For many of Australia’s First Nations people living in the Northern Territory, Australia, consistent energy security is not a given. Drawing on his experience working in the Kalahari Desert with isolated communities and fresh from the success of Project Symphony in West Australia, Dr Andrew Mears has partnered with a project co-ordinated by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy on behalf of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA). The project involves partners Jacana Energy, the Arid Lands Environment Centre, Power and Water Corporation, and Ekistica to support the township of Alice Springs and surrounding settlements. Sometimes it’s better to utilise what you have in a smarter way than to build more generating assets. A smarter grid means more solar can be accessed by consumers and excess can enter the grid for sale.
In a recent phone interview, Andrew told me of his work with the isolated communities of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The tyranny of distance and the harsh environment made a poles and wires solution nonviable. Andrew came up with the solution of putting a sim card into the solar arrays provided by previous projects installed by the Japanese and the French in order to remotely monitor system health. This meant that tech support could be tailored to need and provided in a cost effective and timely manner.
Returning to Australia, Mears founded SwitchDin in 2014. It is a Newcastle (NSW) based company with over 40 employees. It has developed a distributed energy management technology platform that is being used by major Australian utilities and network operators such as Ausgrid, AGL, Origin, Horizon Power, Synergy, Western Power, SA Power Networks, Yurika, and Simply Energy.
Australia has one of the highest penetrations of rooftop solar in the world. Mears’ SwitchDin software will enable greater access for Alice Springs by orchestrating and integrating use of already available solar and battery assets in what would be Northern Territory’s first virtual power plant (VPP). This will lead to cheaper costs and greater security for all. Alice Springs has more than 25% of buildings in the area that have PV on their roof. Solar farms installed by Jacana and DKA dot the surrounding desert. The town has a target of 50% renewables by 2030.
“It’s exciting to see so many local homes, businesses and installers getting involved in the Solar Connect VPP. We’re looking forward to the results of the trial and seeing how it can assist our town to reach 50% renewable energy and beyond,” says Hayley Michener, Sub-project Lead — Community Solutions, Arid Lands Environment Centre.
“The Alice Springs Future Grid project is working for the whole community, and all residents connected to the grid. The grid extends to the remote Indigenous communities of Santa Teresa and Hermannsburg, meaning First Nations People make up approximately one quarter of the grid-connected population.”
“As such, one of Future Grid’s series of investigations is a specific study looking at how access to the benefits of clean energy technology can be made easier, regardless of demographics. Many First Nations People in Alice Springs live in town camps, so Future Grid is working with the representative organisations for town camp residents, to map how they can participate in the clean energy transition. Economics plays a prominent factor in what’s possible for this small population served by an isolated grid. Ultimately Future Grid is working to optimise the use of existing grid infrastructure, a valuable publicly owned asset, rather than promoting the deployment of more expensive discreet technical interventions,” Alice Springs Future Grid Project Director, Lyndon Frearson states.
Northern Territory’s first VPP using SwitchDin software will be launched shortly. Alice Springs Future Grid is supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the Australian government, and the Northern Territory government.
Working with its project partners, SwitchDin’s technology will allow Alice Springs and Australia’s isolated First Nations people to economically and consistently access clean energy. Clean energy gives the potential for better quality of life. Consumers can take part in the VPP trial that is expected to start in July and run for 12 months.