Why New Australian Housing Estates May Be Off-Grid

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Originally published on RenewEconomy.

new-housing-development-in-provence-sami-sarkis-300x260Experts say new housing estates may be built that do not connect to the grid, offering instead free electricity, and even free EVs to residents. Meanwhile, numerous towns are looking how to buy back their grid.

Imagine this: Newly built housing estates that are not even connected to the main electricity grid. Solar and battery storage come standard in new homes, included in the purchase price and mortgage, and effectively providing free electricity. The package may even include an electric vehicle in the garage.

Sound like a dream into the future? Maybe, but not very far into the future. According to players in the battery storage and smart technology markets, it is already happening and housing developers in Australia are exploring exactly these sort of options.

“This is technology of now,” says Philip Keogan, the head of Australian operations for US-based storage software company Sunverge, pointing to developments already under way in California. “We are beyond pilots, beyond trials, this is the technical reality today.”

Not only are developers looking to keep new estates off the grid, but dozens of councils around Australia are looking to do the same with existing communities. They are exploring ways of sourcing all their electricity needs from renewable energy and are considering ways they can buy back the gridfrom the local operators, just as is happening in Europe and in the US.

And remote towns, up to now reliant entirely on imported fossil fuels, are looking to dump that reliance by using battery storage and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy.

This dramatic change from the centralized energy model that has dominated for the past century or more is not just the pipe dream of developers and technologists. The network operators themselves – particularly those in regional areas – recognize it as reality. They are just trying to figure out how they fit into this new reality.

Richard Turner, the head of Adelaide-based Zen Energy Systems, says numerous housing developers want their new developments to be fully sustainable and micro-grid based.

This is not just for “green reasons” or a point of difference, although that plays into their thinking. It actually makes economic sense. It costs millions to connect a new housing development to the grid, but renewable based micro-grids can deliver electricity for an effective levellised cost of energy in the low to mid 20c/kWh.

That is significantly below the retail rate currently charged for grid-based power, and will likely fall rapidly, as the cost of storage falls and the cost of renewables continue on their downward trajectory.

Turner says he expects to announce his first projects in coming months. He hinted at this in a recent speech in Adelaide, which we reported on here. The SA government appears to be fully supportive. Regulatory exemptions have been obtained in some instances. Different options are being considered on the local energy model, and who acts as the electricity supplier.

It could be the property developer, or a specialist energy services company, or the local network – after all, houses will still need to be linked to each other and community-based facilities such as renewable generators and storage, even if they are not connected to the main grid.

There are some examples, already, of small steps property developers are taking. In Darwin, Defence Housing Australia is creating a “solar suburb” in a new development near the CBD, with each home to feature a 4.5kW rooftop solar system and charging points for electric vehicles.

In WA, property development groups Lend Lease and LandCorp are installing a major community-level battery storage pilot that could change the way that residential communities source energy, including not being connected to the grid.

The next step, though, will be even more dramatic, and may come sooner than expected.

“Many housing developers nationally are coming to us now to tell us they want their developments to be fully sustainable and micro grid based and offer a long-term low cost of renewable energy,” Turner says.

Each locality will focus on its own advantages, be it in wind, solar, biomass, co-generation, or hydro, or a combination of some or all. “These will become standard for new developments and townships, particularly in regional areas,” Turner says.

Sunverge’s Keogan points to the experience in California, where the city of Sacramento is creating zero net energy communities, and KB Homes, the biggest property developer, is offering zero not energy homes that combine solar PV, with energy storage, energy-efficient appliances, and may even throw in an electric vehicle.

“This demonstrates what is possible in the property development space.”

The opportunities of micro-grids are not just attracting the attention of new developments, but also that of existing towns.

Turner says there are numerous councils now looking at the possibility of buying back the grid, or cutting their links altogether. That is a more complicated transaction than new housing estates, because of the sunk investment from networks, but it is sure to become a reality.

This has been recognised by SA Power Networks, which says it makes sense for remote communities to look after their own needs. Ergon Energy in Queensland has suggested the same. In Western Australia, the local grid operator is looking to create a micro grid for the mining town of Ravensthorpe because the grid connection is too expensive, and often damaged by storms and fire.

And, Turner says, communities that are already off-grid, but are dependent on diesel or gas, are also looking to ditch fossil fuels and use renewables and storage instead. Coober Pedy in South Australia is currently building a project lead-funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which is looking to integrate 2MW of solar PV, 3MW of wind, and a 2MW, 750kWh battery storage set up. This could account for 70 per cent of the town’s needs.

Reprinted with permission.

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Giles Parkinson

is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

Giles Parkinson has 596 posts and counting. See all posts by Giles Parkinson

22 thoughts on “Why New Australian Housing Estates May Be Off-Grid

  • And much more to come. Off grid land price cancels any extra expense of self produced energy.

  • If we were building a new country today without existing grid infrastructure, subdivisions would be microgrid, not off grid. Local dispatchable power generation, which will be necessary in these subdivisions, is expensive compared to being able to move power around between microgrids.

    So really what these communities intend to do is abandon the grid costs, which are high due to poor government decisions. It seems to me that everyone shares is responsible for these costs. Not just the people too poor to abandon the grid.

    • ..poor government decisions or good lobby induced decisions?
      So you’re proposing (again) socializing losses after privatizing profits. I’d say let some run if they can, most won’t be able to.

      • The less affluent are not the owners of capital (stocks) who benefit from this sort of lobbying. If there’s a group that should pay, it is those that can buy new houses that include EVs.

        If you have some way to get the money back under rule of law, within a democracy, what is it?

        • The ones that can buy a new house in one of those off-grid-subburbs + an EV aren’t the one’s who profitted from the lobbying either.. they sit somewhere else, not so tightly packed and with potentially limited power supply in overpriced houses 😉
          Thus I said, let some run.

  • If one were designing a home from the beginning with solar panels in mind, it would be straightforward to create a large, unshaded expanse of roof facing South or Southwest. As time goes on, packaging solar panels like shingles so that they keep the weather out will doubtless become common, and make the construction of the overall roof cheaper.
    I’m also hoping that hybrid solar thermal / solar PV panels start to become more common.

    • Home thermal seems dead due to low PV costs. It’s cheaper to add PV panels, even with the efficiency loss compared to thermal. Perhaps an exception is pool heating in some places.
      There are articles that compare the costs, but I don’t have a link.
      I would like to see a hybrid panel.

      • http://www.solar-trade.org.uk/solar-thermal-the-forgotten-older-brother/

        The balance is much, much less clear cut than you seem to believe. With a generous FiT and a south-facing roof, PV indeed wins on ROI.

        On a level playing field, though, solar thermal still does very nicely indeed (as shown by its spectacular succes in developing countries, where the two technologies compete with very little government support).

        • In one sense heat pumps have replaced thermal. Thermal is more attractive when space heating is needed. But so are heat pumps. If an AC is required anyway, the little extra for a heat pump probably far outperforms thermal on ROI.

          In snow areas, most people would probably choose a ground loop heat pump before thermal on new construction.

          • Heat pumps still have rather high capital costs. The ground source kind in particular seldom makes financial sense without any form of support.

            As for cooling: solar thermal can be paired with an absorbtion cooler, a setup no less efficient than a heat pump running in reverse.

            Granted, traditional AC units (including reverse heat pumps) are likely more economical for individual homes. For offices, appartment buildings and other larger users, absorbtion coolers are very cheap though.

          • not true look for prices air to water EVI heatpump Alibaba.
            they are not expensive. 400 % efficient.
            I have one 3 years now goes till minus 20 below zero. really works. combined with solar panels.

          • 100% efficiency would be the max, but there is always some energy lost in any energy conversion. That’s a law of thermodynamics. The conversion efficiency from one form of energy to another (eg sun light to electricity) will always be less than 100%.
            400% is “RIGHT OUT”!!!

          • You’re right. Will is confusing coefficient of performance with efficiency. A heat pump is only about 75% efficient, but generates four units of usable heat per unit of electricity consumed.

            CoP is not a measure of efficiency, but of return on energy invested. A subtle but important difference.

          • Makes sense. Thank you for the explanation. Very nice return on energy invested! My apologies Mr Will E.

            So is he talking about a geothermal heat pump, so the extra energy comes from the ground, or are we talking about a normal air exchange heat pump?

          • He has an air source heat pump, judging by his earlier posts here. A CoP of 4 is also typical of an air source pump in a mild climate. Ground source ones would have a CoP twice as high (and still not make financial sense in most climates, but that’s another matter).

            But just to clarify a common mistake: a ground source heat pump is technically speaking not a geothermal one. The shallow soil layers that those pumps extract heat from are mostly heated by the sun, just like the air used by an air source one is. The only difference is that the water in the soil has a much higher heat capacity than air, which means its temperature is more constant from day to night and even from season to season. That makes performance during the coldest times of the year/day a bit better.

            Geothermal heat pump is thus a bit of a misnomer. Geothermal heat requires drilling hundreds of meters down, if not thousands. That’s done, but usually only for district heating or other big customers.

            It’s a nitpick, but one that I’m sensitive to 🙂

          • stayed in a highway hotel in France. Premier Classe. 100 rooms.
            all heating, warm water done by air to water heatpump installation.

      • best thing is PV combined with heatpump air to water and insulated storage tank 300 liter.
        COP 4 or more. means put one in get 4 out.
        400 % efficient.

        • You left out the fact that affordable PV modules are ~16% efficient, so even coupled with a COP 4 heat pump, the overall efficiency is “only” ~2/3. For heating, solar thermal can do better and therefore use less roof space.

          How important this and other considerations are will of course depends on specific situations; I’m merely illustrating that what you consider best may well be sub-optimal for someone else.

          • Hm.. sure that solar thermal was better than 2/3 for similar priced tech (I remember sydney collectors being pretty expensive).
            The other pro of PV is to getting rid of all the plumbing and need to evacuate the whole shebang during summer, so the system doesn’t destroys itself.

          • Climates without hard freezing can use very simple and cheap thermal solar systems like the integrated collector storage (aka ICS or batch heater) shown below.
            ICS can’t overheat and additionally are normally installed at a steeper tilt angle than PV anyway, to maximize winter production.

            None here is suggesting charging an EV with thermal solar; running electrical loads is what PV is for. Systems like ICSs are typically used in addition to PV, to complement or replace the home water heater.
            Use the best tool for the job. It’s not either/or.

        • You cannot have a 100% energy conversion. 400% means you have a 100% conversion efficiency, plus you are magically making three times more energy (300%) from nothing. I like a lot of your comments, but a 400% energy conversion efficiency claim is only good for free-energy nut-ball sites.

    • More like a flat roof with panels facing east/west.. but you’re right, current en-vouge designs with their totally hacked up roof area will be counterproductive for this.
      But that’s normal for 80% of our species.. thinking for the next 5 weeks max 😉

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