Friday, 17 June 2011

Broome gloom over solar moratorium

Weekend Australian
4 June 2011, Page: 9

RESIDENTS of the West Kimberley town of Broome have taken to grid connect solar power with such enthusiasm that they have nearly outstripped the capacity of their local power station to handle it. Now, regional electricity supplier Horizon Power has stepped in to control the situation. On March 2, Horizon announced future applications under its Renewable Energy Buyback Scheme would be restricted to systems no bigger than 1.5kW.

As residential installations in Broome average 5 7kW, this action is seen by locals as effectively a moratorium on solar power. Grid connect solar has taken off in Broome in the past six months, spurred by increasing power costs, generous federal and state government incentives and cheaper import prices for solar panels and inverters. An aggressive marketing campaign by Sydney based firm Solar CHOICE also generated strong interest in solar, leading to new orders both for Solar CHOICE and for local installers.

Horizon Power supplies electricity to 34 grids that service small communities throughout regional WA. Broome is the second town, after Carnarvon, to face restrictions on grid connect solar, and it won't be the last. Horizon's product manager Ashley Dixon says these isolated grids lack the size, flexibility and diversity of infrastructure of large interconnected grids such as those in the southwest.

"Our priority is to provide our customers with an electricity supply that's safe and reliable, while keeping supply interruptions down to an absolute minimum", Dixon says. "So our engineers have looked at these separate, isolated networks and calculated the level of renewable energy that each system can handle".

She says the restrictions are based on concerns about how effectively a power station can respond in the event of a sudden drop in output from all the solar systems connected to the grid, caused by, say, a drastic change in the weather. Dixon says the restriction imposed on Broome is temporary but she could not put a time frame on it.

"We've sensed a lot of frustration in Broome and we want to get back to normal as soon as possible", she adds. "That means finding a solution that will allow us to lift the network limits in the systems we operate. "Our engineers are looking at all sorts of technical and engineering solutions".

Electrical contractor Rob Gulberti, who installs solar systems in Broome under his trading banner Kimberley Enviro Solutions, says he has installed as many in the past 12 months as in the previous four years. He accepts the theory behind Horizon's actions but doesn't agree with the company's calculations of the system's capacity for solar.

Gulberti says the moratorium, though disappointing, is not the end of the world because it gives Horizon Power an opportunity to take stock of the system and improve it for the future. "There are a few crinkles in the system that we need to iron out", he says. "These include the way applications are processed, ensuring that meters are connected when they should be and making sure that customers have been approved for the feed in tariff and actually get paid what they should".

He said more should be done to educate customers about issues such as price versus quality and to give them an understanding of what a solar system can do for them. "Sometimes I feel that no one has really cared about the customer, the one who's actually forking out the money to invest in renewable energy. "We should aim to make the system so easy that we can see solar on the roof of any house in the Kimberley".