With Australia going through a once-in-a-generation transition to renewable-based energy, concerns are being raised about the availability and reliability of electricity for when coal-fired power plants are closed and more energy is generated from solar and other renewable sources.
Researchers from Federation's Centre for New Energy Transition Research (CfNETR) are working with several Victorian local government areas (LGAs) to get a clear picture of current energy use patterns to understand the opportunities and challenges of future electricity supplies and whether these will be suitable as the reliance on electricity grows.
The work began as a study in Victoria's Central Highlands with the Hepburn, Ballarat, Moorabool, Golden Plains, Pyrenees, and Ararat councils to identify opportunities to meet the energy needs with changes and adaptations to the existing electricity distribution networks.
The work is also investigating the various community energy solution opportunities, including neighbourhood batteries and demand response initiatives. The latter encourages customers to shift their electricity usage to times when it is more abundant, or demand is lower, which helps balance the demand on power grids.
The study has recently expanded to include LGAs in Victoria's north-west to understand potential bottlenecks in the network with the increase in solar-generated energy.
Smart power systems researcher Dr Rakibuzzaman Shah says the study will help regional areas by revealing the challenges communities could face, including whether electricity demand can be met, identifying the potential unknowns on power loads and whether the intermittent nature of solar power generation can manage these challenges.
"Once the large coal-based power plants are decommissioned, some of the services these providers offer, such as the voltage support, inertia and frequency regulation to system operators from these large generations, won't be there," Dr Shah said.
"So that means whole networks are weakening as the energy landscape changes. And as the landscape changes, another problem is that our dispatchable generation is being retired. At the same time, electricity prices continue to rise."
Dispatchable generation refers to the electricity sources that can be programmed to be turned on and off by power grid operators based on market demands.
The study includes several components, including evaluating different renewable energy resources in the regions through a multi-criteria assessment and reviewing network reliability issues using annual reporting responses and other relevant studies. These will help inform potential solutions.
Dr Shah says the study will help communities, governments and distributed energy network service providers work together. The researchers are looking at different locations for the study as usage characteristics vary from consumer to consumer.
"We have analysed the data profiles of the LGAs to find out the flexibility they can have on their power loads, including some scenarios like changing their hot water systems away from gas, installing in-house batteries to store excess energy for use during the evening and electricity prices are higher.
"This work has a particular focus on the benefits to the communities. However, we have also investigated the network's performance to quantify the benefit for the system operators."
The study was extended through funding from the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) and the Grampians New Energy Taskforce (GNET).
"We will replicate this study to another six LGAs in Victoria because these areas will face the same issues," Dr Shah said.
"We have already identified that some of the LGAs need immediate action, while others will need action a little later on, but will need that action."
The Centre for New Energy Transition Research (CfNETR) delivers research, training and skills development in new energy generation, transmission and storage.
These are particularly urgent in regional Australia, where legacy modes of power generation are joined by multimodal and widely distributed forms of new energy generation, transmission and storage.