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An Australian power grid larger than the UK is being dismantled as remote farmers go solar

Article Republished By Javier Troconis

Devastating summer bushfires torched the power poles and knocked Craig Poultney’s farm off-grid, but there’s a silver lining: the solar panels and batteries that were installed the following winter.

“It’s one good thing to come out of it,” he said.

In Western Australia, an ambitious project to take thousands of farms and properties off-grid is slowly taking shape.

Electricity poles are being cut down and carted away. Thousands of kilometres of overhead wiring are being rolled up.

The vast and expensive state-owned network that crisscrosses the wheat and canola fields, bringing electric light and power to remote farmhouses, is being partly dismantled.

In its place are what are essentially beefed-up farming versions of the standard suburban rooftop solar and battery systems.

Each “Standalone Power System” (SPS) is a fairly simple piece of technology, but the cumulative effect of the planned rollout will be enormous: 23,000km of wire will be taken down, or enough to string a power line around mainland Australia.

According to Western Power, no other network operator has embraced off-grid power on this scale, anywhere in the world.

A sprawling grid larger than the UK

Craig Poultney is a third-generation wheat-and-sheep farmer.(ABC: James Purtill)

At Craig Poultney’s farm near Corrigin, about three hour’s drive east of Perth, the SPS hums quietly in a paddock near the main house.

A fenced area contains about 60 ground-mounted solar panels providing nearly 20kW of energy, of about four-times the amount of a standard rooftop solar array.

A pair of metal boxes contain battery storage and a backup diesel generator, in case everything else fails.

A big white box and solar panel in a field
The SPS are owned by Western Power, even though they’re on private property.(ABC: James Purtill)

Contractors for Western Power, the state-owned network operator, installed the system in May, a few months after the February 2022 Shackleton-Corrigin bushfires that burnt 45,000 hectares and destroyed 48 buildings.

“The fire went straight through,” said Mr Poultney.

“We managed to save all the buildings, but when we saw it coming through we held our breaths.”

A view of bare paddocks from beside a solar panel array
The February 2022 fire burnt the poles and wires that crossed this field.(ABC: James Purtill)

Aside from destroying buildings, the fire burnt the poles and wires connecting the farm to a grid that spans an area larger than the United Kingdom, from Kalgoorlie in the east to Albany in the south. 

Known as the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), the sprawling network has grown over decades to become one of the largest regional grids in the world.

It’s both a miracle of engineering and an incredibly inefficient way of keeping the lights on for many properties.

A map of the South West Interconnected System
The SWIS has about 7,800km of transmission lines (red) and more than 90,000km of distribution lines (blue).(Supplied: Julius Susanto, ResearchGate)

Before the fires, electricity travelled across the state to get to the Poultney family’s house, beginning its journey at one of several coal-fired power stations at least 200km away.

For about the last 10km of that journey, it was travelling down power lines that had few other users, meaning the cost-per-customer of supplying the power was enormous.

Now, the power travels about 40 metres.

The Poultneys paid nothing for the SPS, and Western Power bills them at the same rate as before, when they were connected to the grid.

“I reckon we get more power out of it,” Craig Poultney said.

“Before, being on the end of a line out here you couldn’t run a welder in the workshop.

“Now you’re never out of power.”

Preparing for climate-fuelled disasters

Western Power plans to install 4,000 SPS in the next decade, and up to 6,000 within 20-30 years.

So far, it’s managed about 100.

It’s early days, but there’s good evidence SPS provide a more reliable power supply for regional customers who would otherwise rely on a fragile network that goes down whenever a tree falls on the line.

A three-year trial of the first SPS units, completed in 2019, saved 200 hours of power outages across six properties, according to Western Power.

Then in 2021, a natural disaster provided dramatic evidence of the advantages of taking remote properties off-grid.

A colourful satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Seroja as it heads towards the WA coast.
Category three cyclones have been rare this far south in Western Australia.(Supplied: BOM)

Cyclone Seroja left a trail of destruction 700 kilometres long and 150 kilometres wide, damaged or destroyed 70 per cent of homes in Kalbarri and Northampton, and left more than 30,000 residents without power.

But six properties escaped the blackouts: the ones with SPS.

“Those six customers remained with power throughout the duration of Cyclone Seroja,” said Ben Bristow, head of grid transformation at Western Power.

“That demonstrates the resilience this technology is bringing to the grid.”

Resilience is important to regional grid operators, as climate change will increase the risk of bushfires, and make cyclones more intense.

In the reconstruction period after Cyclone Seroja, another 40 SPS were rapidly deployed to the region. 

A man poses beside a ground-mounted solar array
Dylan Hirsch’s farm was on generator power for three months after Cyclone Seroja.(Supplied: Dylan Hirsch)

Among the recipients was Dylan Hirsch, who farms 6,000 hectares in the remote northern Western Australia’s Wheatbelt.

“Cyclone Seroja took out all our poles and wires,” he said.

With three houses and a workshop, the large farm uses about $2,000 of electricity per month in summer.

Before the SPS, it would lose power in thunderstorms and heavy winds, which meant dozens of blackouts a year.

The new SPS was more reliable, but there were “teething issues”, Mr Hirsch said.

SPS are owned and operated by Western Power, even though they’re on private land. If the unit trips, customers cannot flick a switch to turn it back on, like they would if it was their own system.

Instead, they have to wait for an electrician to come out. 

“It’s frustrating someone has to travel 80km to flick a switch back on,” Mr Hirsch said.

“We might lose power for 12 hours just because we aren’t able to turn it back on rightaway.”

Mr Poultney has had the same problem.

“If we could just flick the switch ourselves it’d be so much easier,” he said.

A large white box with exposed wiring beside a solar panel
Western Power only allows approved technicians to operate the SPS — and they’re often based far away.(ABC: James Purtill)

Entire regional towns may be disconnected

Western Power declined to say how much a standard-size SPS cost to install, but other sources have estimated they’re about $150,000 each.

Installing an SPS became economical when a single customer had at least 4km of lines, Western Power’s Ben Bristow said.

“Our modelling shows that over their 50-year life, installing standalone power systems is actually more cost efficient than poles and wires for certain parts of our network,” he said.

Western Power crew maintaining lines
Western Power spends billions of dollars maintaining its network of thousands of poles and wires.(Supplied: Western Power)

SPS also reduced the risk of bushfires, said Margot Hammond, who’s responsible for Western Power’s SPS program.

“If branches come down from trees in summer, we actually have to do a foot patrol of that line because we can’t just turn it back on again because of the risk of starting a bushfire,” she said.

As the price of solar energy and battery storage continues to fall, replacing poles and wires with SPS will become more economical, and Western Power may dismantle even more of the SWIS.

“We’re looking at installing standalone micro-grids in regional towns,” Mr Bristow said.

“Really a microgrid is comprised of the same technology — solar and battery energy storage systems — as an SPS.”

An aerial view of a wind turbine and a shipping-crate size battery
In early 2022, Australia’s largest microgrid went online in the WA town of Kalbarri, with 5MW of wind and solar and 2MWh of battery storage.(Supplied: Western Power)

Horizon Power, the state-owned corporation which manages the network for the parts of Western Australia outside of the SWIS, is also using SPS to supply remote farms and properties.

It’s so far received $6 million to deliver 150 systems across regional Western Australia.

WA’s experiment in off-grid power is being watched closely by network operators in other parts of the country.

Essential Energy, which operates a network servicing 95 per cent of NSW and parts of southern Queensland, is investigating the introduction of SPS.

Queensland’s Ergon Energy is also trialling SPS for remote customers around Gladstone and Mt Isa.

“We’ve got this unique opportunity, because we’ve sen the cost of the technology come down,” said Western Power’s Ben Bristow.

“It means we can look at this transition to a cleaner, greener, more reliable and safer alternative.”

Hear more about climate change solutions in the podcast WHO’S GONNA SAVE US?a collaboration between triple j Hack and the Science team at RN. 

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Listen to episode 6 — Community Power

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