In a country as large and as urbanised as Australia, supplying services to the small, dispersed rural population will always be a challenge. This is particularly true for energy—supported by the fact that thousands of Australians currently live beyond the fringes of the national grid. Growing up in Northern New South Wales, Kelin Carroll was one of them. Her family generated their own energy and grew their own food.
It’s this background that inspired Kelin—now an engineer in our Gold Coast office—to research the value of building microgrids in this type of isolated community. A microgrid is a localised network of interconnected energy sources and loads. It may be connected to the centralised grid, allowing power to flow in and out but is ultimately self-reliant. For a slightly more in-depth understanding of what a microgrid is, check our our Five minute guide to microgrids.
Kelin's project fits in with broader thinking we've being doing about living and thriving sustainable in arid places. Interested? Explore our Cities Alive: Rethinking cities in arid environments report.
There are two types of communities for whom a microgrid solution makes sense. The first are extremely isolated communities not connected to the national energy grid at all. The second are those who are connect to the grid but are a long way away from where the energy is actually generated.
Kelin’s research looks at rural and regional Queensland in particular. Here some communities do have versions microgrid-type solutions in place; however, they rely on a centralised diesel generator for power, a fuel source that’s neither clean nor all that affordable. Although it depends on a number of factors—such as the local industry, population, and available resources—there’s almost always a more sustainable option possible be it solar, wind or tidal.
“We want to find ways that these communities can have more effective, reliable, environmentally friendly and responsive energy,” says Kelin.
Isolated, on-grid communities are in a trickier bind. While these communities currently do receive mains power, they are expensive to supply due to their distance from the power supply. Grids, like everything else, require maintenance. Some of these costs are passed onto the consumer but a lot is also subsidised, at the expense of the government. As urbanisation causes the population of these communities to dwindle, Australia’s political willingness maintain their services is decreasing as well. There's even been talk of shutting them down. Not only can microgrids allow these communities to survive; they can mean tremendous savings for local energy suppliers as well.
It’s these suppliers who are the intended audience of Kelin’s research. After all, they are the ones most capable of spearheading this type of technology migration. “The challenge" says Kelin "and where I’d like to look next is how to identify the most appropriate solution for a particular community.”
Kelin has proposed using GIS to analyse multi-criteria inputs and spatially locate microgrid opportunities.
This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.
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