Byron Bay is well known for its stunning coastal environment and alternative culture. These days, it is also gaining a reputation for energy innovation with the launch of an exciting microgrid pilot project that could become a blueprint for housing estates, apartment blocks and streets across Australia.
As electricity costs bite hard, businesses and householders are seeking alternatives to lower their power bills.
Enter the microgrid: a localised energy grid that powers a small number of buildings using renewable energy generated on-site. In contrast to the centralised electricity mains grid, microgrids are decentralised, local, flexible and have a reduced carbon emissions footprint.
The Byron Bay Arts & Industry Estate Microgrid project is being led by Enova Energy in collaboration with Essential Energy and other partners. The ultimate aim is to reduce electricity costs to businesses by sharing renewable energy that is locally generated, stored and distributed.
Although microgrids have been built elsewhere in Australian residential estates and towns, the Byron project could be the nation’s first microgrid in an industrial estate.
About the project
Byron Bay Arts & Industry Estate is a cluster of businesses on the edge of the town centre. It includes a café/caterer, a leather manufacturer, yoga centres and art galleries and the pilot is taking place in two streets of the estate: half of Centennial Circuit plus Brigantine Street.
A total of 28 businesses have been invited to participate in the pilot as tenants or owners of the buildings covering a mix of those with and without rooftop solar panels. Participants with solar panels generate power from their own buildings, and then supply excess to those who do not.
In October, the project was well on its way to engaging the 28 participants it needs to begin Stage One of the pilot, Enova Energy managing director Tony Pfeiffer said.
Participants will have individual metering devices installed to measure power inputs and outputs. Stage One is all about data collection of energy transactions, measuring the kWh of electricity generated and used each day, the amount shared among participants, and the costs of each transaction.
In Stage Two, when supply is expected to exceed demand, excess power will be stored in a battery for reuse within the estate or sold externally. The microgrid remains connected to the Essential Energy electricity network to feed in excess power and ensure continuity of energy supply.
“The data we get from participants in Stage One of the pilot will help us work out a whole range of issues, including the size and type of the [solar storage] battery,” Mr Pfeiffer said.
Stage One data will be also used to work out a new pricing structure based on sharing locally generated power.
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Mr Pfeiffer said he expects Stage One to be complete by December 2018.
The pilot will take place over about two years. When finalised in October 2020, it is hoped it leads to the formation of a wider, self-sufficient microgrid for the entire estate.
One of the aims of the pilot is to determine cost efficiencies associated with local renewable power sources. As more participants take part and there is more energy to share locally, prices should reduce.
“What we do already know is the more solar we have in the estate, the lower the bills will be,” Mr Pfeiffer said.
“Eventually, the microgrid is likely to enjoy its own unique tariff structure, where new prices will be more attractive than current energy pricing.”
It’s also expected to be as secure and reliable as the mains grid, as it will have solar-battery storage while still being connected to the network.
The project is a partnership between Enova Energy, electricity network distributor Essential Energy, energy marketplace platform provider LO3 Energy, digital energy technology company Wattwatchers, and the University of NSW. It is also supported by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.
Mr Pfeiffer said the project partners and participants were excited about the project.
“The participants are very excited about the environmental aspect in particular,” he said.
“They’re also interested in the potential to save money, but that is secondary or tertiary… the thing people are really interested in is the environmental benefit and the community aspect – relying on their own power rather than having to rely on electricity from a long way away.
“As a retailer, Enova has a critical role to play in the energy revolution that is happening – that movement away from remote, centralised, fossil-fuel based electricity generation to decentralised generation based on renewable energy,” Mr Pfeiffer said.
“And that is going to happen anyway because of the environmental imperative, and the cost. Renewables are so much cheaper than they used to be and are becoming competitive with coal.”
Essential Energy CEO John Cleland said community microgrids represented a contemporary approach to designing and operating the electricity grid.
“The potential benefits of renewable energy generation and supply in terms of marginal cost and the environment are already well understood,” Mr Cleland said.
“We now need to assess the integrated technology options and practicalities of real-world microgrid operation in terms of the impact on customer usage patterns and costs, on our network operations and on the broader economic outcomes for all our customers.”
Mr Cleland said during the trial period, the pilot project will provide a range of valuable insights into the scope for local renewable energy generation to provide a reliable and cost-effective addition or alternative to traditional power supply, improve grid resilience and lower the need for network investment.
“During this trial we will test the ability of ‘smart’ software to manage electricity redistribution – a two-way flow of electricity that could help Essential Energy meet periods of local peak demand and facilitate further development of renewables and community microgrids,” he said.
The way of the future
Potential benefits of the Byron Bay Arts & Industry Estate Microgrid include:
- Lowering business power bills
- Reducing carbon emissions by using renewables
- Keeping money local. Instead of money going to large energy companies outside the region, dollars stay circulating in the microgrid’s community, providing jobs, and helping fund local initiatives
- Power during blackouts, reducing business costs and inconvenience.
Mr Pfeiffer said the Byron Arts & Industry Estate Microgrid could absolutely be a template for other communities.
“Hopefully once we’ve got things working well in the Byron industrial estate, any industrial estate – any town, any industry, any apartment building – can use this as a model.”
The Byron project has a lot of large roof space and abundant sunshine hours, hence solar is the renewable technology of choice there right now. But in other contexts, or at other times, different renewable technologies could be more appropriate.
“There are a lot of exciting technologies out there, so it makes sense to be open to other technologies,” he said.
Mr Pfeiffer said the Byron Arts & Industry Estate Microgrid was the first of what Enova hoped would be many self-sufficient electricity microgrids it helps to roll out.
“We aim to develop a model that can be replicated by communities across NSW and ultimately Australia – starting with industrial estates and similar commercial areas, and eventually residential areas,” Mr Pfeiffer said.
“Community microgrids such as this are the way of the future.”