Solar plus storage becoming "new normal" in rural and remote Australia

Rapidly falling costs in solar and battery storage technology, coupled with an increasing familiarity with the technology is driving these solutions into the mainstream in remote areas of Australia. In Western Australia a growing number of innovative solutions are providing proof of the technological solution and its economic advantages.

In a demonstration of the shift in thinking that is taking place, the state’s Minister of Energy Mike Nahan has acknowledged the strong economic case for solar+storage and has called for the state’s rural and remote utility to accelerate its uptake. Nahan has previously expressed doubts about renewable energy and, as a strong advocate of free-market principals, is not a supporter of subsidies for renewable deployment.

In response to questions raised in the WA parliament last week about the poor level electricity supply to the remote mining town of Ravensthorpe, Nahan said that the local utility Horizon is investigating a number of solutions including a micro-grid with decentralized solar component.

“I am not a technologist,” Nahan initially cautioned. “[However] we could tell everybody in Ravensthorpe to put in solar and have a wind–diesel–solar combination. They already have a micro-grid. These are the things that Horizon is supposed to look at, and we will go down and discuss it.”

Nahan continued that he had “entrusted” the utility to come up with alternative electricity solutions for supplies to remote towns such as Ravensthorpe. He has also appointed a renewable energy expert, Ray Wills, to the board of the utility. Wills is the former head of the now-defunct Sustainable Energy Association.

The parliamentary exchange was reported by the leading Australian cleantech site RenewEconomy.

This shift in thinking comes after a UBS report last month that solar+storage is already economic in some parts of Australia.

Real-world applications

While the apparent about-face of the WA Energy Minister is impressive, solar+storage arrays are going into remote Australian communities on an increasingly regular basis.

In the mid-west region of Western Australia, the Meta Maya Regional Aboriginal Corporation has announced that it will install a 100 kW solar+storage system at its headquarters in Wedgefield, Port Hedland. The array will be coupled with a 76 kWh lithium ion battery bank and backed up by a 40 kW diesel generator.

Due to technical constraints put on solar arrays by the utility Horizon Power, it made financial sense for the Meta Maya Corporation to go off the grid. EMC Solar Construction will supply and install the system.

“EMC had been engaged to install a grid connect solar array at our new office and depot in Port Hedland, but due to constraints required by Horizon Power, the system was not financially viable,” said Luke van Zeller, Meta Maya’s GM. “EMC was able to engineer and demonstrate that we would be better off installing a larger solar array connected to a large battery that would produce and store all of the energy we would need, and at a lower cost than our current Horizon tariff.”

Meta Meyer, which provides a range of services across the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia, hopes to begin developing similar off grid solutions for industries in communities in the area. These include remote Aboriginal communities, mining companies and agricultural operations – all of which can be literally thousands of kilometers from major electricity grids.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of energy consumers who are willing to take courageous efforts to side-step the constraints that are being imposed on them by the electricity suppliers,” said EMC’s John Davidson. “Meta Maya is one of those companies that has a vested interest in finding better ways to provide power and water services to the remote communities of Western Australia.”

Mary’s Farm Cottages 40 kW system

In the south of the vast state, solar+storage arrays are also proving economic. In the grain-growing region inland and south of the state capital of Perth, a 40 kW solar+storage system has been installed to supply holiday accommodation on local rural property.

Local off grid specialists Solarmatrix designed the system, carried out the assembly at is headquarters in Perth. A 188 kWh Sonnenschein battery system has been coupled with 6 SMA Sunny Island 3-phase battery inverters to store the solar electricity. A 50 kWA diesel generator provides backup power, however Solarmatrix notes that it hasn’t been used even once since the solar+storage system was commissioned on October 27.

Solarmatrix notes that solar+batteries provides not only cheaper electricity in these remote off grid applications but also provides far more reliable power, as most diesel generators aren’t designed for 24/7 use.

The system will be inaugurated by the local member of parliament next week.

The system was partly funded by a regional tourism grant. Solarmatrix has previously installed a number of off grid solar arrays with battery systems in remote communities.

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