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Are microgrids possible now?

Posted by on in Economics of Solar
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What a question! - I saw a recent article denigrating the possibility of distributed generation, and I thought it wasn't well-researched, or perhaps the author had his own motivations for only seeing selective evidence to suit his preconceived idea. He largely argued for centralised generation "under the control of" the ever-watchful electricity utility.

Below is a response I wrote about this, revolving around a proposed micro-grid for 1,000 people in Onslow WA. (PS - if a whole community can off-grid for a given amount, then a micro-grid is even more economic, as community power-sharing now occurs)

A lot of what is said here has basis for real concern to administer any new technology in a given environment. I was working in IT in the 80's and was part of the transition of much of corporate computing from mainframe environments (including the upstart 'mini-computers'), to desk-based PCs. Of course mainframes and minis remain to this day in the corporate IT world - but nothing like the way it was envisaged by the mainframe community back then (they poo-poohed it) - but the tidal wave of new-paradigm  technology revolution went through, and we achieve far more computing throughput today with better economics than could be predicted back then.

I posit that distributed generation via PV will be the same - it won't necessarily completely supplant today's despatchable generation, but it certainly will revolutionise it, and severely curtail its predicted growth curve - which it is already has done and continues to do.
Consider that 1,000 people can live completely off-grid via PV and battery alone, very comfortable for less than $70 million. If we said 500 homes, that gives $140k per house for an completely independent, off-grid system per house(!) - it is a huge amount, and even $70k per house is very generous, and it could run the street lamps, too. Particularly since we are talking NW Australia with vast amounts of sun all year 'round.

I'd estimate there are a few hundred houses in regional Adelaide (eg 50km or more away) already independent of the grid. Most invested when solar was pricey, so don't have enough solar at present, but there is no reason why anyone setting up near Adelaide could not go off-grid and not require regular running of a gen-set, as solar is *cheap* compared to what it was.
Onslow is a nice case, as I imagine the local industry has its own power already, vis the gas facility. Granted, local industry in other areas of Australia still will need sources of centralised power.

On a related note, and just like the IT from the 80s example, much of the existing 'big iron' generating systems are not flexible nor adaptable enough to cope as well with the new distributed environment - the next generation (gas?) centralised systems will need to be built with far more sophisticated control systems to allow close, rapid response with the rest of the grid. Even the humble household solar inverter now being installed, has to have, by regulation, the ability to be fitted with remote control capability so that the utility can direct a suburb's inverters to make changes to the power produced to suit the condition of the grid at that moment.
New world indeed.

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Chris Hart has been employed in the field of IT majoring in hardware and power issues for over 20 years, followed by 15 years designing and supplying solar battery systems for domestic and commercial markets. He has qualifications in electronic engineering and management.


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