The recording from our first community meeting on 5th March is now available:
Questions and Answers
All of the questions posted during the meeting were recorded and are answered below. In some cases, similar questions have been grouped together. For questions which were answered live during the meeting, there is also a link which will take you directly to that point in the video.
Hopefully we didn’t miss any – we went through the Q&A and chat logs. If we did miss something, or you have any additional followup questions then please get in touch here.
Project scope and timeline
When can we expect the microgrid to be operational?
Answered live: here
This is a complicated answer, since it depends on a number of factors. The simple answer is: this feasibility study will end in 2024, and will result in a design which has the necessary approvals to begin construction. At that point we will need to sort out financing to fund the actual construction, which in the best case could take another year or two. However, realistically we should be thinking about this as a long term project which will take many years before it is fully realised. Along the way we will hopefully be able to deliver some other related projects such as the solar + battery installations on community buildings in town for which we have just been funded.
The longer answer is that there are a lot of things being done in this project that are being done for the first time. A large part of this project will be essentially sitting with Essential Energy (the network operator) as they think through the complicated process of how they deal with the regulatory environment, how they deal with this sort of microgrid that is embedded in a network, and how they’re going to manage it. The funding for this project was not bushfire relief funding, but funding specifically to tease out some of the difficulties with deploying projects like this for communities at the edges of the electricity grid. There will be issues we run into, and there will be regulatory hurdles, but some of the questions answered along the way will help other communities around the country benefit from the transition to renewables and improve their electricity supply reliability.
The first stage of this project, to develop a feasibility study, will result in a high level of technical detail so at the end of this process we will be ready to go to a tender process. It’s likely that the next step – the construction step – will probably benefit from a second round of grant funding. One particular grant which could be applicable is the Regional Australia Microgrid Pilot Program (RAMPP) which is funded by the Australian renewable energy agency (ARENA). Once we get closer to completing the feasibility study, we will be looking into the requirements for this, in addition to other private financing options, which could help with the construction phase.
We have a dispersed population around Cobargo. Will there be opportunities for everyone to be part of the microgrid?
Answered live: here
Ideally the microgrid would cover all of cobargo and surrounds, but there are several tradeoffs which need to be considered.
- It depends on the existing poles and wires which limit what can be energised. There are several feeder lines which go from the substation and cover different parts of town and surrounding areas. We are still exploring options, but it is likely that only some of these feeders will be energised at this stage due to the reasons outlined below. As discussed in other questions, it is generally too expensive to install new poles and wires, and so the existing infrastructure limits what we can do to some extent.
- Power limitations – When building solar + battery systems and connecting them to the network, once you go over a certain size (5MW) the costs drastically increase. So, the idea is that you want to keep it below that. This limits the amount of power the microgrid can supply, and therefore might limit the number of houses/businesses it can service.
- For some of the outlying properties, the power line running from town to the property is also potentially vulnerable, especially if it runs through forested areas. In these cases, it might be more reliable to install standalone power systems at the property (ie. solar + battery + optional generator) instead of energising the line as part of the microgrid.
Which sites are currently being assessed for the solar array?
Answered live: here
We are currently actively exploring options for sites to host the solar array in Cobargo. At this stage we’re open to hearing from people who have land near town and would be interested in hosting a solar array on their property. We’re also looking at what land might be available that is owned by council, or by the NSW government, that is currently not being used or which might be suitable for a solar array. For example, one site that could potentially be suitable is the land around the sportsground.
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before we settle on any one location. So, if you have any suggestions for sites, or if there are any landowners out there who have some land available then do get in touch.
Can Bermagui be involved in the microgrid (are we on the same Bega feeder line?)
Answered live: here
Bermagui is outside the area of the proposed microgrid. They are on the same feeder line from Bega (Bermagui is currently at the very end point of the grid), but there are several reasons why it is not ideal to have them on the same microgrid:
- You would need a very large generator to power all of Cobargo and Bermagui, and there are limits to the size of solar array and battery which can be easily connected to the grid (typically under 5MW).
- The feeder line between Cobargo and Bermagui is also quite vulnerable as it runs through forested area and could be damaged in a bushfire, cutting off power anyway.
- The current microgrid design would have the solar farm, battery and backup generators behind the substation in Cobargo, so that the entire town can disconnect from the main grid at the substation if the power goes down. Extending the microgrid to cover Bermagui also would require energising the high voltage line between the two towns, and moving the disconnect point to the high voltage side of the substation, which would increase cost and complexity.
A more reliable and cheaper overall option may be to have an independent microgrid in Bermagui. The learnings from the Cobargo microgrid will be valuable to Bermagui should they wish to replicate it there.
Is the microgrid going to use the standard poles and wires?
Answered live: here
Generally, in these kinds of projects we try to use the existing poles and wires as much as possible. This electrical infrastructure is very expensive, so if the existing assets can be used, then that’s definitely the preference.
As part of the microgrid feasibility study we will be undertaking detailed network modelling with Essential Energy, to see if the existing network can cope with the microgrid system that we would like to put in. Sometimes augmentation or an upgrade of the infrastructure is required, and we will work with Essential Energy on that.
The other part that may need to be constructed is from the location of the solar and battery site, to connect to the existing feeder. This will depend on the location chosen for the microgrid, and would be a small number of new poles and wires. In general we try to minimise the amount of new infrastructure needed because it is quite costly.
Will household batteries be taken into account in the system? Can the microgrd be adaptive to work with existing solar and battery systems that are already grid connected? Can households with rooftop solar and batteries participate in the LMT [Load Management Trial]?
Answered live: here
Yes it can, and hopefully it will. There are 2 parts to this question:
- If you’ve already got rooftop solar and/or a household battery (or install them later) then they will continue to operate normally and contribute energy that will be used locally by the microgrid (ie, any exported solar would be used locally as part of the microgrid, either directly powering other loads in town or charging the central battery). Also, the solar and/or battery will help reduce your household energy use which reduces the overall load on the microgrid which is beneficial.
- It is also possible to allow the household battery (in emergency situations) to be remotely managed as part of the microgrid, and essentially act as an extension of the central community battery. This would mean giving up some (or all) of the battery capacity to be used to run the microgrid, instead of being available to use by the house. We are interested in exploring how this could work, and under what situations people would be willing to share some of their household battery capacity with the microgrid. If you have a home battery and would be willing to work with us in the load management trial then please let us know here so that we can get in touch and figure out how it could work. You can sign up to participate or for more information about the load management trial here.
During the fires, the smoke prevented generation of solar power for an extended period. Can we attach a generator to the microgrid during this period if it should happen?
Answered live: here
Yes, absolutely! We have already performed some preliminary modelling to determine how large the solar/battery/generator needs to be, and in that modelling we assumed some reduction in the amount of solar production due to smoke. We have some real data from household PV systems that were operating during the bushfires, so we have a fairly good idea of how much their generation was reduced.
The purpose of the modelling is to optimise the design such that in all but the most extreme situations the microgrid can operate using just solar + batteries – public surveys conducted last year produced this as the preferred option. The battery will be sized such that it can supply power not only overnight, but possibly for up to several days, even with reduced solar generation. However, the optimisation will also take cost into account, and it is likely that including a diesel generator as well, which would only be run as a last resort, will reduce the size of battery needed and reduce the overall cost.
What will this mean for local power generators ie those with solar arrays? Do they become retailers within the local electricity network?
Answered live: here
In short, there should be no significant changes for people with rooftop solar. 99.9% of the time the town will be connected to the main electricity grid and you would be paid the normal feed-in-tariff from your electricity retailer – nothing changes there. In the (hopefully) very rare situations when the main grid goes down and the town operates as an isolated microgrid, then suddenly the rules change. This is one of the regulatory hurdles we need to overcome as part of this project.
There are currently no rules covering what happens here since the rooftop solar would still export to the microgrid, but it would be used locally (by other houses or the battery) – it wouldn’t be exported to the main grid. Likewise, households or businesses that are using electricity would be using locally generated electricity, not electricity imported from the main grid. Ideally, to keep things as simple as possible, nothing would change – there would be an agreement with the electricity retailers that people pay and are paid the normal amounts for energy used and solar produced respectively. However, this is dependent on regulation rule changes.
In the event of another bushfire, the above ground infrastructure may be impacted. Has any thought been given to underground cabling etc for the microgrid?
This is a good point, and something that we will need to consider. As mentioned in other answers, the goal will be to reuse as much of the existing infrastructure as possible, because building new infrastructure like this is prohibitively expensive. However, this does lead to the problem that a future bushfire which potentially takes out above-ground wires could cut power to parts of the microgrid. This is a tradeoff – the larger the area which is covered, the more likely that parts of it could be disconnected if power lines are damaged. This will be considered as part of the design, and it’s possible that there could be some compromises. For example, power to the essential services on the main street could have additional redundancy compared to residential houses further away.
How will the microgrid cope with future increases in local electricity demand as a result of our shift away from fossil fuel energies e.g. gas to electricity, electric vehicles, etc
Answered live: here
We will be considering load growth when designing the microgrid and sizing it. We’ve got some data from the last 10 years, and we can make some projections into how that will likely increase in the future as new technologies become more common. The other thing is that these systems, even once constructed, can be expanded in the future. You aren’t locked into anything – you can definitely make adjustments to the design as things change. An example of this is the Tokelau minigrid project that ITP is involved with and discussed in their presentation.
Reliability of electricity supply will become even more important in the future as more and more appliances are electrified. The occasional grid outage might be (barely) manageable now, but when we rely on the electricity grid for our cooking, heating and transport then reliable supply is much more important. Projects like this, hopefully replicated and distributed around the country, will increase the reliability for everyone, which will be needed moving forward.
How much will Essential Energy be paying for energy exported to the grid?
Answered live: here
Essential Energy are the network operator – they operate all the poles and wires and transformers, etc. – and so they don’t pay anything for the electricity. Instead, the energy will be sold either directly into the National Energy Market spot market (basically selling back “to the grid”), or through something called a Power Purchase Agreement where the power is sold to a specific business or load (eg. some companies who want to purchase “”green power” can enter an agreement to purchase the electricity directly, rather than through the normal energy market). This is similar to rooftop solar, where you are paid a feed-in-tariff by your electricity retailer (eg. AGL, Origin, etc), not by Essential Energy.
The price of electricity on the spot market is set by the current supply and demand. There is an excelent website, https://opennem.org.au/ where you can see the current and historical electricity prices, as well as where the electricity on the grid is coming from. The price is typically cheapest in the middle of the day when there is abundant solar power, and most expensive in the evening and early night. Over the past year, the average price has been ~$100/MWh (1MWh is the amount of energy that at 1MW generator would produce over 1 hour. So, a 3MW solar farm would generate 3MWh every hour if running at full capacity)
This question of revenue streams will definitely be explored, but is more of a question for later in the process when we are looking for investors to actually build the microgrid. At that point, we will work with potential investors to develop business models for how it would operate.
Finance, ownership, governance
Once a suitable site has been found for the micro grid farm, who will own the land, site, and who will maintain it? If our taxes are paying for it, why would anyone else own it?
Answered live: here
We will be exploring this through the feasibility study. We have to get it right so that the community is going to be a direct beneficiary of this project.
We are looking at different models of ownership. Our preference is that this is a community owned asset and that if there is any revenue to be generated from this (which we hope there will be) it will be available for the use of the Cobargo community. But we’re also realistic and we understand that this is a big project that will require a high level of funding and so it is unlikely that the community will be able to fund it entirely itself.
The costs of systems like this are very high, on the order of several million dollars. There are some government grants available which could cover some of the cost, but the remainder will need to be funded from private sources. This could include a combination of local individuals, businesses or community organisations, or institutional investors. For this model to work it would need to produce a return on investment (from selling solar + network services to the grid). There are several examples of similar projects being funded jointly from local investment, and 3rd party funds – for example, the Orange Community Renewable Energy Park, Repower Shoalhaven.
All of this is part of the feasibility, and all of this needs input from the community. If you do have any ideas of if you’d like to be part of the team looking into these governance and financial structuring issues then do let us know. We have a conversation going on with the NAB foundation, and with some insurance groups, because all of this will help improve the resilience of the community against future disasters. But at the moment we’re still at the exploratory stage.
How will the maintenance of the systems be funded?
This is a very good question, and one that we will be aiming to answer as part of the feasibility study. This is closely related to the questions of how the microgrid will be funded and operated. During normal times, Cobargo will be connected to the main grid as normal, and the energy generated by the solar farm will be sold into the electricity market, and the battery can be used to generate revenue by charging and discharging depending on the price of electricity. It is likely that as part of the contract when the system is built, some of the revenue generated will be used to pay for the operation and ongoing maintenance, with the remainder going to repay investors who funded the construction.
Related to this is the decommissioning or recommissioning cost once the project reaches its end of life (likely 25 or 30 years). This is typically also written in the contract, and funds are allocated at the beginning to pay for this as part of the project financing.
Surely going for a profit on this idea is defeating the whole process
It would be great if corporate investors saw this in terms of the social and environmental benefits and understood that it is not enough to see this in purely financial terms. However, the reality is that the infrastructure and engineering costs to put together a project like this are very high, and this needs to be funded somehow. This will almost certainly mean attracting private investment, which will mean there needs to be a return on investment offered.
Ideally some of this investment would come from local individuals, businesses and community groups who may be willing to accept a lower return in light of the improved electricity reliability. However, the rest of the capital will need to generate competitive returns in order to attract investment. There are discussions going on at the moment with institutional investors about what return on investment is appropriate for community and sustainability projects such as these, and whether social, community, health and wellbeing returns can be considered in addition to purely financial returns. However, the bottom line is that the project will need to generate some returns in order to attract funding.
This question is a general question about renewables, in particular, solar: How do we know that the pollution created by the production of the arrays and batteries (mining, landfill with old arrays etc) will not be more dangerous in the long run than that from burning coal?
Answered live: here
There was a study published by the International Energy Agency in 2020 (link to press release about this study), which looked at the emissions from coal power generation versus emissions from solar and battery systems, over the whole lifecycle of these systems. Their findings were that solar and battery systems had the potential to reduce emissions more than 10 times compared to coal. Of these emissions, about 50% come from the solar panel production, and about 25% from the battery production.
Another thing to consider is maintenance, once a project is operating. A well maintained system is a much safer one.
Additionally, it’s important to look at the lifespan of a project – which can be very long, as most renewable projects have a design life of 25 or even 30 years. There’s usually obligations in the conditions of planning approval, connection agreements, agreements with landholders, etc, about what needs to happen at the end of the project life. This could either be decommissioning of a project, where everything above the ground gets removed, or recommissioning it with new infrastructure. Either way, it means that the owners can’t just leave infrastructure lying around.
Lastly, the facilities of recycling solar and batteries are getting much better, and that’s a real focus for the industry at the moment. One company focusing on this is Reclaim PV, which recycles solar panels, and there are similar initiatives for batteries. As we look at the feasibility of the Cobargo Microgrid project over the next few years there’ll only be more and more initiatives for recycling materials.
How many listeners are off the grid or have solar array already? I also wonder how many are just looking for a handout of free energy
Houses which are already completely off-grid would not benefit from the microgrid, since they are entirely self-powered anyway and not physically connected to the grid.
If households already have solar, but are still connected to the grid, then this is a win-win. During normal operation when the main grid is up, then nothing will change – households can use their own generated power, and export any excess to the grid. During a grid outage, when the microgrid disconnects from the main grid, then any household solar/battery systems inside the microgrid would help to supplement the central solar/battery farm. This would be completely transparent to the household – they would still be exporting the solar they normally would, except that it is going to power the microgrid instead of flowing out into the main electricity grid.
Australia has one of the highest rates of residential solar uptake anywhere in the world, with almost 3 million households having solar installed (~27% of households) – link to article . A survey was conducted last year for Cobargo and surrounds which found that around half of respondents had rooftop solar, and that a majority of those who didn’t were planning to install it over the next 5 years. This is great news for Cobargo, and for the microgrid, as all this rooftop generation will help power the microgrid if it needs to disconnect from the main grid.
There is no “free energy” here. The microgrid consists of a large scale solar and battery installation, which will sell energy into the national electricity market. The unique feature of the proposal is, in the event of a main grid outage, the ability to isolate and continue to supply power to the town from this local solar+battery system, with help from any other residential solar+battery systems installed at peoples’ houses.
How will the microgrid benefit Cobargo during ‘normal’ times?
Answered live: here
There are two aspects to this, the financial benefits and social/environmental benefits.
Financial first, there will be a large solar array and battery which will be feeding into the national electricity grid and earning income from this. The battery will be doing the same – buying when cheap, and selling when expensive to make money. Whether any of this financial benefit remains in cobargo however depends on the ownership model. These systems are very expensive, millions of dollars to build, and so is probably not something that Cobargo can completely self-finance – we will need to find private investment from outside to help pay for it. However, we would like to offer the opportunity for locals to invest in the project and earn a return on that investment over the life of the project. An example of how this could work is the Orange community solar farm that ITP is also involved in, where you can invest in the farm and receive dividends.
The second aspect of this is the social benefit. This project will generate renewable energy locally, which means that the electricity supplied to the region will automatically become cleaner. It will also help advance the trend and make it easier for additional renewable energy projects to connect to the grid in the future. For many people this is a quantifiable benefit by itself, and coupled with the peace of mind which will come from the improved resiliency of the electricity supply to prevent future outages, this is a real benefit to the community.
Don’t energy providers have the data on bills? [Related to asking for energy use data from local businesses and households]
Yes, energy retailers do have this usage data, but they can’t give out individual consumers data without the customer’s consent. We can make reasonable estimates of some loads (particularly residential loads which tend to be more similar) but we may also reach out to see if you would be willing to share electricity bills to get more detailed modelling for the microgrid.
Shouldn’t we be treating the climate emergency with urgency?
Yes indeed. Communities across Australia are pushing hard for major change, including through projects like these. Repeated multiple smaller events causing smaller disruptions and costs, as well as extreme events causing catastrophic disasters – these are set to increase in frequency and intensity. All asset planning should be conducted with full climate and disaster risk resilience assessment in order to avoid repeated harm, damage and loss in future.
Have you observed any other functioning microgrids in Australia? If so: Is there anything they would’ve done differently if need to do it again?
There are many examples of microgrids around Australia and around the world. ITP has a lot of experience deploying microgrids over the last few decades, particularly in the pacific region- see some examples here. Microgrids are also common in Western Australia (which is not connected to the electrcity grid on the east coast) where there are many remote regions a long way from large generators. In these cases, it can make more sense to build a completely self-contained microgrid than to run a long transmission line all the way to the region.
However, what is being proposed for Cobargo is novel in that the vast majority of the time it would be connected to the main grid, and not operating as a microgrid at all – only during main grid outages would it disconnect from the main grid and self-power the town. As it stands, this is not possible within the current regulations in the National Energy Market (NEM) and one of the main outcomes of this project will be coming up with solutions to these regulatory problems and proposing new rules to allow this type of project in the future.
Is business as usual, existing regulatory frameworks, etc., really good enough?
Communities like ours know that business as usual is not good enough. That’s why this project and others like it are so important. This project will be supporting the development of new regulatory frameworks. What we are doing is new for electricity distributors, and they are an important participant. A major outcome of this study will be a change in regulations that allow future projects like this to go ahead, and a playbook for other communities around the country to follow.
If you have any ideas on other things we can be trying then please get in touch!
Why was the Cobargo Showgrounds not included as a power refuge site, as well as RFS, RSL, School of arts and Co-op?
We were unaware that the Showground had an interest in being part of this project. Participants were referred to CaDET by Council or made direct contact.