Power Grid Trials Standalone Solar Systems for Remote Homes


Storms or wildfires that down power lines and disrupt supply are the nightmare of grids around the world. Western Australia has found an alternative -- taking remote customers completely off the grid.

After Tropical Cyclone Seroja tore through the state last week, destroying transmission lines and cutting off thousands of homes and businesses, six standalone power systems -- basically arrays of solar panels connected to batteries -- managed to survive the storm’s wrath and continue supplying juice.

Their resilience was a huge boost for state-owned Western Power’s ambitions to be a global pioneer in building a grid of the future. The company aims to use the standalone power systems, or SPS, to replace as much as 40% of distribution lines across its vast network, which supplies 2.3 million customers in an area the size of the U.K.

Power Grid Trials Standalone Solar Systems for Remote Homes

Network operators around the world have often struggled to serve remote customers with traditional wires and poles, which can be expensive and tricky to repair after storms or wildfires. The rapid decline in solar and battery costs over the past years has made standalone power systems an increasingly appealing alternative.

“Transmission and distribution lines have never excelled at supplying power to a handful of customers in a highly remote area surrounded by rugged terrain,” said Sanjeet Sanghera, a BloombergNEF analyst in London. “Standalone power systems can provide a win-win for utilities and customers.”

Power Grid Trials Standalone Solar Systems for Remote Homes

Western Power’s SPS plan is still in an embryonic phase. Following a three-year trial involving six units -- which the company said resulted in avoiding an average of 71 hours of power outages annually -- a total of 52 were installed in 2020. That will increase to up to 98 this year and eventually hit as many as 6,000.

“They are significantly more reliable than the regional network due to the significant environmental factors that can impact the overhead lines, such as storms, lightning and bushfires,” said Ben Bristow, Western Power’s head of grid transformation. “The market will continue to mature and we will yield the benefits of this through an increased deployment rollout.”

The technology won’t completely replace poles and wires, as it has some drawbacks, Sanghera said. Power grids enable the pooling and sharing of resources across vast distances, providing significant savings, while standalone systems have more limited capacity that may inhibit or slow the growth of rural communities. SPS also often rely on a polluting diesel generator as a backup system, he said.

But it’s the resiliency of SPS that may see the technology deployed more widely, especially as global warming is expected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, according to Leonard Quong, a BNEF analyst in Sydney. Furthermore, power lines have caused devastating wildfires around the world, such as the 2018 Camp Fire in California that caused billions of dollars of damage, he said.

Horizon Power Co., Western Australia’s other electricity provider, is also looking at installing SPS to increase reliability. The state-owned company plans to deploy as many as 45 of the systems over the next two years across its service area, which at 2.3 million square kilometers is larger than the U.S. Midwest.

Western Power hopes its 6,000 units will allow it to replace as much as 23,000 kilometers (14,300 miles) of distribution power lines in its network that covers Perth and regions stretching to Western Australia’s remote outback. That would also help deal with the problem of a rapidly aging network.

“Like many electricity networks around the world, large portions of our regional network are due for significant renewal,” Western Power’s Bristow said. “Installing thousands of SPS units will transform how we supply our regional customers over the coming decades and could avoid millions of dollars in traditional network renewal.”

Grids around the world may follow Western Power’s lead, especially as the falling costs make SPS more attractive.

“While grid costs are rising or remain flat, the cost of a four-hour duration lithium-ion battery system is expected to drop by 68%” by 2050, BNEF’s Sanghera said. “The economics of these onsite solar plus storage solutions keep getting better.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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