Douglas News Editorial Team
Member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, has assured Douglas News Network that work on the Daintree Coast electricity grid will commence in October or November 2023. He said that the holdup had been approval from the Australian Energy Regulator but “…that had now been granted.”
Mr Entsch’s comments follow an article in The Australian newspaper which cast doubt on the future of the project and its funding.
The article said “Warren Entsch’s signature project – the Daintree Microgrid, for which he squeezed nearly $20 million in Federal funding from Scott Morrison last year – has not started construction, needs $40 million extra in private funding, and lacks government approvals.”
The article continues, “Volt Advisory (charged with delivering the project) says it will recoup most of the capital investment from local tourism businesses that currently rely on diesel generation for electricity.”
The scheme has been controversial from the outset because:
- it is seen as promoting development at the expense of World Heritage values,
- improving or building stand-alone systems would be far more cost effective, more reliable and have less environmental impact (Reference),
- and government investment has shifted from a conservation priority to a development priority (Reference)
According to Professor Steve Turton, rainforest conservation expert, the Daintree Coast is seen as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, itself rated as one of the world’s rarest and most irreplaceable conservation sites.
President of Douglas Shire Sustainability Group (DSSG), Didge McDonald, said the Daintree Coast is in urgent need of investment in conservation and presentation to manage the impacts of ongoing development, clearing, weeds, pests, forest fragmentation and tourism.
“It is outrageous to spend public money supporting more development when there is a cheaper, lower impact alternative,” McDonald said.
The Daintree Coast is also an iconic Australian tourism destination and we know people visit to experience nature and beauty at its best, not suburbia.” (Reference)
From the outset, when $990,150 was given to the Daintree Renewable Electricity Group in 2020 to deliver a “shovel ready” plan by July 2021, the project has been shrouded in secrecy.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) application lodged in February 2021 asking how the $990,150 had been spent yielded no useful information.
A further FOI in May 2021, requesting the final report of the feasibility study, was refused as the information was deemed commercial in confidence.
The feasibility study has never been released or published.
In response to concerns that reticulated power would promote further development in this high conservation value region, proponents have said the grid would only be sized to meet the needs of those who sign up initially. Further connections would not be available- that is, ‘sign up now’ or miss out altogether.
As there has been no community survey, there is no way to know how many properties (business or residential) will sign up.
The scheme proposes:
- a centralised 700 kVA solar array on cleared land in the Cow Bay area with 20 MWh of lithium battery storage,
- a small electrolyser (splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using 10% of the solar output), and fuel cell generator to generate electricity from the stored hydrogen,
- an LNG generator backup, and
- a distribution network of 69 kms of 22,000 volt underground cable to all properties between Cow Bay and Cape Tribulation with 400 above ground transformers.
In May 2021, a press release from the Hon. Angus Taylor, Federal Minister for Industry and Science, confirmed that the Morrison Government awarded Volt Advisory Group a further $18.75 million investment over three years to “support stage one construction of the Daintree microgrid project.”
The money was given to Volt Advisory with no competitive tender or quotes, presumably on the basis it would deliver the plan that the Daintree Renewable Electricity group was funded to produce.
A further FOI asking for any government documentation related to the $18.75 million grant was “unable to locate the documents requested.”
Mr Entsch said “…. the lion’s share of the $20M approved for the project by the Morrison government has not been released to Volt.” He said that Volt Advisory has continued to develop the project with their own funds.
Power advocates have been told the $45 million required to complete the scheme would come from “private investors” on the basis that it was such an innovative project.
When the Daintree Grid was first proposed, the Queensland State Government conducted its own comprehensive assessment, the Daintree Electricity Supply Study..
This is a multi-criteria assessment of different electricity supply options for the Daintree (conducted by KPMG and GH&D).
The report analyses the environmental and cultural impact, the capital and maintenance costs, reliability and technical financial of a variety of options.
It concludes that upgrading stand-alone systems:
- has lower environmental impact,
- has lower cultural impact,
- would be more reliable, and
- be a fraction of the cost of a reticulated system.
According to the KPMG study, the number of structures (customers) that could utilise an electricity supply in the Daintree region is estimated at 489 structures, comprising approximately:
- 385 residential household (includes an estimated 60 AirBnBs),
- 87 businesses,
- accommodation businesses and BnBs (excluding Air BnBs)
- other businesses with no accommodation (eg shops, cafes, booking offices).
Most households and some commercial premises already have a standalone system; some more than capable of delivering adequate power and rarely needing generator backup. Others have smaller arrays and battery storage, and rely regularly on generators. Some businesses rely solely on diesel electricity generation.
As mentioned, there has been no community survey of existing stand-alone capacity, residential electricity demands, or of people’s desire to connect to the proposed grid, and at what cost they would do so.
We do not know what people want or are prepared to pay for. Some are looking forward to grid power, while others object as they have an adequate system and do not want the cost of connection and regular power bills.
Given the region’s high rainfall and cloud cover, more panels are needed to make up for the low solar radiation when the skies are not clear. Modern panels continue to work in cloudy conditions but produce a lot less. A centralised system will face the same constraints.
If the total of $60 million that Volt Advisory says is needed to build the grid, solar panels, batteries and trial hydrogen storage, is divided by 300 properties (let’s say 250 residential and 50 business sign on), then the cost to connect each property would be $200,000.
If divided only among the 87 businesses, as the story in The Australian quotes Volt Advisory, the cost to connect each business would be $$689,655.