Australia Decentralises

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A Tyalgum resident poses with his electric bike

…one town at a time – electric biker in Tyalgum

When folks first hear about Tyalgum, in East Australia they picture Mad Max.

Steampunk locals power this dieselpunk outpost with renewable, ethanol-based Guzzolene. Tyalgum has free Wi-Fi and a day spa.

Tyalgum is also going off the grid.

And for the people in this bohemian town in Australia’s east coast hinterland, the stakes are high.

A tourist may be forgiven for ignoring the harsh realities of climate change in such a picturesque spot, but the locals are serious. They’re concerned about carbon emissions and rising temperatures. They’re sick of relying on coal-fired power stations for their electricity.

They’re not the only ones. As the existential threat of climate change grows, people and communities across the world are growing frustrated with governments dragging their feet on environmental policy and investment in renewable energy.

Australia is deeply dependent on fossil fuels, with around 90 percent of the country’s energy generation coming from oil, coal and gas. Australia’s federal government is unabashedly pro-coal. While other nations turn to renewables, Australia contemplates building a massive coal mine in the northeast of the country. When debates about volatile power prices hit the news, Australian politicians call for the construction of more coal-burning power plants. In 2017, the deputy prime minister at the time said he would support clean energy targets — if they included coal.

But climate change is real, and Eastern Australia is feeling the effects. With unstable energy prices, statewide blackouts and a fierce debate over fossil fuels, more Australians than ever want to take action on electricity.

For the people of Tyalgum, solar is the future.

That’s where the Tyalgum Energy Project comes in. The ambitious project wants to power the entire town with 100 percent renewable energy and, one day, begin selling excess power to the wider local area, turning Tyalgum into a community-owned energy retailer in its own right.

Tyalgum isn’t alone. Far from it. Just down the road, the town of Lismore switched on Australia’s first community-owned solar project back in January. The 99kW solar farm floats on the overflow pond at the town’s sewage treatment plant.

From homeowners installing a few solar panels on the roof to entire community-owned solar projects, Australians are starting to take back their power.

There’s a reason Australia is called the “sunburnt country.” The continent has the highest solar radiation per square meter in the world, according to Geoscience Australia. Despite its sunny disposition, the country is 15th on the World Bank’s ranking for sustainable energy use.

Australian communities and businesses are beginning to switch to renewables, though. Elon Musk’s Tesla, best known for electric cars, just installed the “world’s biggest” lithium-ion battery farm in South Australia. AGL, one of the country’s biggest energy providers, has plans to convert one of its ageing coal-fired power stations into a clean energy hub. And the country’s biggest beer maker, Carlton United Breweries, is moving toward sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewables. Yes, a cold tinnie of Victoria Bitter will soon be even greener.

Despite this push, the love affair with coal is still strong Down Under.

While Australia has committed to lowering emissions, its current energy policy depends on fossil fuels to ensure “reliability” in the grid. As politicians debate energy use, a faction of conservative federal politicians recently formed a lobbying group that warns against the “demonization” of coal. Last year, the country’s treasurer even turned up to Parliament with a lump of coal as a prop. “Don’t be scared,” he cried. “It won’t hurt you!”

While political infighting over energy policy continues, Australians want certainty over power, and they’re turning away from the power companies in the process. That means returning to Australia’s frontier spirit and the concept of living “off the grid.”

But taking a whole town completely off the grid is a formidable goal. According to the Australian Energy Market Commission, which acts as the policy adviser to the federal government, residents can’t be taken off-grid unless they consent. This means towns that want to cut off their grid connection need the buy-in of everyone in the community — eco-warriors and climate-change skeptics alike.

For communities like Tyalgum that are small but still served by the mainstream grid, the best option is to go “grid neutral” (where you use your own renewable power rather than grid-provided electricity) or “grid positive” (where you maintain your grid connection to sell the surplus power you’re generating back into the network).

For some towns in the far-flung reaches of the Australian outback, though, being off grid is the only option.

The Never Never

In the middle of Australia, 1,700 kilometers west of Sydney, the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy has always been off-grid. Not by choice, but by necessity. That does not mean it has always used clean energy, though.

This town redefines the word remote. To the south lies the desolate stretch of Australia known as the Nullarbor (Latin for “no trees”). To the north, there are the red sands of the Simpson Desert, or what locals call the “Never Never.”

With summer temperatures regularly pushing above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the realities of extreme weather are ever-present. The sun is so strong that most of the residents of Coober Pedy live underground, with air vents dotted across the red landscape leading to subterranean homes and businesses.

Coober Pedy is finally using the harsh environment to its advantage, thanks to the Coober Pedy Renewable Hybrid Power Project.

Last July, the town switched on 1MW of solar, 4MW of wind and a 500kWh battery. Before the hybrid project, Coober Pedy relied on a 3.9MW diesel power station and trucked in the expensive diesel to run it. Now renewable energy provides about 70 percent of the town’s needs, and the power station is just a backup. In fact, Coober Pedy has already marked days where 100 percent of its power has come from renewables.

Similar projects on Kangaroo Island (yes, it’s a real place off the coast of South Australia) and King Island (between the island of Tasmania and the Australian mainland) are trying to do the same thing for those remote communities, making them more self-sustaining with wind and solar generation.

For Coober Pedy, it’s been a game changer. With no power grid serving the town and the state capital of Adelaide a nine hour’s drive away, trucking in diesel had been prohibitively expensive and faults in the power network were slow to get fixed.

They say, ‘It’s expensive’. But it’s going to be more expensive if none of us can bloody breathe. Jason Wright

Jason Wright, who works at one of the town’s famous underground hotels, remembers the diesel days well. Speaking over the phone from Coober Pedy, looking out across the Never Never, he says the power “was always buggered.”

“With the diesel generators, there were always blackouts and brownouts,” he says. EDL, the company behind the project, “came in with these two big windmills and the solar panels, and ever since it’s been extremely reliable.”

It’s strange to think that this mining town of 3,500 people has been quicker to adopt renewables than many parts of Australia. But Wright has a message for the rest of the country.

“Just put the bloody solar panels and the wind in and stop telling us it’s unreliable,” he says. “They say, ‘It’s expensive’. But it’s going to be more expensive if none of us can bloody breathe.”

Community energy

Tyalgum is the exact opposite of a desert-frontier town like Coober Pedy.

An hour’s drive from an international airport, past sugarcane fields and a theme park devoted to tropical fruit, it’s nestled in the fertile caldera of an extinct volcano. Tyalgum looks like a quaint Aussie town plonked down in the middle of Hawaii.

When Andrew Price first arrived in town, he was attracted to that laid-back atmosphere.

“It’s just this little hidden world out here,” says Price. “What I saw here was an opportunity.”

He bought the town’s old butter factory on the main street and turned it into an education center to teach locals and road-tripping tourists about renewables. The idea grew. Soon Price and his small team developed a concept for community-owned power and founded the Tyalgum Energy Project.

Step one: Help locals install solar panels and battery storage to reduce grid-provided energy use.

Step two: Install energy monitors in meter boxes to get a picture of how much power the town uses.

Step three: Park a couple of solar-powered electric bikes outside the general store to help sell tourists on the future of green energy.

But that’s just the beginning.

Price wants to install a solar array in the paddock on Tyalgum’s main street, currently home to a herd of friendly cows. The goal is to transform the panels into an architectural feature, by creating a solar-covered walkway that connects the local school and the butter factory.

With this move, Tyalgum could generate enough power to be self-sustaining.

But Price is pragmatic. He recognizes that taking Tyalgum completely off the grid would be difficult.

“Our thinking has changed a little bit in the last two years,” explains Price.

He still wants to build an off-grid-capable system, but the plan is to keep that grid connection intact. That way Tyalgum can generate its own solar power and sell the excess back to the grid. With support from local residents investing as shareholders, Tyalgum will then become a community-run energy retailer.

Many people in Tyalgum are already on board.

Longtime resident Pallidan Nova works at the town’s cafe, Flutterbies, a converted bakery that looks like an eccentric jungle treehouse. He shows me the solar panels and battery setup at the cafe that provide 40 percent of the business’ power.

For Nova, the Tyalgum Energy Project isn’t just about cheap power. It represents a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s a model for a better way forward.

“With small towns at the end of the grid, it sometimes costs more to send power that far down the grid, and we often get power cuts,” he said. “It’s great to look at small towns like us because we’re the perfect situation for a change in the system.”

Mick Julien, who’s a member of the Tyalgum District Community Association, agrees.

“I’m hoping that Tyalgum will be a pilot,” Julien says. “I think there’s a lot of people waiting to see what can happen and how to make it happen.”

We’re wedded to coal for the time being, but we need to be phasing out of it. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Why not do it sooner? Mick Julien

Green is the new black

The move to renewables can’t come soon enough. Climate change, driven by fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, is a pressing issue. Australia is keenly feeling its effects.

Climate change has led sea levels to rise three inches in 25 years, has devastated Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and has been pushing some of Australia’s closest island neighbours to the brink. Fiji, off Australia’s east coast, is already investigating the legal implications for climate refugees who are displaced by rising sea levels.

Back in Tyalgum, after a day of tropical heat and squally cloudbursts of rain, the sun is going down. Outside the general store, a lone newspaper poster shows the day’s headline.

“Coal is the new black,” it reads, riffing on the government’s current bid to keep selling the public on the benefits of coal power.

Julien is hoping that focus will change.

“We’re wedded to coal for the time being, but we need to be phasing out of it,” he said. “It’s going to happen sooner or later. Why not do it sooner? And why not get Australia involved in the economies involved with that?”

With the Tyalgum Energy Project, Price is hoping to capitalize on that burgeoning renewable energy industry and make the world a little greener in the process. He doesn’t want Tyalgum to be another town at the end of the grid that clings to fossil fuels. In fact, in 10 or 20 years, he doesn’t want Tyalgum to be that different at all. He wants it to be “normal.”

“I’m hoping,” he says, “that Tyalgum doesn’t stand out from other communities by then, that it’s just become mainstream and that decentralized power and sustainable living practices are just par for the course.”

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Rechargeable Batteries Dirty Little Secret

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Skip to about the 3:10 mark to get to the heart of the video about rechargeable batteries. In the video he talks about simplifying the devices he has in order to get rid of odd batteries sizes (always a good idea), why you should have (which are great to have), battery storage ideas, why the … Continue reading “Rechargeable Batteries Dirty Little Secret”

Musk offers Australian energy fix

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Energy, Tesla, South Australia, Energy, Battery Storage,

Oh, Twitter is now the place to do business!

Elon Musk bold claim

Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a bold claim – he could fix South Australia’s power crisis. Better still if he couldn’t do it in 100 days, it would be free. The region has been suffering from blackouts which have been more severe since closure of North Power Station in Port Augusta last May. These blackouts and spikes in energy prices caused a number of farmers in South Australia to off-grid solutions.

It all began with a tweet…

A tweet from the co-founder of Atlassian Corp, a software development company, Mike Cannon-Brookes began the whole conversation. He sent out a plea, offering to fund and support a project for battery storage if Elon Musk could supply the technology to solve the blackout crisis. A short time later and Cannon-Brookes had his reply:

“Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. Serious enough for you?”

Of course Mike sent an excited reply back, “You’re on mate.”

This exchange came just a day after the launch of the Tesla Powerwall 2 and Powerpack 2, which are for grid and industrial scale application, respectively. Lyndon Rive, who heads Tesla’s battery division, was at the launch. He commented that Elon Musk has many big pipeline battery storage projects aimed for grid applications. These would help to manage peak demand and would help to solve South Australia’s current grid stresses. By using the existing infrastructure and adding battery storage, the problem is solved. Elon Musk considers there is no need to go down the “clean coal” path that the Australian government have been considering, he added.

The Financial Review reported that Rive also said that by coupling together large centralized storage with residential and commercial solar and battery storage it would be “near impossible to take the grid down”.

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Australia Battery Storage Battle

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Battery storage, Battery, solar, Australia, energy, blackouts,

Could big batteries solve the blackouts?

After Elon Musk’s recent Twitter claim to solve South Australia’s energy problem in 100 days, Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Prime Minister, seems to have sat up and taken notice. According to reports, Turnbull phoned Musk and had a positive conversation about the storage technology Tesla could offer. This has led to prominent figures in Australia’s energy sector encouraging Turnbull to give Australian companies a chance before turning to Tesla’s project.

Several Australian solar and battery companies have ongoing projects at various stages of completion, which are similar to Musk’s proposal. Zen Energy has recently unveiled its “Big Battery Project” which is being worked on ready for summer time when there is the greatest stress on the grid. The project is one of several taking place in the Upper Spencer Gulf region in South Australia. This area has been hit especially hard since the closure of the power station at Port Augusta. The large scale solar developments and storage at various places throughout the region aim to lower energy costs and improve energy security.

The Big Battery Project

Located at Port Augusta, funding has already been secured for the project. A battery with 50 megawatt hours of energy will not only stabilise the grid but also wholesale electricity prices. Owned by external investors, the battery and its interaction with the grid will be managed by Zen Energy. It will absorb electricity from the grid when cheap and abundant and then be a supply source when scarce. Professor Ross Garnout, Zen Energy chairman, said “The blackouts that we’ve had in the last year would not have happened if this was in place.”

Zen Energy is also looking into larger battery options to provide greater security in energy provision. An additional 100 megawatt battery which would act as a buffer supply interruption as occurred in the recent February heatwave. Whereas, a 150 megawatt battery would stabilise grid power and voltage during sudden outage situations, such as the state-wide blackout in September.

Lyon Solar also have projects up their sleeve

Zen Energy isn’t the only company working on large scale battery storage projects. Lyon Solar is developing the Kingfisher Project – a combined solar and battery storage plant to be located in Roxby Downs. Being connected to the National Electricity Market, the aim is to deliver 100 megawatts of solar photovoltaic power. Initially plans were for a minimum of 20 megawatt hours of storage. But this has been upped to 100 MWh, providing energy security across the region. It is planned to begin operating commercially before the end of 2017.

Although receiving no funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), Lyon has unveiled a second solar plus storage project. This will be located in Lakeland, Queensland and involve a minimum of 20 MWh battery storage. David Green, Lyon co-founder, commented that they were using battery systems developed by AES, “the world’s most experienced storage providers”. The units are delivered to Australia disassembled, which will mean new jobs, knowledge and expertise will come to the region.

Price competitive with Tesla

It is clear that Australian companies are well on the way to battery storage solutions. Therefore, Chief executive of Australia’s Energy Storage Council, John Grimes seems a bit irked by Musk’s ability to grab the Prime Minister’s attention with one tweet. He told the Guardian, “I’m not saying Tesla should be excluded, but don’t fast-track a discussion with an overseas company when you have the capability right here, right now, in Australia”. Grimes advocates a transparent bid process, allowing Australian companies a fair chance in the “revolution of energy.”

Changing economics have enabled this turn to battery storage. Cheap battery and solar technology coupled with smart energy systems means the price of these projects is now much lower. As Grimes pointed out, “If you thought about doing this even three years ago the price would have been something like four times higher”. The government now needs to ensure market settings are right so these projects are commercially viable without needing government subsidies.

Even though it may have been Musk that caught Turnbull’s attention, it has raised awareness of the solutions available. Australia is now onto something big – and those are big batteries!

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Why will my Solar power cut-out in a brown-out?

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On-grid solar is not a fail -safe

While many solar users assume that their system will continue to power lights and electricity in the event of a hurricane, storm or blackout – or in any situation when the main grid is down – the reality is that it depends on the specific type of system owned.

In a recent blog post, Southern Current – one of the top solar installers in South Carolina – said the only way to be completely sure your solar installation will hold up in a blackout, hurricane or storm, is to be 100% off the grid – but due to the expense, this isn’t the most common option for Americans.

Blackout shutdowns

According to Southern Current, the most likely result, if and when the grid goes down, is that the solar array shuts down as well. This is due to the National Electric Code (NEC) that stipulates the system must shut down for safety reasons – specifically, to prevent workers from getting electrocuted.

“If the power source – your photovoltaic solar panels – continued to be energized when the sun was shining, it could generate and send solar electricity into the power grid and potentially electrocute persons working to restore power after a blackout,” Southern Current wrote. “So, per the NEC code, the inverter is designed to shut down during a blackout or loss of grid power. Without a functioning inverter, not a single electron will flow in to or out of the house.”

Southern Current estimates this is what happens with about 99% of the systems installed in America, which are grid-tied solar power installations. However, there are a few exceptions – systems that are designed for semi-off-grid and off-grid living.

New storage technologies

The first exception is a system that incorporates backup batteries with AC coupling systems. AC coupling allows the energy generated from solar to be stored in a battery and used independently of the grid. Enphase Energy – a well-known microinverter installation company – has developed an AC energy storage unit that can be retrofitted into existing solar installs.

AC coupling is a relatively new technology, but Southern Current predicts it will become more and more popular in the future as utilities change the way they charge their users for power, like with time of use (TOU) billing tiers being implemented in California and Hawaii. In this scenario, an AC coupled solar power system could be programmed to store solar energy when rates are low, using it to power the home when utility rates are at their highest later in the day (a term referred to as ‘peak shaving’ or ‘rate arbitration’).

The second and least common scenario is using off-grid solar power system. This setup would involve being 100% independent from the local power grid – generating 100% of electricity requirements from the solar system, and storing all of this electricity in a bank of batteries connected to the home’s electrical system. The benefit of being 100% off grid is that there is no need to adhere to NEC codes; as such, the system would not have to shut down during a disaster or blackout because it would never be sent back into the grid. However, this is the most expensive option.

“The bottom line is that a solar power system can be designed to provide you with electricity during a blackout, but it will cost extra, and at this time it’s not too popular,” Southern Current wrote. “Adding batteries to a standard solar installation can cost thousands of extra dollars. Although blackouts are a pain, they don’t happen too often and generally get resolved in under 24 hours.”

That being said, Southern Carolina runs a number of solar rebates and incentives to reduce the costs of installing and running solar systems, and the popularity of solar installation for home or business in the state is rising each year.

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15 Fuel Storage Safety Tips You Need to Know

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Unless you have a way to generate power, you’ll need to stock up on fuel in case the power goes out—or worse, the entire power grid goes down. However, too many preppers stockpile batteries, propane, and gasoline in ways that not only reduce their shelf life, but also pose major safety hazards. The purpose of […]

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