Australia: remote communities to add 10 MW of offgrid projects

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischnkecht, Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and NT Chief Minister Adam Giles launched a program to provide offgrid solar systems for 30 remote indigenous communities in Australia’s vast Northern Territory. There is some irony that Macfarlane launched the program as his government dramatically scaled back the previous government’s Remote Indigenous Energy Program (REIP) program that subsidized offgrid PV systems for Aboriginal communities. Furthermore, Macfarlane’s government has repeatedly attempted to close ARENA and, unable to do so, has substantially cut its funding.

The PV systems in this latest NT offgrid scheme will aim at displacing diesel fuel for electricity generation in the remote communities, aiming at 15% displacement across the majority of the sites. At one site, Naulyu on the Daly river, 50% diesel replacement will be targeted, with advanced cloud forecasting and energy storage being deployed with a 1 MW PV system.

The Power and Water Corporation (PWC), through its subsidiary Indigenous Essential Services, will manage the program.

“ARENA is very pleased to be partnering with Indigenous Essential Services – a subsidiary of PWC – to deliver this exciting project,” said ARENA’s Frischnecht. “The project will open the door to a more diverse, secure energy mix for off-grid communities, and will also create local jobs and boost skills during construction and operation.”

“Importantly, the project will demonstrate the enormous advantages of solar/diesel hybrid systems in delivering cost-effective, reliable and safe power to remote locations,” Frischnecht added.

With no grid connection, many remote indigenous communities rely exclusively on expensive diesel for electricity generation. Not only does this leave communities exposed to price fluctuations but it also does not deliver 24/7 electricity, as few can afford or technically can run generators day or night. As such, adding solar – particularly when coupled with battery arrays – not only reduces the cost of electricity supply to these communities but also improves the quality of electricity supply.

Project delivery

Dumus Yildiz is the managing director to solar installers and project developer Solarmatrix, which has worked on remote PV arrays for around 14 years. He says that it was disappointing that the federal government wound back the REIP program, from 40 projects to 15, as delivering arrays to remote communities remains expensive because of the vast distances components must be transported.

“What people sometimes don’t see with remote area power systems, in comparison to a diesel generator, especially in a communal level or on a pastoral station level is that if you don’t have a solar system you hardly ever have 24-hour power supply, because there aren’t that many people who would run their generator for 24 hours,” Yildiz told pv magazine. “They might buffer it with a small battery bank. But you can never run a generator for 24 hours and [especially] fully loaded. Going towards a solar system may look in the first instance expensive, but a solar system actually offers 24-hour power. It’s an immense change in quality of life, if you talk to pastoralists or anybody in remote locations.”

Solarmatrix had provided four arrays under the REIP program and said that transportation is a major component in project costs and remote maintenance is also problematic.

“One of the challenges [in delivering remote offgrid projects] is to go to the locations where Aboriginal communities are. Often they don’t live near good roads. To give you an example, one project that we did took 14 hours to travel 600km,” explained Yildiz. “Just the freight to ship the components, was $25,000 for a 40 kW system – that is how much you would pay to buy a system here [in Perth, Western Australia].”

The ARENA / PWC projects are not eh first time the two organizations have collaborated. Previousy they have carried out joint research and knowledge sharing projects and PWC has committed to continue to employ renewable energy as its “business as usual” operations.