For a growing number of Australians, the idea of cutting ties with your electricity network and taking your power supply “off-grid” is becoming increasingly attractive. And, as solar and battery storage costs continue to fall, it is far from just a romantic notion.
But for some in remote Australian communities who have had little choice in the matter, the reality of living off-grid is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be – not environmentally, and not economically.
In Queensland’s far north Daintree Rainforest region, the community is divided.
Cut off from the Ergon network, but surrounded by grid-connected communities on all sides, the Heritage Listed area is the centre of a protracted and contentious campaign to bring the Daintree onto a network – most likely its own, in the form of a microgrid.
The 30-year campaign, led by the Daintree Rainforest Power Committee, seeks an alternative to the current status-quo, which sees most residents and businesses reliant on their own inefficient, costly and high polluting diesel fuel generators coupled with battery storage – usually lead-acid.
Original land buyers in the late 80’s were promised grid connection by developers, but this appears to have been a marketing ploy. Many early buyers have never forgotten that promise.
The latest installment in this saga came two weeks ago, when federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg met with the committee and took with him some representatives of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), whom he has tasked with finding solutions to the problem, and to “treat this as a priority.”
Just what they will come up with – particularly considering neither the Queensland government, nor its state-owned power company Ergon Energy, are on board – is unclear. A separate advisory group will first write up a report on the best electrification options for the area, upon which ARENA will act.
Still, the members of the Committee are taking Frydenberg’s show of support as a win for team grid-connect.
Meanwhile, other residents of the rainforest, like one-time One Step Off The Grid contributor Dr Hugh Spencer, the answer is not in grid-connection, but in staying power independent, using modern distributed solar and battery storage technology.
In his article, last August, detailing his own experience of living off-grid in the Daintree, Spencer said that a large percentage of Daintree residents had put off-grid renewable energy power systems (RAPS) in the “too hard basket.”
This distrust of solar, he said, was partly a hangover from the mid-90’s Daintree Rescue Package, which installed subsidised solar and battery systems at a time when knowledge of solar – and especially of the local climatic and environmental impact on it – was in its infancy.
As Spencer pointed out, a lot has changed since then, and – he claims – a well designed solar RAPS in the Daintree can supply most households’ needs easily, even in the wet.
But others – and in particular, Daintree businesses – disagree.
“If (solar) would work in this area of course we would be doing it already,” said Daintree B&B owner Rob Lapaer, in an interview with One Step on Wednesday.
“Rainforests tend to have a lot of rain,” he added. “It’s happened where I haven’t seen the sun for months.”
According to Lapaer, most of the Daintree residents who have installed, and are happy with, solar power, live on large cleared blocks, where shading from trees is not an issue. In his case – as the name of his “Rainforest Hideaway” B&B suggests – solar is not a viable option.
“We’ve had a couple of surveys over the years, and every business wants (grid connection) and a majority of residents … want the power,” he said.
According to Russell O’Doherty, who heads up the Committee, the number of people who don’t what the grid connection numbers a “mere 3 per cent,” while the need for reliable power has increased over the years. (Spencer says this statistic is “very arguable”, and notes that a community attitude survey is currently being conducted.)
“A lot of people who are against any form of a grid here …don’t actually live here,” argues Lapaer. “And they have never had to come up with $20,000 to replace batteries.
“We don’t like to pay for these costs, but also we don’t like to pollute – we’re an eco-resort.”
Lapaer’s frustrations are compounded by the fact that his community is “surrounded” by the Ergon network.
“We’re surrounded by grid,” Lapaer said. “It goes behind the mountain and a lot further up the coast, but it does a loop around us.
“There is a cable across the Daintree River that feeds 13 houses on the south side. But … even the neighbours to those (grid connected houses) have to run a generator.”
Lapaer notes that this is not new territory for Ergon, or the Queensland government.
“There are 34 remote power stations around Queensland that all have their own generator.
“It’s always good to have renewable energy,” he added, “but if they would start by putting in one central generator with a grid, that would already be an improvement to the current situation.
“Once you start a stand-alone system generator there’s enough power there to feed a whole street. It’s extremely inefficient.
“With a remote power station, once you’ve got that basic infrastructure, you can keep improving on it,” including by adding solar, he said.
A map of the Daintree development precincts (circled in red), supplied by Dr Hugh Spencer. Spencer says: “This map does not show the buy-back blocks and substantially less than 1/3rd of the blocks marked are actually occupied, so it is very misleading to think that this represents an quasi-urban environment. The southern area (Forest Creek) has the highest settlement density – and could be supplied with grid power.
Lapaer even argues that installing underground wires and other grid infrastructure in the World Heritage listed area would have less environmental impact than taking the community off-grid with solar and storage – which, he argues, would require more clearing of trees to avoid shading of solar panels.
Spencer, himself, agrees that the solar off-grid solution is not necessarily the easy solution, and without the right advice and guidance “it can be a source of immense frustration.”
“Shading of any part of a panel (even though the rest is in full sun) can drastically reduce its output, a fact that needs to be borne in mind when choosing a location for your array,” he notes in his story.
“As it is wise to have a clearing of at least 50 meters around a dwelling (for cyclone protection and air movement – and maybe a garden) this should allow a rooftop array to get maximum solar exposure.
Whatever the right solution, the current state of play is considered unsustainable, if only for the amount of diesel fuel that is burnt in the rainforest to keep homes and businesses in power – 3 million litres a year by businesses alone, according to a survey cited by Lapaer.
For Spencer, the frustration lies in the divisiveness of the issue, which he argues is getting in the way of all options being properly and carefully considered.
The realities, he wrote in an email to One Step, remain that there is no existing grid wiring; that all wiring would have to be underground and over a massive area; and not everybody wants be grid connected – and those people feel excluded from community discussions.
“It seems that many of the main pushers are businesses who are not prepared to reduce their energy use, won’t install even notional solar …and several want grid power so they can sell up and move out,” he said.
“The costs of installation of supply lines …will probably greatly exceed generation costs, (and) the market is not assured,” Spencer adds.
“The upfront connection costs will be probably more than anyone are prepared to pay.”
But finally, it’s also an emotional decision, says Spencer: “Lots of residents take pride in being energy independent.”
Sophie Vorrath is a clean energy journalist and Deputy Editor of “One Step Off The Grid”.