Redflow’s Hackett: Why batteries will not cause mass defection from grid

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There’s a popular belief that the looming presence of batteries in people’s homes will lead to the widespread defection of those customers from the power grid.

In this view, living the dream means grid-independence where you harvest your own energy, one-finger salute the power companies and, when grid power fails for others in the street, your battery keeps the party going at your house.

While cutting the power cord sounds good in theory, in practice consumers gain many more advantages from staying connected to the grid.

Likewise, rather than fear or obstruct the connection of batteries, energy utilities need to see distributed energy storage as a powerful resource that can add to the stability, sustainability and profitability of the power grid.

The short term motivation for consumers staying connected to the grid is the hip pocket.

Staying connected allows them to use the grid to dynamically resolve any shortfall between the energy they generate on their roof and the energy they need in their home.

The obvious scenario is to smoothly handle the times when your battery runs out of energy capacity overnight. Staying on the grid lets you keep things running until the sun comes up again. If you find that this is happening a lot, then you can consider buying more batteries later.

Another scenario is the handling of periods when the instantaneous energy needs of your house exceed the peak energy output rate that the batteries can supply. If your home is standalone, the house power will fail in these situations. However, when you’re still connected, the grid acts as an enormous on-demand, pay-as-you-go backup battery to meet any of these transient demand peaks that your battery can’t supply.

Without the grid, your only options are to buy an awful lot more batteries just to handle a week of rainy days or to maintain a backup generator on site. Otherwise, you may well suffer the somewhat ironic experience of sitting in the dark, surrounded by a suburb full of people whose lights are still on!

While in the medium term, you may progressively add more batteries to your home as you become familiar with your own energy usage patterns, those “peak power” demand periods still present a very valid reason for staying connected to the grid as an affordable on-demand backup source of energy.

The long term reasons for staying connected are much more interesting because they involve battery-equipped customers becoming part of the solution to the problem of supplying “peak power” back to the grid.

In Australia and globally, alert grid operators recognise that the proliferation of batteries presents them with some enormous technical advantages, which may include paying to use their customers’ batteries to help the grid work better.

Currently, the grid is a tree-like structure where energy emerges from distant generators, then flows through the trunk and along the branches to the ‘leaves’ of each house.

That hierarchical system can run into many problems. While the obvious one is a major power outage, the most common issue in grids is with maintaining grid stability in terms of frequency and voltage, especially at the extreme endpoints of the energy delivery path to customers.

The proliferation of residential solar panel systems (without batteries) actually makes management of grid stability much harder for grid operators.

When residential batteries are added, everything changes. These batteries can then be called upon in aggregate as a distributed ‘virtual generator’, embedded deeply throughout the grid’s customer base. In the future, then, a grid operator can call upon this virtual generator to dynamically and precisely balance frequency and voltage, and to do it exactly where and when that balancing is needed most.

Grid stabilisation of this sort is a service that customers can expect to be paid to provide back to the grid operator when needed.

Overall, then, widespread and integrated battery storage provides three clear benefits for the grid operator:

  1. They can inject energy back into the grid to help meet peak demand periods (without running up expensive gas-fired generators)
  2. They can help stabilise the frequency or the voltage of energy supplies
  3. They can help the grid operator diagnose problems throughout their coverage areas by offering precise diagnostics of what’s happening where to grid-supplied energy – this is where the rubber hits the road for the much-touted “Internet of things”.

In a nutshell, batteries attached to Internet-enabled control electronics in homes will create the key technology that enables the truly “smart” grid.

Grid operators need not only depend on the batteries installed by their customers: They can install their own large-scale batteries at power substations and country towns to at first supplement and ultimately replace expensive fossil-fuel powered energy generation.

The end game, if grid operators are smart enough to play it, is that the energy grid winds up much more like the Internet in that it becomes a trading platform on which energy is produced and consumed at lots of places instead of being a top-down network.

We could live in a world where you could build a community micro-grid without ever getting off the macro-grid, allowing useful energy commerce between you and your neighbours, and also between neighbouring micro-grids, while also delivering a more resilient energy future to all consumers.

The bottom line is that this much greater interconnectivity will drive down the price of electricity because consumers will be able to ‘roll their own’ while batteries will shave the demand peaks that currently bedevil our electricity generators.

Once that happens, then we will see consumers choosing electricity over fossil sources such as gas and petrol to meet their energy needs because it is both cheaper and more convenient.

Grid customers are already voting with their wallets and installing battery systems to complement their solar panel installations. Meantime, grid operators need not fear the battery revolution – they can, and they should, welcome it with open arms.

Simon Hackett is chairman of Brisbane-based battery storage manufacturer Redflow. This column is extracted from a keynote presentation Simon Hackett was due to give on  February 15, at the Solar Supercharge conference in Brisbane.  

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  • Chris Fraser

    “…you may well suffer the somewhat ironic experience of sitting in the dark, surrounded by a suburb full of people whose lights are still on!”Ironic indeed and well put. Although probably a rare case, you would think differently of your $20,000 investment then !

    • Mike Dill

      As Phil has stated, you need to add a generator. Problem solved, but it takes some work, which will be too much for most people.

  • Beat Odermatt

    Yes, renewable energy, batteries and pumped storage all can succeed within an effective grid. It remains important that renewable energy is not wasted but shared. Clever electricity companies should realise that cooperation and goodwill will lead to win-win outcomes for retailers, distributors and consumers. We can envisage an huge increase in electricity demand during the next 50 years as petrol, LPG and diesel will be replaced with renewable energy.
    I hope that some narrow minded short-sighted companies will not succeed in charging more for connection fees to solar customers and that a way will be found that people with additional batteries will not lose their feed-in tariffs.
    I urge all Governments to legislate for an yearly increase of renewable energy by at least 2.5%. It would force electricity retailers and customers to install more solar, build more wind farms, reduce power consumption and install back-up systems such as batteries and pumped storage.

  • Phil

    I’m 100% off grid solar and have 6 x 9’s 99.9999% uptime as i have triple redundancy using a dual parallel system (mirror / mother) with a fully configurable genset as the third level. It can run as a charger , just the house , or both charge and run the house so you can service or replace something if needed ( not had to yet)

    I adopted and followed this model after getting sick of starting a genset in an on grid situation with 97% uptime in a bad year and not much better than 99 in a good one. And the gensets are too noisy to run through the night so fridge stuff defrosts , it’s a real pain. And luckily i had LPG for hot water or it’s cold showers.

    And you might ask 97% uptime ? , isn’t that power out for DAYS at a time , not hours or minutes. Where is such a place you ask ? – Within the Brisbane City Council rate able Metro area , 26 km from the CBD and 8km from another city of over 200,000.

    Floods , fires , cyclones and severe storms and hailstorms are NOT going to become less of an issue either i suspect.What i could not get over was the fact people call THAT level of unreliability a service !The setup i have has been running for well over 2 years , is cheaper to run , meets and exceeds expectations. There is no going back , why would you ?

  • Angus

    My average daily usage is under 4kw. I also don’t have any solar panels. If I had a battery half the size of a Tesla powerwall then I’d be able to consistently cover my usage. Hopefully Redflow will provide a battery small enough to suit people like me.

  • MaxG

    Once the 5 cent FiT is removed there is no benefit whatsoever to feed energy into the grid. This means the daily supply charge can no longer be offset. A 5kVA genset is to be had for 2k$ (or $1.50 supply charge x 1,333 days (4 years)). Good bye grid for me, and finger up, and never look back.

    • Correction: There is no *financial* benefit once the FiT is removed. There are lots of other benefits to be had from sharing your excess clean solar energy. Also the genset is $2k but how much for the installation of an off grid inverter?

  • Ian

    This article is talking about the not too distant future. This future requires cheaper batteries, namely of the lithium kind. Well sorry Simon you better get cracking with your home flow battery because EV’s ( batteries on wheels) will make grids and home battery storage both obsolete. Just like going to the shops to top up with milk and bread the future homeowner will nip off to the shops to fill the car’s batteries and not worry about the extended cloudy rainy days.

    • Chris B

      A Model S dual charger will be more than ample to provide surge capacity for multiple homes.

      That was probably Saint Elon’s plan all along and we’re just waiting for the big reveal.

      • Ian

        Whoops, do you think so, I didn’t mean to sail in front of his wind.

        This idea of dual purposing electric vehicles for transportation and for home storage is worth broadcasting to anyone who will listen don’t you agree?

  • juxx0r

    Simon is right if you limit your thinking to 1 residence, but get a dozen together, throw a few extension leads over the fence, use some smart apps and you’ve got a microgrid that costs almost nothing.

  • neroden

    Here, we have weekly outages. They’re short, but honestly, the grid just doesn’t actually provide reliability.

    This changes people’s attitude towards the grid, y’know.

  • Mike Dill

    Interesting talk by Simon Hackett of RedFlow. I feel that this is a ‘feel good’ piece for the utilities.

    In a flow battery system, the incremental cost for ‘storage’ is very low. For flow batteries, storage is different than capacity. Adding additional KWh of storage is relatively cheap for flow batteries. Adding additional membranes to use that storage is more expensive.

    I am interested in using a RedFlow solution for baseload and medium-term storage for my house. As Simon has stated, there is a need for ‘peaking’ power, and that can be provided elsewhere. Good luck getting the utilities to see the small peaking load as reasonable, as they are currently making the connection charge unreasonable.