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The Ballarat Energy Network – CEO Update


Some may remember Ross Garnaut talking to members in 2019 – it was then that the idea of the Ballarat Energy Network (BEN) first emerged. It was based on the premise of possibility… “what would be possible if we could harness the collective generation capacity of locally generated solar and wind, add bioenergy and storage, distribute and share it locally and trade on the National Energy Market (NEM)?”

What was an idea back then is now called distributed energy and it is very real. As we continue to see evidence of centralised energy, based on large-scale coal-fired power generation, as no longer fit for purpose.

The BEN is more than just an idea for distributed energy, it is also a model based on the premise of local ownership, partnered with an energy retailer, where the profits are retained in the community and invested into community wealth building outcomes. Those who know the Bendigo Community Banks (see Buninyong, Beaufort, Avoca and others), will understand the model for banking. BEN will see whether the model can be applied to energy.

Back in 2019, distributed energy was seen as a bit of a novelty and the transition to renewable energy was going to be largely reliant on large scale transmission. That was then! It is now commonly said that the “Energy transition is so much more than transmission”.

I’ve just spent two days at the All Energy Australia conference and distributed energy and Distribute Energy Resources (DER) is the hot topic. Far from a novelty, it is seen as the Distribution Revolution, attracting significant investment interest and critical to our renewable energy future – all around the world.

In our region, we see the troubles that confront transmission projects. The Western Renewables Link (WRL) and VNI West demonstrate that such projects are hard, expensive, need long lead times and required significant community support and social licence.

Distributed energy, derived from DER, is with us here now. It’s on the roofs of our houses and businesses and in the cars we are driving more and more.

DER are small-scale units of local generation connected to the grid at the low voltage distribution level. Common examples include rooftop solar PV units, biomass generators, battery energy storage systems (BESS) including Electric Vehicles (EV), EV chargers, refrigeration units, thermal mass such as concrete and brick, heat pump appliances such as hot water systems, heating and cooling systems and more. DER is flexible and driven by demand so it can be stored and optimised, to be used by consumers when supply is high and the price is low and exported to the NEM when the supply is low and the price is high.

DER is currently a major source of energy generation, with rooftop solar leading the way. EV’s will be a game changer as every EV has significantly more storage capacity than many household batteries. Vehicle to Home (v2h) and Vehicle to Grid (v2g) will be the way of the future and is just around the corner. The technology exists and regulation in Victoria will soon enable the trigger to be pulled. (Currently, South Australia is the only state that has enacted this tech, despite it being common place in Europe.)

To achieve our national emissions reduction targets – and we must – we need to replace the generation capacity of our aging and failing coal fired power stations. To do we must bring on-line 6GW of new renewable energy every year until 2030 across the country. In perspective, the new Golden Plains Wind Farm, the biggest onshore wind project in the country, is 1.3GW. In 2022, DER had the capacity for 3GW of generation capacity across the country.

The BEN is a model that will aggregate local DER and distribute and share energy through our local network, before exporting to the grid at the most optimal time. It will be managed using AI and Smart Tech to ensure stability, be secure, community-owned, and cheaper, with new commercial and retail models emerging. DER can be the revolution we need and will transform a national energy grid that is no longer fit for purpose.

If we get it right, the Ballarat Energy Network (BEN), will help make our region a renewable energy success story, for the benefit of all.

Michael Poulton
CEO, Committee for Ballarat