Coober Pedy is the epitome of the Australian mining town. Located in the South Australian outback, it is as famous for its opals as it is for the extraordinary underground housing that has become a feature of its way of life.
Now the township of 3,500 people may be about to make a name for itself in another way – abandoning its total reliance on expensive, imported diesel fuels for its electricity, and forging a path to a point where most of its power comes from wind and solar with the support of battery storage.
Site works for the town’s new $37m construction project commence this month. It will see construction of 4MW of wind energy, 1MW of solar PV and 1MW/500kWh of lithium titanate battery storage.
According to Keith Barker, the head of technology at remote power specialist Energy Developments (EDL), the new array will displace 70% of the town’s diesel use, and for half the time no diesel will be used at all. That means that for half the year, the town will be powered 100% by renewable energy.
“We believe that the project will establish new world benchmarks for megawatt scale off-grid renewables,” Barker says. Not only will it be applicable to off-grid towns and minesites, with some already toying with the mixture of solar and battery storage, but it could become a model for on-grid towns and much larger regions.
“Our view is if it can be done at Coober Pedy, it can be done for Adelaide. If it can be done for Adelaide, it can be done for Sydney,” says David Leitch, a former leading energy analyst who runs energy industry consultancy ITK. And he notes if it can be done for the nation’s capitals, then it can be done for the whole country.
The architecture for the Coober Pedy project comes from Hydro Tasmania and its groundbreaking but smaller-scale King Island Renewable Energy Integration Project, which has so far cut diesel costs by half by adding wind, a small amount of solar and battery storage to the island’s diesel-dependent grid.
Hydro Tasmania will provide the “smarts” for the micro-grid, including load management, control systems and storage systems.
“We’re going to see world-leading Tasmanian innovation and technology used to transform a remote town in the Australian desert into a renewable energy oasis,” says Hydro Tasmania’s Stephen Davy.
The project will get $18.4m of funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which has also been involved in funding for projects on Flinders Island, Rottnest Island and Lord Howe Island. Another island considering going 100% renewable, and even cutting links to the grid, is Kangaroo Island in South Australia.
“Combining wind, solar, battery storage and smart control systems could provide a blueprint for off-grid communities to access cleaner and cheaper power and achieve energy independence by greatly reducing their reliance on trucked-in diesel,” chief executive Ivor Frischknecht says.
Coober Pedy currently relies on a 3.9 MW diesel generation plant that is subject to wild swings in cost, and the fact that it has to be trucked in adds to the costs.
The high cost of fuel drove local interest in this renewable energy project. Power tariffs, Barker says, surged from 20c/kWh to 70c/kWh a few years ago, with no consultation. Those prices have since fallen, as international oil prices eased, but by investing in renewables, most of the cost of the electricity supply can be locked in for 20 years.
Barker says it was a big deal for the local council to sign a 20-year contract that nearly dwarfs the town’s annual budget, but apart from certainty on electricity costs, the project will deliver jobs and services, and make a huge contribution to the local community and indigenous landowners.
The two wind turbines will be provided by international company Senvion, which has been active in Australia but has never before supplied an off-grid project anywhere in the world.
Chris Judd, the head of Senvion’s operations in Australia, says wind energy can play a very important role in helping remote communities and industries reduce their reliance on expensive fuels, and he is now eyeing markets in north America, particularly Canada and Alaska, as well as Australia.
“This pioneering micro-grid project will demonstrate what can be achieved in remote applications – not just in Australia, but also the rest of the world. It opens up a new market. Hopefully this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The move is also something of a shift for EDL, which has a large share of the off-grid market in Australia but has hitherto focused on gas and diesel plants. Indeed its only incursion into renewable energy was landfill gas and waste-to-energy, although it did recently buy the Cullerin Range windfarm to get a taste of modern renewables.
Barker says while the off-grid systems are not quite cost-competitive now – and need funding from the likes of Arena – that will soon change as fossil fuel costs rise and renewable and storage costs continue to fall.
“We have a strong appetite for more projects,” he says.