Better distribution of energy to be explored via microgrids

Rather than farmers exporting power and then buying it back down the line, it’s hoped a federal government grant to the Queensland Farmers Federation to look at the flow-on benefits of microgrids for irrigated agriculture will find ways to better distribute energy resources within networks, and save money.

Along the way, unsustainable electricity costs that are eroding the viability and productivity of many agriculture businesses may be able to be minimised.

The QFF has received $654,807 from round one of the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund to assess options for microgrids to offer a more stable network, increase network utilisation, increase the uptake of on-farm solar energy, and cut costs in the rural and irrigation sector.

If they come to fruition, microgrids could deliver a number of benefits to irrigators around the state, decreased costs being chief among them but also clarity for future electrical infrastructure investment decisions, as well as the installation of smart meters to allow for better monitoring of energy.

Mackay and the Pioneer Valley, Stanthorpe, St George, and Bundaberg farming systems are being targeted in Queensland, along with the Hunter Valley in NSW.

QFF project manager Andrew Chamberlin said microgrids offered a new model for the utilisation of energy that would hopefully reduce costs.

“Microgrids are a collection of distributed energy resources and users – pumps and sheds – aggregated behind a meter that can be islanded, or operate independently of the network,” he said.

“They should mean farmers will be able to use more of their own solar power across different assets.

“For example, one could be storing lots of broccoli in a big shed but then they’ve sold it all, so an irrigator down the road can use the solar power he’s generating and not needing.”

Because some days are cloudy, and farmers have full coldrooms on varying days, it’s hard to match consumption with power generation, but it’s expected that microgrids will allow farmers to use power on other infrastructure without losing it to the grid, or enable the farmer next door to use it.

Mr Chamberlin said blockchain technology may have a role in working out how transactions would get paid for.

“The technology is there to have meters on each property, and to work out contract rates too,” he said.

QFF will partner with Cotton Australia, ReAqua and Constructive Energy to deliver the project.

ReAqua has installed Australia’s largest solar diesel hybrid pumping system, in NSW.

Mr Chamberlin said there were a lot of assumptions to test.

“A power line system cost might be replaced with a management system cost for example.”

QFF has two years in which to undertake the project, some of which would be taken up in assessing which farms to include that showcased best practice examples, and installing meters.

Project managers also want to monitor microgrid attributes over a full year to test it across all seasons.

It will use a lot of real-time meters that farmers can access their phones, and see whether they’re saving power or not.

“We’re excited about this,” Mr Chamberlin said.

“This is one of a few things that will help energy issues for farmers.

“Microgrids allow them to optimise their own power, and people’s systems will all be talking to each other.”

Power partnership receives funding for farm microgrids

Australia has gone from having a competitive advantage in energy costs to being one of the most expensive countries in the world. The price of electricity has increased about 10 times the rate of inflation over the past 10 years for Queensland farmers. Additionally, many regional customers face further bill increases when they are forced on to standard business demand-based tariffs on June 30, 2021. With unsustainable electricity costs eroding the viability and productivity of many agriculture businesses, alternative solutions are needed so Queensland farmers can continue producing world class food, fibre and foliage.

To that end, the Queensland Farmers’ Federation has partnered with Cotton Australia, Reaqua and Constructive Energy to deliver more secure, affordable and reliable energy with microgrids after in securing funding through the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund. The project will establish and analyse four demonstration virtual microgrids in NSW and Queensland to test their suitability in different circumstances and models. In addition, it will include community consultation and workshops, data collection and modelling to understand costs and benefits and provide guidance to industry and government.

Microgrids offer an exciting new model for farms to buy and sell power differently as well as better utilisation of on-site generation and local electricity networks. They may also have the added benefit of reducing grid losses as energy will be used more locally leading to lower investment costs in infrastructure while increasing reliability. These benefits all have the potential to reduce energy costs and will be tested by the project. Ultimately, farmers could benefit from more stable network energy flows, increased network utilisation, more cost-effective uptake of distributed energy systems and reduced costs to provide a community-based source of local, affordable, low carbon energy.

The way energy is generated and consumed is rapidly changing, with customer-owned generation and storage expected to make up almost half of Australia’s entire electricity capacity by 2050. This project places our project partners and the agriculture sector at the forefront of energy generation innovation and better able to overcome ongoing reliability and affordability issues.