Western Australia eyes off-grid solar+storage in wake of bushfires

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Australian electricity suppliers Horizon Power, Western Power and Synergy now offer their customers the option of solar-powered stand-alone power systems to avoid outages caused by maintenance on the network or damaging weather-related events, such as bushfires.

873 power poles, 77 transmission poles, 44 transformers and up to 50 kilometers of power lines were destroyed in the South West bushfire in November last year. In January, Western Power has announced a AU$26 million (US$19.5 million) network reconstruction to repair the damage.

But the natural disaster, which resulted in the biggest restoration job for the utilities, has opened new opportunities for the off-grid solutions.

“We identified that instead of rebuilding this part of the network – which is more susceptible to adverse weather and other causes of power interruptions – we could offer these customers a dedicated renewable energy power system which is not connected to the grid,” Horizon Power Managing Director Frank Tudor said in the announcement.

Horizon Power, in partnership with Western Power and Synergy, has announced a 12-month stand-alone power systems pilot to evaluate the use of off-grid power generators in rural areas. It is not new for the power users in Western Australia to take advantage of evolving technology and falling costs to generate their own electricity. However, it is unusual for these stand-alone systems to be owned and operated by a utility.

According to the announcement, the project involves installing up to 10 stand-alone systems equipped with solar panels, battery, inverter and backup diesel generator. The systems can supply continuous power 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather.

Those who decide to volunteer for the pilot will be disconnected from the grid for 12 months. During this time they will provide information and feedback on living with the stand-alone system. At the end of the pilot, customers will have the option to decide whether they want to reconnect to the network or remain off-grid.

Four customers across five properties have already taken the opportunity to partner with Horizon Power on this project. “The customers will pay the same cost for their electricity supplied by these units as they did previously for power supplied by poles and wires,” Frank Tudor said.

Notwithstanding the small number of volunteers, just four to date, the fact that large utilities start to offer stand-alone solutions to their customers represents an important step in the development of the global off-grid solar market. According to the Off-Grid Market Trends Report 2016 published earlier this month by BNEF, the number of households relying on off-grid solar as their primary or secondary energy source will rise from 25 million in 2015 to 99 million by 2020.