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Building a microgrid solution for fire-affected town

During the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, the township of Corryong in North East Victoria was under threat of losing potable water supply due to fire damage to main power lines and issues with extremely turbid water after rain events.

This real-life scenario was one of the many challenges posed to water industry experts during the AWA Victorian Bushfire Recovery Hackathon, which tasked sector experts with creating solutions to bushfire recovery issues.

Hackathon team ‘Hackoverflow’ approached the challenge of ensuring water supply following grid power outage and impacts to potable supply caused by fire by developing a blueprint for a microgrid solution for the township.

“We started by speaking to communities who were impacted by the bushfires. We made contact with the Towong Shire Bushfire Recovery Hub in order to gain a clear understanding of the issues for the community that arose following the event,” Hackoverflow team leader Tamar Haviv said.

“We also spoke to ‘Sparkies for Bushfires’, via an electrician from one of the townships whose power was down due to the fires. We also spoke to members of the Corryong community to gain insight into the issues they faced during and following the fires.”

Hackoverflow team member Kate Smith said one of the biggest issues faced by remote Victorian townships was that the bushfires damaged massive power lines power line which left many communities without electricity for long periods of time.

“Following this, water pressure went down in some areas - they had reduced access to drinking water from the tap when power to a transfer pump to a high-level tank was lost,” she said.

“In nearby Walwa, the issue with the water supply was an inability of treatment to remove the vast amount of sediment washed into the river from rains after the fire and required water carting from Corryong.

“And while Walwa had access to a diesel generator, the generator failed due to levels of smoke in the air, which caused blockage in the air filter resulting in the generator failing.”

After engaging with the community, the team began to design a scheme for a potential solution to the problem, Haviv said.

“We looked at what other townships have done in terms of addressing long-term power outage, as well, townships with similar issues and similar problems, and how they approached it. We wanted to find a solution that is financially beneficial but also reliable,” she said.

“We landed on the option of microgrids, which are relatively easy to lay out in regional areas and also in bushfire affected areas. The township of Yackandandah has devised a similar solution where the water treatment plant is supplied by a solar and battery installation. So we know it’s something that has the potential to work well for Corryong too.”

Smith said the microgrid became the ideal solution for the issue, as the team was aiming for a reliable, resilient and renewable solution.

“The microgrid would increase the number of solar panels in use in the area, and also add battery storage to cope with periods without sun. Especially during bushfires, when there's often inefficient sunlight due to smoke coverage,” Smith said.

“The other handy thing about the microgrid is that households can access the power, even when the central grid is down. It would also reduce the reliance on generators and petrol, which, as we mentioned, can fail.”

One of the team’s biggest aims was to ensure the community had a solution that they felt happy and comfortable with, Smith said.

“They had clearly already devised a solution: they're going to another town to pick up water. It wasn't like there was nothing there. Our aim was to figure out what we could do to better the situation, to create a better solution,” she said.