Australia is facing an energy crisis.
As prices rose to new highs last year and the ever-constant threat of blackouts hung over the east coast, many Australians looked for energy alternatives.
Some turned to solar panels and battery storage technology to solve their bill woes, gain greater control of their own power and make a real change in terms of their impact on the climate.
While they are taking steps at the individual level, others are looking to take full advantage of the push for more renewable energy and shift away from centralised power systems on a larger scale.
This is seeing the rise of microgrids, a unique solution to a very Australian problem.
The vast distance covered by Australian energy distribution networks presents a serious problem: How do you get energy generated from point A to a user at point B, and how much will it cost?
Microgrids circumvent this issue by creating power and keeping it local, and at the same time lowering costs by cutting much of the associated distribution costs.
Microgrids are autonomous energy distribution systems that can generate power from its users and operate off the main grid, or connect to existing grids, and support different generation assets and load demand.
This market is forecast to increase to more than $20 billion annually, with around half of all Australian homes expected to have rooftop solar panels installed, by 2024.
"People living on the edges of the power grid and in remote areas often struggle to get access to reliable and affordable power, and microgrids are helping to change that," a Clean Energy Council spokesman said.
"The steadily falling cost of both renewable energy and storage technology means that clean energy microgrids already make more economic sense for more parts of the country which have previously relied on diesel power.
"Diesel has been a mainstay of the Australian outback for many years, but it is expensive to transport to remote locations. Hydro Tasmania's projects on King and Flinders Islands have shown the effectiveness of renewables to reduce diesel use in pristine remote environments while providing reliable power for residents and businesses."
Making microgrids move
A number of companies have seen this movement and are acting local, to have a national impact, and put Australians in charge of their own power.
Western Australia's Horizon Power is seen at the leading light for Australia's microgrids.
It uses microgrid technology to provide power to remote and regional towns across WA's Pilbara region. At Kununurra, around 99 per cent of the grid's energy is supplied from renewable sources.
Horizon's Onslow system hosts Australia's largest microgrid and aims to source more than half of its power from renewable energy.
In Victoria, AusNet Services is carrying out a unique, city-based microgrid trial at Mooroolbark, outside Melbourne.
"For the first time, we're integrating data from traditional grid devices with data from customer assets to control power flows on the grid through the use of our distributed energy network optimisation platform," an AusNet spokeswoman told Fairfax Media.
"In anticipation of future markets and policies, this demonstrates the potential reduction of network costs for everyone, including those without battery and storage assets."
It is trialling a small-scale project, powering 17 homes in a Mooroolbark street using a combination of solar panels, 10 kilowatt-hour storage batteries, and access to the main grid.
Of these homes, 14 have rooftop solar panels and batteries, while the remaining three have neither, but are connected to the microgrid via inverter technology.
While they can run on the grid, the microgrid can also run as a single unified system, sharing power between the 14 homes.
Where it differed from existing trials was that it elected not to have any diesel back-up generators in the grid, AusNet said.
"One of the most technically advanced components of the project is the stabiliser, which allows the microgrid to operate independently of the main grid," the company said.
"The stabiliser is a smart battery storage system that smooths out short-term variations in energy supply and consumption across the minigrid by either delivering or absorbing power. The stabiliser is unique in that it operates using renewable and stored energy, whereas typically, mini grids use a large diesel generator to ensure stability when operating independently."
This system is controlled by cloud-based software.
A community approach
Enova Energy is a smaller retailer based in the Northern Rivers area of NSW, namely Byron Bay and its surrounds, that is pushing to make a microgrid on a larger scale on the east coast.
Headed by former Ergon Energy chief for alternative energy Tony Pfieffer, the group is focused on bringing more renewable energy to the community.
Close to half of all the energy sourced by Enova is generated by local solar users, which is being driven by the retailer's relatively high feed-in tariff, which rewards users for pushing power back into the grid.
"About 40 per cent of all our energy is generated from behind the meter, that is through solar rooftop installations," Mr Pfieffer told Fairfax Media.
Enova is working with network and distribution company Essential Energy to defect completely from the grid and become fully self-sourced energy-wise, through the creation of a community microgrid.
"The energy industry is rapidly evolving with emerging innovations and technologies, and Essential Energy is adjusting its business model and network operations to accommodate these changes," an Essential Energy spokeswoman told Fairfax Media.
"The Byron Bay community has proactively engaged with Essential Energy as part of its goal to transition to a 100 per cent renewable energy future.
"Essential Energy is working closely with Bryon Bay Shire Council and renewable energy organisations such as Zero Emissions Byron and Enova Energy to help facilitate delivery of the best possible energy solutions for the local community."
Mr Pfieffer said one of the main aims of Enova was supporting its local area.
"Communities need to take their own action, and Enova Community Energy is now making that possible," he said.
"We're community-owned, with 70 per cent of all our shareholders located in the Northern Rivers area."
According to Enova, around $380 million a year exits the Northern Rivers area of NSW just in energy costs.
"We want to keep some of that money in the local area," Mr Pfieffer said.
"We're taking back control, this is creating a circular economy, keeping money within the region."
Another major point of difference is Enova's feed-in tariff, which at 16 cents per kilowatt-hour is higher than many other state averages of 6 to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Mr Pfieffer said 50 per cent of the dividends paid went to shareholders, while the remaining 50 per cent was invested in a not-for-profit business that returned the money to the local area and into renewable energy projects.
Its most recent development is a community-owned "solar garden", essentially a micro-solar farm, allowing people without the ability to install solar panels on their own home - such as renters - to still access solar power, and receive credits on their power bills for about 20 years.
In South Australia, a US group behind an innovative, blockchain-enabled microgrid in New York - LO3 - are planning a six-megawatt solar-powered microgrid.
One company is developing its own cryptocurrency - like Bitcoin, to encourage energy trading between solar users.
Power Ledger has created a trading platform that uses anonymised and historical customer data and the blockchain process to explore how an exchange would work across a regulated network.
The blockchain technology creates a transparent and auditable record of energy generation and consumption, allowing consumers to trade energy with their neighbours automatically.
The process works as a clearing mechanism between residential and commercial businesses to decide at what price and to whom they want to sell their excess energy.
"Peer-to-peer energy trading presents an opportunity to unlock enormous value for consumers, [...] putting consumers in direct contact with other consumers," Power Ledger managing director David Martin said.
The company is currently carrying out Australian trials with Origin, as well as trials in India with Tech Mahindra.
The Clean Energy Council said microgrids were now being incorporated into the design of new towns and suburbs as a proactive measure.
"Some developers of new housing estates have also been weighing the cost of running microgrids of interconnected renewable energy and storage versus the cost of connecting to the National Electricity Market," CEC spokesman said.
"As the costs of renewable energy and storage continue to fall further, it's likely we'll see more developments which market themselves as clean, green and independent."
Microgrids are in their early stages in Australia, but the country is swiftly taking a world-leading position, making the nation a renewable innovation hub.