But it wasn't a new mineral lode or gas reserve that had Ergon Energy's engineers glowing this year.  Instead, it was the knowledge they had successfully integrated the sun, the oldest of energy sources, with the isolated township of Doomadgee's existing Power Station to provide a ground-breaking solution that delivers reliable and renewable power.

Utilities around the world, as they grapple with the challenge of integrating distributed generation with traditional power supply in isolated grids, could well emulate Ergon's approach.  Its success can be measured in the 264kW of alternative energy generated by 1056 solar panels arrayed on a corner of the 7ha site near the community.

Until 2013, Doomadgee, which lies about 500km from the nearest major centre of Mt Isa, was wholly reliant on costly, carbon-emitting diesel generation for its electricity needs.  That was until the Doomadgee Solar Farm project saw Ergon's ground-breaking engineers challenge preconceived restrictions on the amount of solar that could be connected to a diesel grid without needing costly stability devices.

Doomadgee's grid is not the largest serviced by Ergon Energy, a Queensland state-owned electricity distributor, but it isn't the smallest either. The town's 2.44MW diesel power station is the fourth-largest of Ergon's isolated power stations and, with almost one-million litres on site, has the most fuel stored.

The solar farm, with its 1056 panels, was designed and constructed to take advantage of the existing diesel power system capability and to deliver an economical solution.   The farm allows for 50 per cent instantaneous power penetration, which pushes the technical limits of the system spinning reserve and diesel engine load acceptance. Around 115,000 litres less diesel is expected to be burned each year, and the farm is likely to assist with reliability of supply during extended wet seasons, which can isolate the community for up to six months.

Doomadgee's solar farm project was awarded the 2014 Clean Energy Council (CEC) Industry Award for Innovation.  The CEC awards identify industry excellence with the award for innovation recognising the design and development of a ground breaking Australian clean energy project.  

Ergon doesn't rely only on technological innovation to identify opportunities for more effective energy use and consumption.  The company's powersavvy program has been working in partnership with its stakeholders and isolated customers for a number of years to provide advice on reducing power consumption, supported through financial incentives for installing energy efficiency measures.

This program has resulted in electricity savings of about 13.5GWh to date, delivering savings of almost $3 million to customers and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by about 9800 tonnes.

The powersavvy program has helped a Doomadgee business slash its annual electricity consumption by 40 per cent – saving $60,000 a year and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 219 tonnes.  The reduced electricity consumption between November 2012 and 2013 was due to energy efficient changes for lighting, air conditioning and refrigeration, which accounted for 75 per cent of the electricity consumed.

As part of the engagement process, the powersavvy team undertook a comprehensive energy audit and recommended a number of initiatives that would lead to greater energy efficiencies.  The team helped the store implement the changes by engaging specialist project facilitation to ensure the technical and energy-related outcomes were achieved.

A new control system was installed to regulate the air-conditioning system, which reduced running costs by about 35 per cent. Efficiencies came by consolidating the refrigerator and freezer systems, while LED lighting reduced costs by 50 per cent.  The significant drop in consumption by the large local business has further reduced the amount of diesel required to power this remote Queensland community.

Doomadgee's solar farm was the first step in ensuring a sustainable power supply for the future of the community, and the large-scale integration of solar and diesel generation means Doomadgee is now a shining light that could glow brighter.

The solar farm is now in the development stages of an $11.8 million expansion after securing $4.5 million from the Federal Government's Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).  The project plans for the solar farm to grow from 264kW to 1.26MW of photovoltaic (PV) generation, delivering 100 per cent instantaneous penetration of renewable energy, while cutting the town's diesel consumption by 33 per cent.  The planning and development work on this project has already begun and is expected to be completed by the end of September 2017, following further internal approvals.  This project received funding as part of ARENA's Regional Australia's Renewable program.

There are 37 other similarly isolated communities in Ergon's vast patch. Like most remote communities around the world, each presents a challenge.  But with each there could be another opportunity for power system planners and engineers, project managers and energy auditors to apply the knowledge gained from Doomadgee and provide a brighter more sustainable future for others.

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