Microgrids have strong credentials when it comes to minimising the risks of supply loss related to natural disasters – including bushfires – writes Nouha Elmasri.

With bushfire haze lingering in our memories Australian energy providers face a challenging outlook for recurrent weather-related issues that can leave customers in the dark and lead to costly infrastructure restoration. With much of modern life – everything from banking to communications, healthcare and transport – the prospect of prolonged outages becomes much more than a mere inconvenience.

Bushfires and other extreme weather events are becoming more common. More people are moving to areas which are either close to the bush or serviced by long powerlines that go through national parks and state forests. And while there is a case for short periods of pre-emptive de-energisation in extreme circumstances to prevent far worse consequences, currently only one Australian utility, SA Power Networks, has this authority to do so.

The right climate

There is more than one way to respond, though. Underground powerlines is the most obvious – and expensive – long term solution to bushfire risk. Instead, in eastern Victoria, AusNet has started to take some remote properties in high bushfire risk areas off the grid and connected them to stand-alone power systems (SAPS). Other rural and regional networks are looking to do likewise.

It is still a relatively expensive solution, and not appropriate for whole towns. After the Bushfires Royal Commission, Victoria has been rolling out smart circuit reclosers, or circuit breakers that can quickly stop power flows during a fault and then just as quickly restore them. But circuit reclosers are not cheap – the price tag for Victoria alone could be $1 billion – and they have their own technical limitations.

The challenge, then, is to increase the resilience of communities and the grid at an affordable cost, which is where decentralised microgrid energy comes into play.

“Australia is replete with fires that are taking out transmission and distribution lines, and the restoration time is very long,” says International Microgrid Association chairman Terry Mohn, speaking ahead of The International Microgrid Event in Perth. “Businesses are starting to realise that with long restoration times for transmission or distributor operators, building a microgrid becomes a viable option.”

It’s a global phenomenon, Mohn says, but it’s happening much faster in Australia due partly to geography and weather, and partly because of the high penetration of decentralised energy “like solar rooftops and other types of renewable energy – that are already abundant and can be leveraged.”

International Microgrid Association chairman Terry Mohn says businesses are starting to realise the value of microgrids.

Benefits of decentralisation

By now most of us are aware that microgrids are a growing segment of the energy industry, representing a paradigm shift from remote central station power plants toward more localised, distributed generation – especially in cities, communities and campuses. The power to isolate from the larger grid makes microgrids resilient, and the ability to conduct flexible, parallel operations permits delivery of services that make the grid more competitive.

By “islanding” from the grid in an emergency – a bushfire, for example – a microgrid can both continue serving its included load when the grid is down and serve its surrounding community by providing a platform to support critical services, from hosting first responders and governmental functions to providing key services and emergency shelter.

Storm damage in the United States has already driven investment in microgrids and in India the technology has emerged as a viable solution to energy poverty.

“There are probably three main drivers for microgrids,” Mohn says. “Number one is economics, businesses are working to lower the cost of energy; number two is reliability, and with the decentralisation of energy load pockets are closer to loads, making the overall cost of the energy infrastructure lower due to reduced infrastructure need; and third is sustainability, where communities that want to be green may not feel like they’re getting green energy from their incumbent utility, and so they make the investment themselves.”

Making it a reality

Renewable energy in Australia is growing 10 times faster than the world average per capita. Australia’s energy future is exciting, innovative and disruptive but despite their many advantages, microgrids face significant barriers to widespread implementation. While we’re lucky in Australia that the federal government understands the economic opportunity of decentralised energy, as seen through the government’s Regiona­l and Remote Commun­it­ies Reliability Fund, we still face challenges when it comes to making this cleaner, greener, safer future a reality.

One of the things getting in the way of utilising distributed energy resources to increase the resilience of local communities in Australia is that we don’t currently recognise resilience as an objective in the regulation of the energy system. To counter this we could start by including “high impact, low probability” events in reliability standards, which currently exclude “major event”. This would allow prudent and efficient network spending to improve local system resilience to be recognised as legitimate by the regulator.

But this is only one challenge. The biggest barrier to widespread implementation is policy. “The policy change that needs to take place in Australia is one that will encourage public-private partnerships,” Mohn says. “We need to allow private investors to come in and build infrastructure, and allow that infrastructure to go on their books – not on the utility books, not on the state’s property books. By putting that asset in a private investor’s books, and making the resources coming out of a microgrid available to the larger grid, we can make the cost of energy production and delivery cheaper.”

Steps have been made in the right direction. The COAG Energy Council and the Australian Energy Market Commission have released their review of the regulatory frameworks for stand-alone power systems.

“It’s certainly an exciting time for microgrids and the decentralisation of energy in Australia with so much activity occurring across the country,” Mohn says. “The new energy paradigm is here, we just need to come together to make it all a reality.

EcoGeneration readers who buy a ticket to The International Microgrid Event can claim a 10% discount by quoting the discount code PARAGON10.

Terry Mohn will chair and speak at The International Microgrid Event 2020, to be held at Perth’s Optus Stadium between March 31 and April 3.

Nouha Elmasri is editor for The International Microgrid Event.