Remote power gains pace in Australia

A February rule-change by the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) has opened the way to more widespread employment of Stand-Alone Power Systems (SAPS). The change enables electricity distribution companies to set up SAPS — typically, a solar array, battery storage and diesel generator back-up — at locations where it will prove less expensive, more reliable and safer than supplying power using traditional poles and wires.

SAPS will provide mostly renewable energy to individuals and communities.

As of 2015, SAPS have been trialled with considerable success in Western Australia. There, in the aftermath of that year’s Esperance bushfires which destroyed more than 320 power poles and hundreds of kilometres of power lines, Horizon Power, the state-owned regional and remote energy provider, has installed solar-and-battery SAPS to serve affected customers.

The company has since committed to deliver over 1,000 SAPS across the regions and in remote Aboriginal communities. This is as part of a broader $75 million Renew the Regions initiative – itself a part of the state government’s Recovery Plan. More recent installations of another 45 SAPS will lead to the removal of 120km worth of poles and wires from private paddocks — an added benefit that has proven attractive to farmers.

In 2019, Western Power, the manager of WA’s grid, described SAPS as the front-runner technology in terms of underpinning power reliability in the state’s remote and regional areas. Three years into its own trials, it made some significant wins by using standalone solar and storage on certain parts of its grid. These included the avoidance of 71 hours of outages a year, as well as contributing to decarbonisation.

WA, however, sits off the National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM is both a wholesale electricity market and the distribution system. It covers all Australian states with the exception of Western Australia and the Northern Territories and consists of 40,000km of transmission lines and cable, providing 200TWh to 9 million customers.

Until the recent rule-change, across the rest of the NEM SAPS have not been considered a part of the network(s), or covered by standards covering consistent reliability or consumer protection.

“We now have agreement on a staged implementation, beginning August this year,” AEMC Chair Anna Collyer commented, following gazetting of the change in the South Australia parliament and publication by the market rule-maker.

“This allows electricity distributors to establish SAPS in communities where stand-alone power may be cheaper, safer and more reliable than grid supply, in jurisdictions that have opted into the new framework.

“Particularly in remote, bushfire-prone areas, SAPS do away with the need to replace damaged grid connections at significant expense.

“In fact, the power infrastructure that connects communities to the grid can also cause bushfires, which is another reason SAPS are attractive alternatives to traditional network connections in those areas.”

Collyer added that electricity distributors were predicting that SAPS solutions might cater for several thousand customers in the next decade. Their use could expand even faster as grid connections reached the ends of their service lives.

“This is a timely rule change as we continue to transition to a renewable energy future. It increases the reliability and resilience of energy supply in remote areas, as well as reducing network costs for all customers,” she continued. “Maintaining and replacing traditional older power lines and related infrastructure is a major cost in a country the size of Australia.”

The rule changes apply to new distributor-led SAPS. Existing microgrids and other independent power systems will continue to be managed under state and territory legislation. The changes will operate on an opt-in basis, as some states may need to make amendments to their own legislation to accommodate SAPS.