Solar + Flywheel Microgrid Saves 400,000 Litres of Diesel Annually

solar diesel

Solar has been installed with a huge flywheel to smooth its output in WA. The result is a town that is 60% solar powered, and a 400,000 litre reduction in annual diesel usage. Great Aussie innovation!

We’ve all seen the success of solar energy in our cities and regional towns. Australians are voting with their rooftops for clean, green solar power and the trend is increasing as solar reaches grid parity. But what of communities in our vast Outback? What of our small remote towns currently reliant on polluting fossil fuels such as diesel? It is here that microgrids, solar energy and the Outback are coming together to create a new, cleaner energy future.

In doing so, these microgrids for remote communities are giving the country a glimpse of a new way of accessing energy.

A key example is the mining community of Marble Bar, a mining town in Western Australia’s Pilbara, where a microgrid installed by technology group ABB is allowing multiple sources of energy, including solar, to be used instead of the traditional reliance on diesel generators.

According to the company press release released last week, the specially constructed microgrid — which incorporates an Australian invented  flywheel grid stabilizing technology — aims to “maximise the intake of solar power generation [while] minimising diesel fuel generation.”

ABB claim the hybrid microgrid allows almost 60 percent of the power needs of the town of Marble Bar and Nullagine to be generated through solar energy. This saves the community a massive 400,000 litres of diesel fuel annually while avoiding 1,100 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Microgrids — Back to the future?

Microgrids represent a return to the past for energy production where local councils or groups of small business owners ran energy production for their communities. However in a modern twist it’s that most ancient of power sources — the sun — that is playing such a crucial role in pushing the microgrids towards clean energy.

While recent advances in battery storage have altered the equation, going off the grid is still expensive (see Finn’s article here) and less than viable for the average Australian household. Indeed a December 2013 report What Happens When We Unplug? predicted it will take until 2020 for off grid households to become financially viable.

However running power infrastructure to remote and sparsely populated communities is a different scenario. Power companies are reluctant to run poles and wires into the vast Australian outback due to the massive costs involved, outlays that have little chance of gaining any return for the profit-driven power company. Outlying communities therefore rely heavily on diesel generators as a power source.

Obviously the whole concept of “the grid” is under re-evaluation. No longer should we be thinking along the lines of a monolithic grid that every household and business is plugged into and serves everyone. It appears that microgrids will play an important role in the future for our remote towns and communities.

We should not just think of microgrids as just being relevant to remote communities as well. A current project by Queensland’s Ergon Energy is teaming with local operators to run microgrids in areas where natural disasters such as cyclones threaten power.

In a world where clean energy has begun to supplant traditional fossil fuels, how long before we see microgrids and solar energy play as much of an important component of our towns and cities’ energy systems as that of remote communities such as Marble Bar?

Are microgrids, solar energy and the Outback just the beginning? Will we see solar energy microgrids replace traditional grid power? We’d like to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. Colin Spencer says

    A Melbourne engineer names Ron Conry developed the Turbocor industrial refrigeration compressor back in the 90s. Magnetic levitation bearings, no lubricants etc. Today it is an award winning Danfoss product. Before that, Ron invented the mechanical battery. Maglev bearings again. The model he showed me was used in satellite battery sets for satellites. The satellite has fold out solar panels to spin up the stator which holds around 80,000 rpm. It generates a constant electrical current in a synchronous orbit. It keeps generating when it is on the ‘dark side’ of earth. A large version of this would be ideal for today’s solar systems. Ron Conry lives in Florida these days.

  2. Graham Johnson says

    Good blog!
    Interested to know how big flywheels are? Would they be viable for domestic scale energy storage.
    There has been ‘hype’ about batteries but beginning to think it may be some time before we see many in Australia. May make sense to manufacture them here to avoid transport/import issues. Is anybody thinking of doing this?

    I did a bit of research on pumped hydro, and wrote a letter to ARENA, but very non committal response, seems no big projects in the pipeline (if you will excuse the pun).
    Near Lithgow Existing Thompson’s Creek reservoir capacity 27,000 ML is 247m above Lake Lyell 32,000 ML, already with pump up pipeline. All it needs is a turbine at the bottom.
    Clever people at Universities etc don’t seem to be getting the ideas up, let alone the projects. Any organised ‘community’ activity on this sort of thing?

    • The flywheel in the post costs hundreds of thousands and is housed in a shipping container sized enclosure. But that’s not to say that a smaller versions isn’t possible. it was originally invented by a company called PowerCorp in Darwin, then sold to ABB. I’m not sure whatever happened to Powercorp.

      • Amber Kinetics in the US have a 40kWh flywheel with units in the field it uses a simple steel rotor in a vacuum o magnetic bearings. They were talking about US40k when I looked at it. It would seem to be very complimentary to a chemical battery to smooth out spikes in electrical power demand. It was good for about 24 hours storage with some losses.
        We were interested in local licensed manufacturing as transporting lumps of steel is not ideal. In the end they went with a local agency but I am not aware of any sales in Australia.
        It seemed an ideal thing to manufacture here and then set up very large numbers of units where coal fired power stations are now located. Use the local skilled workforce, plenty of land available and of course all the power transmission infrastructure already in place.
        Sadly we failed to generate sufficient interest from the incumbent power providers and government and the US people were not willing to enter into licensed manufacturing.
        It just seemed to be a very logical completely scalable proposition to incrementally get rid of coal and to provide a long term fully serviceable storage system particularly suitable for WA and SA .

  3. Just did a quick bit of poking around and discovered that the current average weekly retail price of 1 x litre of diesel (unspecified grade) calculated using national, state and metropolitan data points, is, according to the Aus Institute of Petroleum, …. is…. …. about $1.30ish a litre.

    At $1.30 a litre x 400,000 litres saved, that’s $520,000 a year saved.

    Presumably the towns of Marble Bar and Nullagine pay the terminal price (A$1.20 in Perth = A$480,000 saving a year.

    We’re lacking data on how much the set-up costs. Perhaps Finn can read and analyse it from a pricing perspective from this paper –

    At about $0.5m a year saved, if the project is in the low mills to set up, say about up to $10m (a 20 year payback period i.e. $10m/0.5m) it may well be worth doing from a purely economic perspective – assuming there are no issues once you take into account OPEX and future-money-discounting factors.

    And, in the future, if the technology becomes widespread or, other, technological innovations take place, it might get cheaper again…

  4. Since you ask:- I still don’t see any advantage in microgrids over stand-alone systems ~ but do see many of the DISadvantages of grid-connection generally.

    In a community-type situation where microgrids might be considered my inclination would be more towards setting up a not-for-profit community bank to finance stand-alone systems ~ and thereby gaining the added advantage of bulk-buying.
    There are precedents.
    ….sort of.

    • randy wester says

      I would think the advantage of a microgrid is in sharing capacity for handling equipment startup or other heavy loads for short periods of time, and in locally trading the surplus power.

      100, 10 KW systems can’t do things that the same hardware in a 1,000 KW integrated system can do, like run a 250 KW fire pump.

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