Controversial Daintree microgrid proposal wins federal funding

Divisive plans to power Queensland’s World Heritage-listed Daintree region with a solar to hydrogen gas-based microgrid have won just under $1 million in grant funding from the federal government.

Federal member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch, said on Monday that the Morrison government had awarded $990,150 towards a feasibility study for the project, delivering on an election promise to have it ‘shovel ready’ within 12 months.

The proposed microgrid project, led by Daintree Renewable Energy, is the culmination of a decades-long push to improve power supply to residents and businesses in the remote off-grid region – an effort that gained momentum in 2017, when ARENA commissioned a report to identify a range of options.

According to Volt Advisory Services Richard Schoenemann – who worked on the ARENA project alongside the Daintree Power Committee, Phillip Koeghan from Sunverge – it was decided after “extensive analysis” that a full community “power to gas” microgrid was the best option.

Schoenemann told One Step in April that the microgrid was found to have a better cost per unit of energy than the other options assessed, and was also favoured for being optional for residents to connect, while offering those who wanted it a reliable supply and freedom from the responsibility of managing their own power supply.

The environmental impact of the project was also considered to be a benefit, with cabling proposed to go under existing infrastructure so that it did not require the disturbance of any of the world heritage listed region.

But not everyone agrees – neither within the community, nor on paper.

A separate report commissioned by the Queensland government and prepared by KPMG questioned the feasibility of the now federally-backed microgrid solution, painting it as exorbitantly expensive and a bad fit for the remote rainforest area.

The report said the renewable microgrid presented “numerous technical and commercial risks,” and was basically financially unviable without significant upfront and ongoing government support.

Some locals have criticised the microgrid plans too.

Long-term resident of the rainforest and One Step Off The Grid contributor Dr Hugh Spencer argues in favour of households staying power independent, using modern distributed solar and battery storage technology.

In his article, 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.

And the KPMG report complements this view, noting that relative to a microgrid, stand-alone power system based solutions “better preserve the existing natural and cultural heritage values of the Daintree,” as well as costing far less than the microgrid solutions – between $700-$6,000 a year per residential customer compared to current supply arrangements.

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