Nestled between Bendigo and Castlemaine, the Victorian goldfields town of Maldon, population around 1,500, holds the curious title of “Australia’s first notable town,” for being largely unchanged since the 1850s.
As the National Trust puts it, Maldon “displays overall historical and architectural importance, particularly in its gold town buildings” and attracts “considerable interest from tourists for its 19th-century atmosphere.”
But while this picturesque town gives every impression of a bygone era, it also happens to be at the bleeding edge of the energy market evolution.
Around 37% of the households in the two have rooftop solar on their mostly corrugated iron rooftops, putting Maldon and the surrounding region around 10 per cent ahead of the state average. And in the town’s main strip, the powerlines have been undergrounded to preserve the goldrush era streetscape.
But that is not all. This week it was revealed that this notable regional town will get a federal government funded community battery, to help shore up the grid, accommodate more rooftop solar, and share stored solar power across the town.
The 90kW/270kWh battery was formally announced on Tuesday by network company Powercor, which will build, own and operate the battery after winning a $500,000 federal government grant towards the project.
For Powercor – which along with Citipower and United Energy runs the electricity distribution grid for a large swathe of Victoria – the grid-side battery will be its first in a regional town.
As part of the DNSP’s Electric Avenue program, it is designed to help customers share cheap solar power in their communities. But the battery will also work to support more solar exports for the region, to boost the reliability of the local network, and to cut emissions.
So why Maldon?
“It’s a beautiful town, obviously,” says Powercor’s head of network strategy and non-network solutions Greg Hannan.
“But one of the things that sets it apart from the rest of our network is that nearly four out of 10 customers have solar.
“And the great thing about the battery is that it will help customers with solar … to export their solar onto the grid and also keep that local renewable energy and allow it to be used in the evening when the sun goes down, so that customers who don’t have solar also benefit.
“So it’s a really exciting project.”
Powercor, which back in 2020-21 worked with the Mount Alexander Shire Council to underground the powerlines in Maldon, has been working with the community and local and federal governments on the battery idea for some time now.
With the grant funding secured, discussions will now turn to where to install this very modern piece of network kit that Powercor hopes to have up and running in the coming two years.
For Powercor and its other Vcitorian network branches Citypower and United Energy, the battery is expected to be one of many on the distribution company’s grids, both regionally and in the surburbs and inner city.
As Hannan explained at the recent Australian Energy Week conference in Melbourne, electricity distribution companies increasingly count batteries as a fundamental part of their poles and wires ecosystems, often performing network services better than traditional kit – and at less cost to consumers.
“We’re now starting to see storage as part of the fundamental energy ecosystem,” Hannan told the conference.
“As we … exhaust some of the cheaper options to maintain the voltage profile, there’ll be some pockets in the network where batteries can play a role to effectively support local voltages.
We’re looking at a future where potentially batteries can actually provide a cheaper alternative to the traditional network service. And in that case … customers will actually be better off.”
Interestingly, it is often the case on Australia huge National Electricity Market that it is on the more far-flung parts of the grid where newer technologies can best demonstrate their full bag of tricks.
On the occasion of the battery’s announcement, a local recalled that the Maldon Community House was one of the first buildings in the town to go solar and that, at the time, it was thought that one rooftop array might be all the local network could handle.
Come 2023, that was obviously not the case, although Hannan says that Powercor has had to make regular adjustments to keep up with red hot local solar demand.
“We’ve done a lot of work in this area so that well over 90% of customers who put in solar don’t have export limits,” he said in Maldon on Tuesday.
“And then the battery is going to help more people putting in solar and improve the power quality outcomes.”
Listen to this week’s Solar Insiders Podcast: Small town, medium battery – big solar win
Certainly, the community seems to get the value of shared battery storage, as the logical next step to support all of that solar its residents and businesses have already invested in.
“I know how important a community battery for Maldon will be,” said Lisa Chesters, federal member for Bendigo.
“It shores up the power supply in Maldon – we know lots of people have already connected to solar, it means that those households will be able to share their excess solar with others in the neighbourhood.”
“We’re really seeing the opportunity to have this battery as a launching point, I suppose, for a bigger conversation in the town around sustainability around the renewable journey,” says Amy Atkinson – one of a group of Maldon locals that has been campaigning for the shared energy storage system.
“[It’s a way to] find out from people what the energy concerns are and how, as a town, we can come together to address some of those into the future, with the battery as a really fantastic starting point.”
Chesters says community support for the battery extends beyond Maldon, to the nearby renewables champion of Newstead and across the Mount Alexander Shire.
“If we know that Maldon has the capacity to draw on this battery it means that there’s less pressure elsewhere on the grid and that’s what is also great with these community battery projects,” Chesters said.
“I hear, anecdotally, that sometimes if there’s pressure in Castlemaine, there might be a few brownouts. …It’s sort of [due to] the pressure that we have in our grid over summer.
“And that’s why these projects are critical. It does allow surplus power to be stored and to be used when needed.”
“I think it’s really significant for our town,” adds Atkinson. “It helps us maintain the sustainability and the viability of a small community and it sets us on a path to a sustainable future – and I think we all want that.
“It’s [also] pretty important for our town to have equitable access to the renewables journey that we’re all on. And there’s obviously lots of cost savings if you can access renewable energy.
“So we want to make sure that all people across the whole town, low-income people, all households, can have access [to solar],” Atkinson said.