At the second open panel of the International Microgrid Event, industry experts discussed the challenges and opportunities surrounding implementing and improving microgrid reliability. The conference hosted Chris Judd (EGM Electricity Markets, Jemena Corporate), Ben Bristow (Head of Grid Transformation (acting), Asset Management, Western Power), and Rob Wilson (Head of Western Australia, Clean Energy Finance Corporation). The speakers have backgrounds in microgrid implementation and a great deal of experience in renewable energy technologies. This dual perspective provided a unique perspective into opportunities and strategies for diversifying power grid capabilities and integrating more renewable energy into communities that need them the most.
While the potential offered by microgrid reliability is fascinating, convincing potential clients to implement them remains a topic of difficulty until suitable business models are created to service them. The panel identified this gap as the reason for the slow adoption of such promising technology.
Chris Judd posits that the implementation of microgrids to take advantage of local renewable energy sources – mainly wind and solar in Australia where the conference was held – is a “no-brainer.” The tailoring of such energy systems to local energy sources and needs is highly desirable and will invariably lead to a more reliable, robust solution than existing power infrastructure.
One intriguing pilot project discussed during the session was a community energy hub project located in Melbourne, AU. Solar panels were installed on a low-income apartment building as part of a microgrid. Rather than making low-income tenants provide the upfront costs, they instead implemented a “pay for the power, not for the panels” arrangement, guaranteeing the tenants who participated lower energy rates. The program placed great emphasis on maintaining their social license to operate and so the initiative was strictly opt-in, offering greater flexibility and independence to the tenants as well as low costs and high microgrid reliability.
Bespoke energy systems can leverage novel technologies and create systems customized to the needs of their particular clients. This may be the real value proposition of microgrids, but implementers must get in at the right time along the learning curve. Solar PV and other renewable technologies are hardly new concepts, but only recently have panel quality and battery capacities made these technologies cost and resource-effective.
The prospects for improvement are even more promising. On September 22nd, Tesla revealed a series of battery technology improvements and predicted a 56% total reduction in cost per kWh of the battery pack. Even if that prediction is a little optimistic, new and improved batteries are being developed on all fronts, including vanadium-flow batteries, solid-state lithium-ion technology, and batteries made using materials extracted from seawater. Increased battery capacity and longevity allows DERs to offer increased capacity and better microgrid reliability. Furthermore, batteries shared between a community (through a shared microgrid) eases the load on transformers at peak utilization hours and makes the system more robust.
Australia is making good use of its natural power resources. In May 2017, The Age reported that approximately 2 million homes in Australia utilize solar power, no doubt bolstered by state initiatives that help subsidize solar panel installation. This year, the Australian federal government announced more than AUD$19 million dollars going into microgrid projects supplying both remote Indigenous communities and rural farming regions. Such projects are at the forefront of bringing more cost-effective, reliable microgrids to the communities that would benefit from them the most.