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Why off-grid energy was a “no-brainer” for Logan City Council’s water treatment plant

Logan City Council, south of Brisbane, has installed solar PV and Tesla Powerpack technology to create an off-grid water treatment solution at its Round Mountain Reservoir, in what is believed to be an Australian first.

Not only has it saved council millions in capital costs compared to installing main grid-connected poles and wires, it has set a precedent it intends to roll out for future infrastructure in the fast-growing region.

Logan Mayor Luke Smith told The Fifth Estate the decision to go off-grid was an easy one to make.

Luke Smith, Logan City Council

To put in poles and wires would have required first building a sealed road 3.1 km long for access and inspection purposes – that would have cost around $1.9 million, he said. The current dirt road is 4WD suitable and no upgrade is required for routine maintenance of the solar and storage.

Then there would have been the bill from the energy provider for the poles and wires themselves being put in, which Mr Smith said would have been an “extraordinary amount of money”.

As well, the council will save about $50,000 a year on electricity costs to operate the electro-chlorination system that will ensure the reservoir’s water is safe to drink.

So the $3 million price tag for the solar and storage already sees council ahead.

The system was installed by CSR Bradford. The company’s business manager Ashleigh O’Brien said the project showcased the growing potential for Australian assets to achieve energy security through solar and batteries.

“The electro-chlorinator is powered by 323 solar panels and a 95-kilowatt-hour capacity Tesla Powerpack that will help provide water quality 24 hours a day,” she said.

Ms O’Brien said the project’s success signalled further potential to roll the technology out across the country.

Clean Energy Council director of smart energy Darren Gladman said projects like Logan’s demonstrated the business case for using solar and storage on infrastructure “beyond any doubt”.

Mr Gladman told The Fifth Estate a newly released Australian Energy Market Commission report showed that off-grid supplies were the most cost-effective option for fringe-of grid locations.

The Logan reservoir is a perfect example, he said.

Not only does off-grid solutions offer lower costs for powering infrastructure, they are more reliable, reduce bushfire risks, have safety benefits during installation and operation, and save time in construction.

Instead of months building a road, and then having grid connection poles and wires installed, solar and storage can be installed incredibly rapidly, and with far fewer diesel-using bits of machinery involved.

Fewer environmental approvals and controls are also required compared to road and transmission line construction.

“It is almost a lay down misere,” Mr Gladman said.

For any situation where new poles and wires would need to be built, solar and storage was now a “no-brainer”.

There is also an ongoing environmental benefit of not needing the constant vegetation clearing required to maintain the safety of electrical wires.

Mr Gladman said it also delivered “huge cost savings” for consumers more broadly, as new connections at the fringe of the grid were cross-subsidised through the supply charges on power bills.

“I expect we will see a lot more [projects like this]. It will become the new normal.”

Renewables part of a growth agenda

For Logan’s mayor, the move towards renewable power is part of a bigger agenda of preparing the city for its projected population growth.

The city is currently set for a 37 per cent increase in population over the next 20 years, with up to 170,000 new residents moving into the area.

The reservoir was part of planning for that growth, but to keep the water potable until such time as the full expected demand occurs, water treatment is required.

Mr Smith said the expected population growth also meant there would be a need for council to have more reservoirs and more water treatment plants constructed in future.

Now it has “experimented” with the renewable technology at Round Mountain, it is likely future water infrastructure will also utilise renewables, he said.

As part of its recently released corporate plan, it has set a trajectory towards lowering carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality through a mix of energy efficiency and offsets.

Green initiatives already underway include installing energy-efficient lighting at many council facilities, including libraries and sport centres.

The chiller at the council’s administration centre is using energy-efficient, natural ammonia refrigerant.

It has also installed solar-powered flashing flood warning lights at strategic locations where motorists are at greatest risk of driving into floodwaters. The signs were manufactured from electronic waste by a local not-for-profit social enterprise, Substation 33. To date, the Logan-based enterprise has collected and recycled more than 500,000 kilograms of electronic waste.

The signs also have embedded smarts that can automatically update flood information on the council’s website and provide real-time information to other web pages.

Another initiative it is looking to implement as part of the corporate plan is a network of green infrastructure throughout the city.

There is also a focus on local job creation, Mr Smith said.

One of the things council hears from residents is they “want to work where they live”. Currently, he said 70 per cent of working people in the area have to commute. So the council is supporting the local economy to grow and engage with the digital transformation to turn Logan into an “innovative, dynamic city of the future”.

Six key business districts have been identified. Four already exist and are to undergo renewal and revitalisation, and two are being created.

There will be innovation hubs in each district that will enable startups and other enterprises to generate new careers for locals, Mr Smith said.

He said there was a “sense of urgency” about how to plan for Logan being bigger than Tasmania in terms of population in 30 years time.

Two rail corridors have been set aside for future public transport, and one for a toll road that is likely to have lanes dedicated to electric vehicles.

Currently there are a number of big developers building estates in the Logan area that are testing EVs and related products in their developments.

It is about future-proofing the city, Mr Smith said.

In everything, the council operates from “the grassroots up”, and the response from community is one of excitement.

“I get stopped on the street all the time and people tell me how excited they are,” Mr Smith said.

One of the big shifts has been changing the focus from how people perceive Logan to what Logan’s potential is.

“We needed to raise our eyes up and see what Logan can become”.

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