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Regional microgrids

The challenge

How can we assure energy self-sufficiency for rural communities?

In this article

  • Microgrids—what they are and how they differ from centralised power supplies.
  • The type of communities that will benefit the most from migrating over to microgrids.
  • Why microgrids can mean big savings for the government, utilities and communities involved.

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.

Arup has previously performed research on the feasibility of micro-grids in other regions. This image is taken from a study we did in Qingdao, China. Photo Arup.

Resilient Resources

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.

Image taken from Kelin's report - 'Opportunities for Microgrids in Queensland' Photo Arup.

Findings

  • Microgrid solutions should be investigated for regional and rural communities that are currently remotely connected to the energy grid. This can lead to saved costs in operations and maintenance, which are currently passed onto the consumer and the government through the subsidies they provide.
  • Microgrids have the potential to allow communities to remain self-sufficient and thrive in an environment where various governments have considering closing rural communities due to rising service supply costs, among other issues such as public health, job opportunities and education.
  • Different microgrid solutions make sense for different communities. The local population, industry and available resources are among the factors that need to be considered when investigating a solution. One proposed method to spatially locate microgrid opportunities is to use GIS with multi-criteria inputs.

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.

Lead Arup Researcher

Kelin Carroll
Kelin is an engineer with the Transport and Resource group in Brisbane.

Ask Kelin about

  1. How to assess the viability of moving a community to a microgrid solution
  2. Her proposed model for locating microgrid opportunities and how to select the most appropriate microgrid solution for a community
  3. How energy suppliers can begin implementing microgrids into their networks

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Research TEAM

Ian
Hustwick
Ian works as a consultant in environment and resources

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