This content has been written collaboratively by the Project Partners of Alice Springs Future Grid, led by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy. Please submit your questions, which will be answered in due course and shared on this platform if relevant and appropriate. You will be notified via email when the answer is posted. Terms and conditions are detailed on the submit a question page. Further FAQs specifically about the Solar Connect Virtual Power Plant trial are addressed in this document.
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A VPP provides an opportunity to optimise the use of existing grid infrastructure at both a household level and at a network level. The VPP in Alice Springs, known as Solar Connect, is inviting households with rooftop solar and a battery to join. The results and data generated by Solar Connect will inform what future trials may look like. There’s no obligation to join the VPP, however it’s likely in the future that if you want to install a solar system and battery, mechanisms will be needed to determine how you contribute to the shared costs associated with running the power system. In the same way that regardless of the extent to which you use water, there is still a cost to supply water to your house.
It’s not a core focus of the project, however the project is aware of the issue and acknowledges its significance as part of the longer-term deployment of renewables.
The Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy was involved in a study led by Charles Darwin University which investigated the problems of solar waste. The study recognised that solar panels were generally not designed to be repaired or dismantled, and this was an area for the industry to consider. The study also found there was an unwillingness to pass on recycling costs to the consumer. The researchers recommended a collaborative approach to addressing this issue, with responsibility shared between government, industry and consumers. Amongst other recommendations, the report said solar panels should not be landfilled; and policy or guidelines around collection, transport, stockpiling and disposal should be clarified. The full report can be read on the Alice Springs Future Grid knowledge bank.
In addition, numerous studies, including reports from Yale University, have found that while there are greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of low-carbon energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines; the impacts pale in comparison with the emissions prevented through the displacement of fossil fuel power generation. It takes around two years to pay off the “embedded energy” in a solar panel; while the panel itself is likely to produce clean energy for up to 25 years, saving almost 250 tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime.
Ultimately success will mean increased generation and consumption of renewable energy in Alice Springs, and decreased reliance upon fossil fuel sources, possibly leading to the operation of the town on 100% renewable energy from time to time.
Success will also be evident through an informed community, able to hold future leaders to account on the continued journey towards 50% renewable energy and beyond.
However, it is important to recognise that the barriers the project is identifying and overcoming illustrate significant progress, even if success isn’t particularly tangible from a public perspective. A good example of this is the creation of the Northern Territory’s first residential Virtual Power Plant. Aligning the key participants, designing technical solutions, and finding the correct contractors to implement them; then educating the community and encouraging residents’ participation are all major undertakings that need to be addressed somewhat concurrently by a reasonably limited delivery team. The project team is regularly reminded that if these goals were easy, they would already have been achieved.
Therefore, success in the Future Grid project can look like identifying and addressing barriers to enable future expansion of renewable energy generation and consumption opportunities. These barriers are currently evident in the regular curtailment of Uterne Solar Power Station.
Success can be seen indirectly through changes in government policy, which may have been influenced by the Future Grid project. The relationship between the activities of Future Grid and changes in Government policy is symbiotic. One may or may not have led to the other, but Future Grid is always required to respond to changes. A good example was the grandfathering of the 1:1 solar feed-in tariff in April 2020, and its replacement with grants to support the installation of household batteries (the NTG HBBS program). The community’s reluctance to invest in batteries owing to the lucrative nature of the feed-in tariff was a significant barrier to the development of DER in Alice Springs. Following the partial removal of that barrier, the Future Grid team had to reconfigure the way the VPP had been designed. Rather than installing batteries as part of the project – which was the original idea - the team were now able to leverage existing batteries in Alice Springs and expand the reach of the VPP.
The project was designed to run over two years. It was officially launched on August 14, 2020, through coordinated press releases from Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor and ARENA. Initial activities were heavily concerned with the negotiation of various contracts and agreement upon scopes of work. Project activities got underway towards the latter part of 2020, beginning with a whole-of-community survey which provided a baseline view of knowledge, attitudes and behaviours amongst the residents of Alice Springs regarding renewable energy. Future Grid is currently on track to wrap up in late-2022. The survey process will be repeated towards the end of the project, to assess the extent to which the renewable energy landscape has changed in Alice Springs.
One of the project’s major outputs will be the Roadmap to 2030 report, which its expected will be considered by the Northern Territory Government for development of policy and implementation of recommendations to reach the 50 per cent by 2030 renewable energy target. Future Grid will have many other legacies; notably relationships between industry players and other experts which otherwise wouldn’t have existed. It is also intended that the website will remain in place as a one-stop-shop through which to access broad renewable energy knowledge relating to Central Australia.
The Future Grid project has significant value nationally because some of its work will help set out the ways different parts of the power system will need to work together in the future. A key characteristic of Alice Springs is that it is small enough that the opportunity exists to test and validate interventions, but big enough that the results have direct applicability across a range of different systems and grids in Australia. To this end, Alice Springs is sometimes said to be “small enough to manage but big enough to matter”.
There are other projects around Australia carrying out investigations in many similar areas to Future Grid. The difference is that Future Grid looks at a series of interventions in aggregate and how they integrate as a system on a technical, economic, and regulatory basis. This is what makes Future Grid fundamentally different – bringing public utilities together with leading industry experts, and local organisations. We collaborate in a way that is simply not possible in other locations. For comparison, if we look to WA; Horizon Power has demonstrated many of the technical interventions we are working towards, but they are doing it in the context of being a vertically integrated energy supply company, so its activities don’t require complex engagement with other entities. In other areas, such as South Australia, there are fundamental differences in the market structure, which provide economic signals that are not available in the NT. What Future Grid does, which is different to other projects, is to work out how to bring parties and interventions together to collaborate.
The Future Grid car is an electric vehicle (a Nissan Leaf) and there are individuals in the team and community who are highly enthused about this technology. However, operating within a constrained budget and timeline, electric vehicles or related trials have not been considered as part of the project. The team has designed a series of interdependent activities that serve to consider immediate issues in the system and support further renewable energy penetration into the Alice Springs grid in a cost-effective and realistic way. These interventions make use of and optimise existing grid infrastructure, which is a valuable public asset. The Future Grid team welcomes any future or parallel projects that support the increased use of electric vehicles in Alice Springs or focus on the integration of this technology as another means of supporting the grid.
A key strength of the Alice Solar City project was the consortium model through which the activities were conducted. Future Grid builds upon the consortium concept that was successful in the rollout of Solar City. Critically however, the Solar City project started with a context of introducing consumers to new range of opportunities to generate energy, reduce their consumption, and be more active participants in the power system. It was highly successful in building community engagement in that space. We’re now in a position where our power system is no longer able to accommodate the level of engagement by residents, businesses and investors. The Future Grid project is informed and driven by technology, but it’s not fundamentally a technology project. It is seeking to work out how you change the fundamental structures within which we operate, to accommodate the expectations of consumers.
The story starts more than a decade ago when the question being asked was whether or not there would be interest and uptake of renewables. The underlying assumption was that the uptake would happen at levels which meant the core operation of the grid would remain largely the same. However, uptake of renewable energy technology in Alice Springs has been particularly strong, and today the system within which the generation and delivery of energy operates in Alice Springs - the government system, the technical system, the regulatory system – has been tailored to a set of responsibilities and outcomes which are no longer consistent with the likely direction of the future energy system. It doesn’t mean the system we have is wrong, it’s just not necessarily optimised for the future. As a consequence, the requirement for a systems-level project that considers how all these factors can best work together has emerged.
Alice Solar City (2008-2013) served to drive uptake of rooftop solar. Such is the community’s ongoing enthusiasm, we now need to enable the grid infrastructure to support the continued ability for the community to install solar. There have been locations in Australia, particularly WA, where solar installations have been brought to a halt (e.g. Broome) and a move to Distributed Energy Resources (DER) is underway to enable further rooftop solar installations (e.g. Carnarvon and Onslow). In mid-2021 it was revealed Onslow had become the largest town ever to be operated (for a total of 80 minutes) on 100% renewable energy, as part of the DER project run by Horizon Power. Horizon is a Project Partner of Alice Springs Future Grid, and the Future Grid team has travelled to Perth to learn directly about Horizon’s technical trials.
Another aspect to consider is that many people talk about “the market” and how it can be used to drive change. However, the energy market is a subset of the power system; it’s not the whole system. The power system includes everything that sits around that market including technical standards that determine how things are done and the regulatory framework that sets out rights and responsibilities. That system is changing because technology is driving change in the roles and responsibilities of different entities. Future Grid is a systems project seeking to determine what is the right system for the future in Alice Springs.
Alice Springs faces complex challenges to increasing the amount of renewable energy in its power system. The barriers are mainly technical, regulatory and economic. Solutions can be found in these areas, as well as through community engagement. The ultimate aim of Future Grid is to outline a pathway to show how Alice Springs can achieve the Northern Territory Government target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and possibly beyond. However, there are financial limitations, so the project is investigating the best use of existing infrastructure, complemented by new technologies. Future Grid is delivered through a series of innovative trials, models and investigations. Examples include establishing the first residential Virtual Power Plant (VPP) in the NT alongside a tariff trial, a wind study, a commercial microgrid trial, and creation of dynamic models to model future scenarios.
Future Grid brings together a broad range of Project Partners to develop and deliver a systems-wide project that will assist in identifying and addressing the various barriers to more renewables. Part of its legacy will be continued collaboration between Project Partners, as well as an informed community which can advocate for meeting the NT’s renewable energy target and continuing the journey beyond that goal. A key deliverable of the project will be a Roadmap to 2030 report, which will inform government policy and guide the implementation of recommended interventions in pursuit of the 2030 target.
Future Grid is delivered under a consortium model. The consortium members are DKA and DKRI, Ekistica, Power and Water Corporation, and Territory Generation. The project is governed by a Steering Committee (SteCo) comprising individuals from each of the Consortium Member organisations. The SteCo is observed by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), CSIRO, and the Northern Territory Government, and takes advice from Charles Darwin University and Horizon Power.
Some Consortium Member organisations also act as sub-project leads. Ekistica is leading sub-projects 1 and 2, while Power and Water is leading sub-project 5. Future Grid’s other sub-project leads are the Arid Lands Environment Centre, which is leading sub-project 3; and Jacana Energy which leads sub-project 4. CSIRO is the project’s knowledge sharing partner.
There are further organisations involved in Future Grid, as constultants and technology partners. These include the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney, RMIT and Proa Analytics.
Alice Springs Future Grid is led by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, which is contributing around $3m to the project, from its original NTG funding. The project received approximately $2m in funding from ARENA as part of ARENA's Advancing Renewables Program. In addition, Alice Springs Future Grid is also funded by a $3m grant from the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources through the Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund – Microgrids Program.
The $12.5m stated as the project’s value does not entirely represent cash. In addition to the approximately $8m described above, the remaining project value comprises cash and in-kind contributions from Project Partners. The team is proud to have brought more than $5m of federal funding to Alice Springs.
The Roadmap to Renewables Report (2017) underpinned the Northern Territory’s 50 per cent by 2030 renewable energy target and highlighted some practical steps to start the NT on the least-cost path to this outcome. The report also suggested Alice Springs should be supported as a hub for solar energy research and development – an opportunity which had already been identified, owing to the strong history of renewable energy innovation in Alice Springs. The NT Government awarded $5m seed funding for the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy. Intyalheme - now an established flagship, project of Desert Knowledge Australia - was tasked with identifying and overcoming the barriers to further renewable energy in the Alice Springs energy system. Intyalheme’s strategy was focused in three areas: to build a collaborative stakeholder network, to be a conduit between stakeholders and the public, and to share knowledge. The strategic areas served to recognise that no single energy industry participant could get the Northern Territory to its renewable energy target.
Intyalheme’s efforts included securing the first regional Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) A-Lab, which culminated in the design of the Alice Springs Future Grid project. A subsequent funding application was submitted to ARENA, which was successful.
Alice Springs Future Grid is a $12.5m collaborative project involving multiple organisations from across the Northern Territory and Australia. Its purpose is to identify and overcome barriers to further renewable energy penetration in the Alice Springs electricity system. Future Grid is delivered through a series of innovative trials, models and investigations. These activities are informing what may need to change in the Alice Springs electricity system to accommodate increasing amounts of renewable energy, while also improving use of the current system. Future Grid will design a pathway to achieving the Northern Territory’s 50 per cent by 2030 renewable energy target in Alice Springs, with lessons learnt transferable to other grids. The delivery of Future Grid is led by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, on behalf of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA).
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