Could a partnership between a small town and a large utility help to transform the Australian electricity grid?
FIVE years ago, Geoff Park and his neighbours began investigating whether their village, Newstead, could become Australia’s first 100 per cent renewable-powered town.
Newstead is in south-eastern Australia, one-and-a-half hours drive from Melbourne. It has a population of 800, but boasts more than fifty volunteer groups, and, among its most active residents, fierce civic pride. “Now you’ve visited,” one man told me, “you will decide to move here.”
Motivated by rising electricity costs, Park and the group began by completing energy efficiency audits of 400 out of the town’s 500 households – an extraordinarily high participation rate. But when I first spoke to them, two years ago, the project had stalled.
Together with a commercial partner, they had researched creating an embedded micro-grid, and attempted to contact the private company that owns the poles and wires, Powercor. “We needed their cooperation to find out how much power was being used in the town,” Park said in 2013. “But they refused to even answer our letters or emails or phone calls.”
The situation has since changed. In early 2015, the group received a A$200,000 grant from the state government to develop a business case. Then in September, a high-level delegation from Powercor visited. Afterwards, the parties began negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding to govern the project.
Park and the other volunteers from “Renewable Newstead” haven’t settled on the technical details. “It could be anything from panels on people’s roofs, to big clusters on community buildings, to some sort of solar farm. I suspect it will include battery storage,” Park said to me. “The biggest issue is to get the network to cope with whatever we’re doing. Will Powercor collaborate with us?”
What happens next in Newstead matters. It is a case study for an emerging global phenomenon: the shift from a centralised, fossil fuel–powered grid to more decentralised, renewable electricity systems. Can the old system work with the new? Can communities protect their worst-off and keep the profits? And will governments help or hinder that change?
There’s more… read the full article at Nature Energy