Powering up remote communities

It is places like Kalbarri, a small resort town 160 km north of Geraldton in Western Australia, that will benefit from a project to be conducted by the Electricity Supply Industry – Generation Industry Reference Committee. The project will identify the skills needed in new power generation technology, including off-grid systems and the use of renewable energy sources, and provide vocational pathways to enhance employment opportunities for remote area communities.

Located on the increasingly popular Coral Coast, Kalbarri (population 1,500) received over 400,000 visitors in 2018, but is currently serviced by just one 140km-long rural electricity supply feeder line. On one of the windiest coasts in the world, the line is highly exposed to wind and salt, which can result in extended outages, causing inconvenience to locals, and damage to the tourism business.

Western Power, WA’s state-owned power corporation, sees the solution for Kalbarri as being to get its own microgrid — a small-scale power grid, which will also be connected to the main electricity network. A 4.5 megawatt hour (MWh) battery will supply 5 megawatts (MW)[1] of peak capacity with at least 2MWh of energy storage, with additional supply from residential rooftop solar and a local wind farm. It will be possible to integrate future renewable generation sources as they become available.

Set to come online in early 2020, the Kalbarri microgrid is not Western Power’s first microgrid. It also has installations up and running in Bremer Bay and Ravensthorpe. According to Seán McGoldrick, Executive Manager, Asset Manager at Western Power, “microgrids increase the reliability of service to isolated towns because the energy is generated closer to where the power will be used.  Every remote community has unique energy needs and we work with local governments, stakeholders and residents to ensure solutions are tailored to their needs. This might include a mix of network supply, microgrids, community batteries or stand-alone power systems.”

Finding better energy solutions for remote communities is important because, while only two per cent of Australia’s population live in off-grid areas, over six per cent of the country’s total electricity is consumed in these places, and 70 per cent of that electricity is generated from natural gas. The remainder comes mostly from diesel fuel. This makes it Australia’s most expensive electricity. With increases in gas prices predicted, the opportunities presented by renewable energy promise cheaper power, with less price volatility, in this part of the market. Already, in 2017, a $59 million Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) project that integrated 3.325 MW of photovoltaic (PV) into diesel power systems across ten remote indigenous communities has improved energy reliability and security in remote areas, thus creating more sustainable communities.[2]

Realising the potential for these new approaches depends on having people in remote area communities with the skills to build, maintain and repair the local electricity generation systems. The ESI Generation IRC project will review and develop the UEP20218 Certificate II in Remote Area Essential Service qualification to ensure it includes new power generation technology skills such as power generation maintenance and repair, emergency technical response (generation plant breakdowns), and will provide clear vocational pathways to enhance employment opportunities for remote area communities. It will also focus on renewable energy generation systems such as wind and solar power.

This work has been commissioned by the Australian Industry and Skills Committee.

[1] According to the Climate Council, 1 megawatt of solar can power 300 homes.

[2] Vorath, S. (2018). “Another Remote Indigenous Community Shifted to Solar, as NT Transforms Power Delivery.” Retrieved from