Wind, sun switch on the isolated
A rebate system for renewables drives the provision of reliable, 24- hour electricity, writes Derek Parker
WHEN it comes to turning on the electricity, most Australians merely have to flick a switch, courtesy of the grid that ties most of the country into an efficient, cost- effective network. For those in remote communities, however, power is a less certain proposition, and is always more expensive than in the cities. In the past the near- universal method of electricity generation in remote communities has been diesel generators, but there’s a move towards other solutions.
A key driver of the shift is an Australian government scheme called the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program ( RRPGP). The program was set up in 2000 with funding of $ 205 million, to be distributed via state government agencies and based on the amount of diesel fuel excise paid. But in August last year, the funding arrangements were changed to make the program uniform across the nation, and an additional $ 123.5 million was added to the fund.
The program provides a 50 per cent rebate to offset the capital costs of establishing a renewable energy system for remote communities, or even remote households. To date, over 4000 rebates have been paid.
‘‘ The most common form of renewable energy used by remote communities is solar power,’’ says Denis Smedley, director of the Renewable Energy Deployment Team in the Australian Greenhouse Office, which administers the RRPGP. ‘‘ But it’s really a matter of what sort of generation method is most suitable for a community, depending on the local environment and the community’s needs. Wind power is more suitable in some places, or even micro hydro- electricity plants which can operate in a flowing stream.’’
A problem with wind and solar power is its variable nature, even though the electricity that is generated can be stored in batteries. Renewable sources are used to displace power from diesel generators, reducing the use of generators and the need to transport diesel over long distances.
‘‘ For many remote communities, it means having 24- hour power for the first time,’’ says Smedley. ‘‘ And that means a significant improvement in the quality of life, ranging from food refrigeration to the storage of medical supplies. The switchover from one source to another is automatic, and these systems have proved to be very reliable.
‘‘ We do not provide technical advice to applicants for RRPGP support, but we have a developed a significant amount of expertise as to what works and what doesn’t at the project level, and we are happy to share that knowledge if it means that the program works more effectively.’’
Smedley points to a number of projects that he sees as particularly significant. One, which involved a grant of $ 3.425 million, supported the installation of a system of solar energy concentrating dishes to generate power for the communities of Hermannsburg, Yuendumu and Lajamanu in the Northern Territory. These projects, managed by Solar Systems NT, will generate 1560 megawatt hours of renewable electricity each year, reducing diesel consumption by more than 400,000 litres per year and greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1100 tonnes per year.
The technology works by focusing sunlight onto a receiver that contains highly efficient photovoltaic cells that generate the electricity. The heat generated is removed by a closed loop water- cooling system and can be utilised for other purposes, such as increasing evaporation rates in sewage ponds.
Another power scheme supported by the RRPGP is the Bushlight project, operating in the Alice Springs region and aimed at assisting indigenous communities. The project uses flat- plate photovoltaic panels; so far, 93 systems have been installed. A key feature of the project has been the creation of mobile service teams designed to assist communities with education, advice, repairs and maintenance of renewable remote area power supply systems. The RRPGP has provided about $ 15.5 million in funds for the project.
Island communities have also benefited from the funding program. Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, received a grant of $ 1.925 million for a wind turbine system to supply up to 40 per cent its energy needs. This will save about 430,000 litres of diesel a year, with the turbine system also providing power for the island’s desalination plant.
The shift to renewable energy has even reached Australia’s Antarctica territory, with the planned installation of two large- scale wind turbines at Mawson Base. The project has funding of $ 750,000 to expand hydrogen production and storage facilities, and to incorporate a fuel cell and other hydrogen technologies into Mawson’s systems.
RRPGP funds are also being directed into research, with $ 5.5 million going towards the Research Institute for Sustainable Energy at Murdoch University in Western Australia. Projects currently under way include research into biodiesel and hydrogen fuel cells, as well as testing standards for small wind turbines, and the possible level of contribution that renewable energy resources can make to the national grid.
Solar: Reigning on the roof