Left to right: Geoff Bourgault from Transition Bridgetown, Terry Redman MLA and Plico’s Brian Innes.

Electricity used to be such a straightforward affair – a government utility used to produce all that power using coal-fired generators and transmit it down power lines to consumers who used it and paid for it. Simple.

Now it’s all so complicated. You’ve got Western Power, who own the poles and wires; Synergy generating the electricity; households with solar panels (and occasionally batteries) doing it for themselves; and now private companies wanting a piece of the action.

Hanging over all of this is the existential threat of climate change and the knowledge that we must stop using fossil fuels to generate electricity and power our vehicles to prevent a global ecological catastrophe.

Cutting through the confusion on Sunday August 16, Transition Bridgetown’s Power to the People forum presented a range of expert speakers examining ways to make energy cheaper, more reliable and 100 per cent renewable for regional people.

A well-attended forum heard about the possibilities of communities and small businesses working together to build and manage micro-grids of localised electric power, providing sustainable electricity and even a profit back to the community.

Solar success

Right now cheap solar panels and wind turbines are disrupting the old model of electricity.

Increasing numbers of home-owners are discovering that when it comes to cheaper domestic power, solar panels are a complete “no-brainer”.

The good news is that solar panels just keep getting cheaper, cutting household power bills at the same time as they save tonnes of CO2 from going into the atmosphere.

In fact they’re now covering so many roofs and pumping so much electricity back into the grid that they’re starting to overload it.

The combined power of WA’s rooftop solar systems now vastly exceeds the state’s biggest coal-fired power station.

It’s a big problem for Western Power on mild sunny days in spring or autumn when there’s no load coming from air conditioners to soak up the excess.

Our extended electricity grid simply wasn’t designed for so much renewable energy pouring into it.

Coal-fired power stations and gas turbines can’t be turned up or down quickly in response to rapid power fluctuations.

Batteries

Batteries are different. They can respond in fractions of a second, soaking up power or releasing it, smoothing out spikes and making the whole grid more stable.

On a household level batteries are still relatively expensive, however. From a money-saving perspective, they don’t make as much sense as solar panels.

Big batteries are a different case. Tesla’s big battery in South Australia was built in just four-and-a-half months for $91 million. It will pay that investment back in less than four years.

Batteries are becoming an integral part of microgrids.

Micogrids are essentially small, freestanding electrical grids generating and consuming their own power. They can be entirely isolated or connected to the main grid and buying and selling power to it.

Modern computer technology is making microgrids and “vrtual power plants” increasingly cheap and easy to manage and two businesses helping communities and individuals set up and run them are Plico and Tersum Energy.

Plico’s Brian Innes and Tersum’s Rod Littlejohn gave presentations to the Forum.

Plico installs and maintains solar panels and batteries in households and aggregates them into a “virtual power plant”. It then charges households a fixed weekly sum for covering 80-90% of their power needs.

Tersum’s business model is different, generating renewable energy from waste, solar and wind. The business partners with community associations to develop new projects, with the community earning a fee.

Both offer communities more reliable power with the capacity to stabilise demand, make the grid more resilient and the microgrid more immune to blackouts.

Warren Blackwood MLA, Terry Redman, told the forum of his own experiences going off-grid at his home. Faced with a prospect of paying $70,000 to connect to the grid, he opted instead for self-sufficiency using a 15kw system with lead-carbon batteries.

LED lights and a heat pump for hot water helped to reduce energy demand.

Improving the atmosphere

Mr Redman told the Bridgetown Star that WA had a less toxic political atmosphere on climate change and renewable energy than existed nationally.

He said there’s a broad cross-party consensus on the need for de-carbonisation and a willingness to look at microgrids and renewable energy systems.

In contrast to his federal National Party colleagues, he’s a firm believer in the science of climate change.

“And that sits well with the National Party,” Mr Redman said.

“We’re not going to be apologists for our Federal colleagues,” he said.

“Anyone that’s reading the tea-leaves will know that coal-fired power stations in Western Australia, once they’re at the end of their lives, then shut them down.”

 

He thinks because we’re an isolated grid that’s not hooked into the national energy market we’ve got the opportunity in Western Australia to make something work while maintaining the state-wide grid.

Western Australia’s state-owned grid has given us a distinct advantage he believes.

He said renewable energy technology is moving fast and coupling it with communications technology can solve local electricity problems.

The technology works best in regional Western Australia, he believes, and we’re well placed to take advantage of it.

Community groups keen to establish a microgrid should start discussing their idea with Western Power first to ensure the solution is complementary to their needs, he said.

“Anything that hooks into the grid has an impact on that, so Western Power has to be supportive of it.”

“They’ve got examples of that, including Margaret River, where community batteries are playing a role to support the network,” he said.

“If the business strategy stacks up then you can go ahead, if it doesn’t then you’ve got to find some funding support to get the initiative up.”

He’s excited about the prospects but thinks there are a few hurdles to be overcome.

Ultimately, however, he believes batteries and microgrids have a big role to play in stabilising the grid and providing cheaper, cleaner and more reliable power to country communities.