New research has underscored the need to bolster the “energy resilience” of Australia’s regional and fringe-of-grid communities – and the strong desire of the residents of those communities to adopt technologies like solar and battery storage, and even by going off-grid.
The Victoria-based study of East Gippsland communities ravaged by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020 also found that plans to “build back better” had remained largely aspirational and that, for many residents, the quest for energy resilience had barely advanced beyond buying a petrol generator.
The study, compiled by social researcher Nicola Heppenstall from The Insight Centre for Energy Consumers Australia, interviewed 20 residents of communities in and around Mallacoota in the immediate aftermath of the fires and then twice more over the following year.
On top of the sheer trauma of the catastrophic and life-threatening event, Heppenstall says many of the people her team spoke to were without power for weeks. For some, power was restored within three weeks, while others reported being without power for up to 11 weeks.
“For many of the people we spoke to, the loss and restoration of energy infrastructure were often, from their perspective, bookends in the crisis and the start of their recovery, underlining the critical role that energy plays in our lives and businesses,” the report says.
To this end, the report finds that many people saw the bushfire crisis as an opportunity to take advantage of the latest energy technologies to rebuild in a better and smarter way; to not only restore power but solve historical reliability issues at the same time.
“The crisis experience … heightened their desire to secure a self-sufficient energy source,” the report says – not only in case of future emergencies but in the event of network failures – a relatively regular occurrence for these communities both before and after the fires.
“[It] increased the perceived importance of energy security and meant that many people were looking for greater communication with their energy network, particularly about what is being done to minimise disruptions to the network and how communities …could benefit from new technology solutions.”
But the team from the Insight Centre found that by the time of its last round of interviews, a number of people were becoming pessimistic about the prospects for their energy services to improve.
Feedback from participants indicated they were largely relying on their own research, word of mouth and Facebook for information and advice about energy technologies and solutions.
“The challenge faced by service providers to maintain critical infrastructure across a wide geographic area was largely understood and accepted by the people we spoke to,” the report said.
“The participants also understood that restoring power supply after such a major event would take time. However, the bushfire experience had heightened people’s concerns about energy security.
“In response to their experience, many people looked to secure their energy supply rather than rely on the network in the event of future outages.”
For many, lack of ready finance or other logistical roadblocks meant this quest had not gone beyond the purchase – or planned purchase – of a petrol generator, the collective “hum” of which was noted as one of the evocative sounds in the post-bushfire period.
“We’ll be looking at getting a generator for power backup. If I had the money to go off grid I would. Unless you’re fully off grid and fully self-reliant at some point there’s going to be a network failure,” said one participant.
“The experience has very much compelled us to buy a generator which we are in the process of doing. And as soon as reasonably priced storage batteries come onto the market we will go to becoming self sufficient. We are happy to feed into the grid too,” said another.
“I learned that you need to have a good generator. The power will go out in a crisis and you can’t rely on anyone but you!” said another, again.
This trend was pinpointed as an issue for further investigation by the researchers, who noted that a number of study subjects were also using “small, portable (usually petrol) generators” on a regular basis to combat “day-to-day reliability” issues of the grid-based electricity supply.
“This would seem to be less than optimal both in terms of the efficiency of the local energy system overall, and the health and environmental outcomes associated with the burning of petrol and diesel for stationary electricity generation,” the report said.
But the use of petrol or diesel generators was perhaps particularly frustrating in the light of the “clear” and “strong interest” the interview subjects had shown in cleaner and smarter energy technologies and their use in making the entire local ‘system’ more secure and reliable – and resilient in the event of a crisis.
“The interaction between people and energy and other technologies was a consistent theme in our conversations over the course of the study,” the report says.
“Our initial sense is that the focus of energy resilience debates has tended to be on hardening or augmenting the ‘hard’ infrastructure rather than looking at how households and small businesses can be empowered in other – potentially more effective – ways (for instance, undergrounding power lines).
“This seems to be even more important given the speed at which the National Electricity Market is decentralising,” the report continues, “as millions of households and small businesses invest in distributed energy technologies that will need to be connected and managed in a way that is resilient to, and can play a positive role in the prevention, mitigation and recovery from disaster events.”
Ultimately, the report found a “much needed and critical role for the energy sector to help consumers, and entire communities, design the best energy solutions for them.
“The example of Mallacoota’s stand by battery [you can read about that project on One Step sister site RenewEconomy, here] and generator system was seen as the new way to deliver energy security to people living in remote and rural communities.”
But even that had not turned out to be the “good news story” it should have been, the report said, due to a lack of communication about what the system was designed to do that had allowed myths and misconceptions to fill the void.
For the final word, here’s a look at what some of the residents who were interviewed had to say. You can access the entire report here):
“It would be awesome if power companies give out advice on solar and subsidies and what you qualify for, not from these third party shysters, but from the horse’s mouth on what could be done on your house or property. We really need a trusted voice on what solar panels are good, what system should I have, what subsidies can I get access to, what works with our electricity system and the trusted source would be from your energy provider.”
“I like the idea of a stand-alone system for isolated communities. I’d like to know: When would it kick in? How long would it last for? What interruptions to my services would occur? Will everything operate the same? What do I need to do to prepare?”
“[Community-wide battery storage solutions] That’s definitely something that should be considered for other places [not just Mallacoota]. A lot of people have backup generators but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people in the bigger towns like Bairnsdale or Lakes Entrance, the more urban areas, there is no way they’ll have generators. It would be an awesome idea.”
“The power supply isn’t anymore secure than before. In February for 3 weeks in a row, we had 3 or 4 power outages (midnight to 5.00am) and lost power on 24th February in Lakes Entrance. Power outages during the day make it really hard as the toilets at the school are on an old sewerage system and you can’t flush them.There is no water either – so the kids can’t drink from the bubblers. There is no backup generators to tide us through.”
“I have no confidence or trust that we can rely on the power to be there when we need it. We are absolutely trying to be less reliant on the main energy grid.”
“I’d like to hear from AusNet about what upgrades they’ve made to the system and publicly acknowledge it so everyone is aware of what is going on.”
“I didn’t lose any power as I’m 100% off grid, my shed that houses my batteries and solar system, that all survived so I was able to come home to a fridge full of cold beer.”