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Microgrids get ahead amid energy drama

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Eight communities selected to test microgrids could be safe from the threat of blackouts and bill shocks.

But keeping the power going after devastating bushfires was a driving motivation for Bjorn Sturmberg, technical manager of the solar and battery project.

Microgrids, using a mix of renewables and energy storage, are small grids that can be independent from the main grid. They are becoming an increasingly vital option for regional and remote communities.

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Firestorms lead to outages that cut off access to cash, shut down gas and diesel tanks, cut off vital health care, and eliminate air conditioning and refrigeration for homes and businesses.

The Australian National University’s Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program selected eight communities on the New South Wales south coast for the federally funded pilot program.

Bodalla, Broulee, Central Tilba and Tilba Tilba (working together), Congo, Mystery Bay, Nelligen, South Durras and Tuross Head will connect and provide guidance to regional communities across Australia.

“We hope this approach will inspire other regional projects, policy makers and funders,” said Dr Sturmberg.

The sites selected are all vulnerable with a history of outages, high residential occupancy rates rather than empty holiday homes, many elderly people, people with disabilities and many rooftop solar panels already installed which can connect to a community battery.

“As new technologies are considered, we need to make sure we solve the problems the technology is meant to solve, taking into account local priorities,” said social scientist Hedda Ransan-Cooper.

“So if the overall goal is for grid-connected microgrids to build regional resilience, we really need to consider the differences between communities, in terms of who lives there and what infrastructure is already there.”

In addition to the ANU, project partners include the Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance which initiated the project, network company NSW Essential Energy and Canberra-based electricity software company Zepben.

Alliance President Kathryn Maxwell said decentralizing energy systems makes sense to keep energy affordable.

The team looked at issues such as “consultation fatigue” after extensive investigations into the Black Summer fires, cultural and ethnic diversity, and the layout of the city and existing power grid.

Various micro-grid designs, ranging from backup power for community shelters and essential services to large systems serving the entire community, will be tested.

“Now that this project is focused on these areas of Eurobodalla, we can begin to understand what this energy system might look like from a community perspective,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Generating and consuming electricity locally will also have significant economic benefits in terms of employment and keeping local money.”

Selected sites include small communities with fewer than 100 residents, medium townships with around 300 residents, and larger towns with 2,000 residents.

Network company Essential Energy said the announcement of the eight sites was an important step in understanding how technology can best support different communities.

“Microgrids will no doubt be part of our larger future grid to help local communities work together to access more resilient, cleaner and cheaper energy,” said Luke Jenner, COO.