Renewable Energy & Microgrids

We are relying more and more on renewable energy for our everyday lives thanks to developments in energy storage technologies. Not only this, but advancements in micro-grids are creating a plethora of options for the future of energy distribution. 

With solar panels and alternative energy storage systems becoming more prevalent in homes across the country, micro-grids are becoming widespread. A micro-grid is an autonomous energy grid which can operate in parallel with, or independently to, the traditional grid.

Head of Research at non-profit organisation ClimateWork Amandine Denis is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, but knows it won’t be simple. “A grid of the future that relies heavily on renewables will be complex,” she said. She believes the most important advances will come from technology that is used to balance supply and demand in the grid  – such as energy saving appliances, data mining and IT systems.

What is renewable energy going to look like?

As the price of generating solar power falls, a continued number of Aussie homes and businesses will move to alternative energy sources. The use of solar panels and batteries will reduce the amount of power required from the grid, which will be especially noticeable at peak demand.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance claims by 2040, solar power installed in Australia will create around 2.5 times the electricity generated from coal. It is also predicted that half of the residential homes in Australia will have solar panels by the same year. Solar energy is expected to surge from 2020 onwards.1

Electric vehicles, energy efficient appliances and LED light bulbs are other technologies, which will help consumers be more energy efficient and reduce carbon emissions.

Read more: Going solar – what you need to know

Home solar batteries are a reality

Large-scale generation

While not very well known to most consumers, there are a number of alternative energygeneration technologies helping to reduce emissions.

Combined-cycle gas turbines are one example as they successfully generate double the power from the same fuel load. Using natural gas to power one turbine, which has its exhaust heat captured to drive a second turbine, is how this works.

Other examples include:

●      Utility scale solar PV projects.

●      Concentrated solar power using mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight or solar thermal energy onto a small area.

●      Wave and tidal generation technologies which use the ocean’s energy.

●      Direct injection carbon engines, which use coal dust to drive low-emission engines.

●      The ‘supercritical’ technologies in which much higher temperatures and pressures are reached than in typical coal and gas power stations, creating greater efficiencies.

The Australian Power Generation Technology Report conducted by the CO2CRC found all these renewable energy technologies have benefits and drawbacks.

“No single technology is optimal across all metrics, so the ideal grid should include a mix of technologies,” it read.2


“No single technology is optimal across all metrics, so the ideal grid should include a mix of technologies.”


Smart power

The ‘smart grid’ will likely be the key of future technologies, with real-time data analysis crucial in order to balance the system, as large numbers of Australian households and businesses putting power into the grid. In order to understand how much power is generated and its storage/usage pattern, grid operators will read ‘behind the meter’.

A number of smart technologies such as smart meters and home energy management systems can also be combined to remotely monitor and control energy usage at a household and appliance level.

Smart meters enable ‘time-of-use pricing’, which gives households the option to turn off appliances at times of high demand. Such a feature benefits the broader energy supply system as it avoids the need to add more generation into the grid.

The Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Energy Council believes that productivity gains of up to 40 per cent are possible in Australia’s energy sector if price-use signals and smart meters are integrated. Parts of the United States and the European Union have mandatory smart meter usage, as does Victoria. 

Going micro

Two of the largest costs associated in our grids are the poles and wires required for distribution and the cost of meeting peak demand. The Productivity Commission found that in New South Wales just 40 hours of peak usage accounted for 25% of a household’s annual bill.3

While it’s obvious smart meters provide information to help flatten demand spikes, the cost of Australia’s geographically massive electricity grid is harder to remedy. Australia’s largest grid runs from Queensland, through the south-eastern states, down to Tasmania and across to South Australia, but serves a relatively small population.

While the network boasts one of the world’s highest reliability rates of 99.998 per cent uptime,4 supporting the capital requirements of huge grids could come down to efficiency tools such as smart meters as well as micro-grids.

In a micro-grid, community power needs are met by local generation. The environmental attraction of these is that they can be ‘off the grid’ and largely run on renewable energy. However, from an engineering perspective, micro-grids can also have lower energy transmission losses because the electricity is consumed in closer proximity to where it’s generated.


“Australia’s largest grid boasts one of the world’s highest reliability rates.”


As most micro-grids will have back-up power, the Siemens company has developed a plan5 for a 50 MW Australian micro-grid, which is enough to power around 10,000 homes. Siemens believes the power generated from solar panels on roofs and stored in solar cells will make up 40 MW of this power. The remaining 10 MW will be generated from a high efficiency/low emissions (HELE) natural gas turbine, which has the reliability of fossil fuels and very low emissions.

Technology cost curve

The Australia Energy Technology Assessments from the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics estimates the change in the costs of 40 technologies by 2050.
Author Arif Syed believes current energy scenarios differ because of the struggle in predicting technology and its impact. 
“Technology changes everything. The current forecasts from the CO2CRC suggest that by 2030 the costs of power from renewables and fossil fuels will be the same,” he said. However, Mr Syed said there are grid systems requirements that can’t be met by wind and solar alone. “We can’t have a 100 per cent renewables grid,” he said. “Yes, we have to decarbonise our electricity supply but consumers expect reliability regardless of where the power comes from.”

References

  1. Solar 3.0: A Distributed Energy Future? Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 2015. Slide 10
  2. Australian Power Generation Technology Report, CO2CRC 2015
  3. Electricity Network Regulation, Productivity Commission, 2013
  4. The NEM Reliability Standard, AEMC Reliability Panel May 2013
  5. The New Economy, ‘Australia’s Energy Future Could be Network of Renewable Micro-Grids’, October 13, 2015

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