer to a new owner when a property is sold or continue for systems that are upgraded or retrofitted with storage.

On the drawing board

Marshall imagines Alice Springs as an enormous microgrid, but that’s not to say it can’t – or shouldn’t – include microgrids within a microgrid. “We’re looking at multi-tenanted microgrids,” says Marshall, acknowledging there is work to be done on the regulatory side to decide who is responsible for ownership and is liable for supply. “We don’t have regulations in place to manage that scenario.”

One scenario likely to be tested is a community battery on a transformer linked to a low-voltage cluster of houses, he says.

Desert Knowledge Australia has been operating for 15 years and has carved out a role as a facilitator among the many energy players in the region. “That’s why we have these barriers [to change] in town because various entities are running up against their own barriers which someone else has to resolve for them, and no-one’s getting together to do that – and vice versa for other entities.”

There are 17 different partners in Alice that must nut out the best way to pull together to get the most out of the town’s energy system, he says. “We’ve put a lot of work into understanding what are the barriers, who they sit with, who can solve them and bringing all the relevant entities into the room,” he says. “That’s what’s given us the blueprint for this microgrid.”

As the territory reaches for its 50% target Marshall says wind isn’t out of the question, as turbines become cheaper and more efficient. But it will have to be a nighttime resource, because there’s plenty of sun during the day in Alice Springs.