Gippsland Microgrids: Heyfield and Mallacoota

A recent surprise announcement was that the township of Heyfield has been selected for a microgrid trial. Surprise because there are a number of other seemingly more important locations in Gippsland where a properly functioning microgrid is essential – Mallacoota* springs immediately to mind. There are a number of other remote localities more suitable, even preferable, than Heyfield for a microgrid location. However, Heyfield was selected as the uptake on rooftop solar in the town is about 30% and the project has strong local support.

The three-year feasibility study is to be conducted by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and is federally funded. Writing in Reneweconomy James Fernyhough quoted UTS representative Scott Dwyer that: “the network…could reduce the maintenance cost of keeping long, inefficient feeder lines connecting the town to the central grid. Studies have shown that many towns it is cheaper to take them off grid in the longer term than it is to maintain the lines connecting them to the main grid. However, there are regulatory hurdles to cutting whole communities off the grid.” Being centrally located “it was unlikely that Heyfield would be cut off from it [the grid] altogether.”

This highlights some of the problems with a study of this kind. It will certainly help the township of Heyfield move towards zero emissions and generally is a positive move but far too slow. The climate emergency dictates that the remote towns should receive priority and that period – a three-year study – is already obsolete. Some Mallacoota residents have been calling for a microgid for years. Such a microgrid easily could be financed by the funds going to the UTS study and local capital, and it need not immediately disconnect from the grid. As Fernyhough noted “$1.8 million [came] from the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund, which [has] put aside just over $50 million to fund microgrid trials around Australia.”

During the bushfires of both 2003 and 2006/7 the Omeo region was cut off from the grid and functioned successfully for short periods on these occasions with diesel powered portable generators. It is worth remembering that the grid did not extend to the Omeo district until about 1965. Until then townships such as Swifts Creek operated as microgrids (if somewhat primitive) and in this case powered by a generator from the timber mill.

With cheap solar, lithium ion batteries and smart meters microgids offer a win/win opportunity for remote communities. They are cheap and provide reliable energy for residents and energy providers are no longer required to supply costly power to them. In parts of Western Australia the energy supplier is replacing remote grid extensions with stand-alone power.

What then is the objection to working studies of micro-grids in action so that they can be improved and perfected? Mallacoota, still recovering from the devastating bushfires of last year, is the perfect place for such a project – not as an alternative to Heyfield but an additional one.

*A member of the Mallacoota Sustainable Energy Group has informed me that they already “have a micro grid, a 1MW battery and a 1MW generator almost ready for commissioning! It’s gone through final testing and is waiting for delivery, COVID-time, of a single part” which is good news. The thrust of the article remains that there are many deserving localities ahead of Heyfield including Omeo and Dargo. Licola may also have a partially functioning microgrid about which I have no recent information.