After a devastating bushfire, one remote WA farming community takes steps towards a solar solution — and it’s cheaper, safer, and more reliable.
The deadly bushfire in a remote West Australian farming community has led to a renewable energy first in Australia.
A government-owned electricity company is taking customers off the grid by giving them standalone solar units, so they can pull down ageing and costly power lines.
In November 2015, bushfires swept through the Esperance region, 800 kilometres south-east of Perth.
Four people lost their lives, thousands of livestock perished, and 30,000 hectares of crops were destroyed.
More than 300 power poles were also burnt, leaving about 450 locals without power for months.
The natural disaster led Horizon Power to rethink the way it managed its electricity network.
Some Horizon Power customers affected by the fire were offered solar panels as a trial, instead of rebuilding the lines.
After the fire ripped through Scadden West farmer Peter Vermeersch’s properties, he had to use generators for electricity.
“Probably two or three months sitting there with generators going. Yeah, it was a bit of chaos for a while,” he said.
He was one of five Horizon Power customers who took up the offer of getting electricity from solar panels, batteries, and a backup generator instead of via poles and wires.
Initially, he was sceptical of the solar option.
“The main issue was wondering if the power supply was going to be reliable,” he said.
At first there was not enough battery capacity on the solar units, but Horizon quickly fixed this and the new system is now more reliable than being on the grid.
“They have been really good. I don’t think we have had an outage on them,” Mr Vermeersch said.
“There’s also the advantage of not having poles and wires through your properties. There’s not that risk of machinery running into power poles.”
First utility company in Australia to kick customers off the grid
Horizon Power is now installing 17 further solar units on farms east of Esperance, and will tear down about 60 kilometres of ageing power lines.
It is the first time a utility company has removed traditional infrastructure and convinced customers to get off the grid.
Horizon Power chief executive Stephanie Unwin said it would save customers money.
“You are not replacing poles and wires … we no longer have to send out our linesman to patrol the lines, so that’s great,” she said.
“Maintenance is much lower, we will only have to send someone out once a year [to check the solar units].”
20,000 to get off grid in a decade
The WA Government is behind the move and the state’s Energy Minister Bill Johnston said off-the-grid, clean energy made sense.
“So this is good for remote and farming communities because it gives them better energy and more reliable power,” he said.
“But it’s good for the government because it reduces the costs as well.”
They want even more households to get off the grid, in May this year announcing another 57 Western Power customers in the state’s wheatbelt will soon get solar units.
“We would expect over the next 10 years there would be 20,000 farmers taking advantage of this technology,” Mr Johnston said.
“Western Australia is absolutely ahead of the curve at deploying these standalone power systems and it’s being developed right here in WA.”
However, some state legislation reforms are needed before a larger rollout can be done.
Currently state-owned Western Power is not allowed to cover the costs of generating electricity via the solar units.
But Mr Johnston said he hoped to see legislation “in the parliament by the end of the year”.
And if recent Australian Energy Market Commission recommendations are adopted, more electricity companies will be able to provide standalone power systems to customers where it is cheaper than staying on the grid.
Converting to solar ‘easy decision’
At Condingup, about 70km east of Esperance, farmer Nick Chapman said installing the solar unit was an “easy, easy decision”.
“There’s never any danger of anything being hit by machinery with the poles and lines being removed,” he said.
“We are in an isolated location and we are at the end of the grid … but now we simply never lose the power.”
For Mr Chapman’s father, Len, he’s amazed at the solar technology.
He remembers the Condingup farm getting connected to the grid in the early 1980s.
“I’ve come through the full cycle from a little 32-volt [diesel] plant then great rejoicing when the State Electricity Commission connected us,” he said.
“And now with this is more modern technology. We are onto a standalone power unit again.”
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