Australia should follow Obama’s solar SunShot

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Renewable Energy World



The US government has announced a US$36 million program to develop technologies that turn solar PV and storage batteries into a new kind of decentralised, virtual power source which some are calling ‘the internet of energy’. This is just the kind of technological shift that excites Australia’s new Prime Minister Malcolm and terrified his predecessor, Tony Abbott, the defender of coal.

The solar storage program is part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s biggest and least reported achievements, the SunShot Initiative. As President Kennedy defined his era with the moonshot, Obama established SunShot to take America from dependence on fossil fuels to clean energy, by making solar PV (and solar thermal with storage) competitive with conventional energy before 2020.

Solar is the internet, coal is the telegraph

The new US$18 million in SHINES grants from the US Department of Energy are matched by industry and designed to halve the cost of battery storage paired with solar PV. These projects are practical efforts to make storage the ‘killer app’ that allows solar to beat conventional energy, on price alone.

The R&D will work out how to match storage and solar so it provides stability to the network. When that works, the old centralised ‘baseload’ model of coal power will go the way of the abacus and the telegraph.

Australia’s relationship with the US puts us in pole position to win a big share of this American clean energy boom. With the free trade agreement in place, we have the opportunity to sell renewable energy goods and services to the world’s largest economy.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put innovation on the national agenda and after his visit with President Obama, he will be looking to bring back a prize which benefits Australia. A partnership on solar and batteries would tick all of the boxes.

Post Paris World

The Paris climate goals, supported by Australia and the U.S., will accelerate the race between America, China, India, Japan and Germany to be the clean energy superpower, competing in a market worth trillions of dollars. New Bloomberg New Energy Finance data on global energy investment confirms that renewables started to overtake fossil fuels in 2015.

This week the World Economic Forum said that the world is on the brink of a 4th industrial revolution and it will be driven by renewables. The humble battery is the enabler the world needs to balance fluctuating generation from solar, wind and other renewables.

The Battery Boom

The Economist recognised this potential when it recently declared the ‘battery is the technology of our time’.

Australia has leading storage start-ups that we should help win a place in the trillion dollar global clean energy market. Companies such as Redflow and Reposit are at the cutting edge.

The US has the most ambitious plans for grid connected energy storage. Australia is the leading distributed solar nation. The marriage seems almost too obvious.

Australia’s grid planning agency, the Australian Energy Market Operator, has already modelled a scenario in which 40% of Australian homes install battery storage by 2035. Coal truly is yesterday’s technology.

Rooftops Ready

Australia is a leader in distributed solar. Over 1.5 million households have PV systems. According to the Australian Energy Storage Alliance, that’s more than any other country.

This residential solar plus storage revolution is starting now precisely because we have no national strategy to properly manage it. Rather, solar and storage consumers are being threatened with punitive ‘solar taxes’ which will encourage many to ‘defect’ from the grid. This means they will disconnect from the electricity network and install storage that is big enough to store all their night time energy needs so they can rely on their own solar power 24/7.

Solar households on premium feed in tariffs will lose generous energy export payments during this 2016 election year. It is a political time bomb. That loss of income will push many more to buy storage and defect from the grid. With less users to pay for the massive, $130 billion that Australia is mis-investing in ‘gold plating’ of networks, the users who remain will pay higher bills. Rather than become an accidental leader in storage, we need a coordinated, non-partisan plan.

The tipping point when wind became cheaper than new coal in Australia came faster than anyone predicted. The solar and battery revolution is fast on its heels.

At the Paris climate conference, PM Turnbull committed the government to double clean energy R&D within five years, as part of the Mission Innovation project, launched with the U.S. and 18 other governments. Storage should be a core part of our new funding as part of this international project.

The transformation of the energy sector from fossil fuels to decentralised renewables and storage is a poster-child for ‘creative destruction’. It will certainly ruffle the feathers of the protected species that is the Australian coal sector. But if Malcolm Turnbull gets right behind Barack Obama’s SunShot Initiative and supports battery innovation, Australia could begin to regain its place in the global energy market of the 21st century.

Source: Renewable Energy World. Reproduced with permission.  

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  • solarguy

    Those who want defect from the grid will need deep and I mean deep pockets! 10kwh of storage for night time use is fine as long as you have a PV system big enough that will replace it every day no matter what the weather is, plus power things during the day. Best keep it Hybrid if you want affordability.

    • Yes good point and also good for economics of the grid. Keeping batteries grid-tied means they can deliver for the network, if it’s smart: peak demand, frequency control… Distributed batteries on a smart grid can go a long way to being the new ‘baseload’ right?

  • John Saint-Smith

    You may need to update your ideas about what excites our new hybrid PM Tony Turnback.

    • I try to stay optimistic- even ‘drys’ who hate environmentalism must accept now that clean energy is good for the economy?

      • John Saint-Smith

        Any rational ‘dry’ would, I agree, but we’re not dealing with them, we have a government dominated by ideologues who think wind turbines stink and coal doesn’t. Turnbull has turned his back on virtually every progressive policy he championed before becoming PM. Was there ever a more comprehensive sell-out?

  • Jens Stubbe

    The storage hype will be over soon enough – it is a diversion from the job to get done and simply too costly and not really needed except behind the meter, off grid and grid deflectors. Try doing the math. Electricity is fast becoming too cheap to store and the capacity factors of both solar and wind is going up while at the same time the HVDC grid is being fortified.

    • John Saint-Smith

      Not sure I understand how you cope with variable demand and supply peaks without storage. Why do you only factor cheaper generation, and not cheaper storage – which also saves on long distance infrastructure, including HVDC?

      • Jens Stubbe

        The difference between peak demand and average demand is roughly a factor two. Wind power in USA is on an unsubsidized basis within a 20 year PPA period $0.035/kWh and going down in cost fast with an expected level at around $0.02/kWh within the next ten years.

        The main driver behind the cost reduction is larger wind turbines with higher capacity factors because they fetch steadier and stronger winds in higher hub heights.

        The Sunshot initiative on combined solar storage aim for $0.14/kWh.

        It will be a lot cheaper to over provision and establish a market for discount electricity to the customers that accept to buy only when the grid is over provisioned.

        A major opportunity is to produce Synfuels that can end crude oil as the cheapest source for the petri chemical industry.

        Grid scale batteries is a dead end even at a much lower cost point than today.

        • solarguy

          Jens, I think your missing something in the equation. Even though renewables will need to have over capacity to some extent, there will be some storage needed for extreme and prolonged weather events. N

          • solarguy

            I don’t know what happened just then, but I’ll continue. Not all locations will be good for wind and will rely on solar and so must have storage. Added to this electric vehicles with or without IC engine back up will be the norm in the future. Some will charge from the own solar from home, others on a trip will need something to plug into.

          • Jens Stubbe

            Extreme weather conditions will be a problem for micro grids with few types of renewables. Dry years happens from time to time where hydropower delivers significantly less than usual whereas biomass, geothermal, wave energy, OTEC, wind, solar etc. only vary a few percent on an annual basis – and very predictable. As for BEV’s I would consider them as behind the meter and as such per definition not grid scale storage (if they combined perform virtual grid scale storage it will strengthen my argument). There is currently plus one billion vehicles and many are owned by poor people so I think it will very difficult to move all to BEV. My argument is that if you produce Synfuel all ICE can become CO2 neutral and EV’s could be based upon range extenders where you get the best of ICE and BEV in one package. Should Europe decide to produce all electricity included what is needed to power the entire transportation sector then wind power in the shallow parts of the North Sea will suffice. For Australia you have sufficient onshore wind resources to power the entire globe. The challenge to go renewable is smaller than most people realizes.

        • John Saint-Smith

          Can you offer some links to other electrical systems analysts and engineers who share your faith in massive live over-capacity/ syn fuel mix?
          Another small but significant problem: Syn fuels may be carbon neutral, but they are not pollution free. By persisting with a largely ICE vehicle base, don’t we perpetuate urban air pollution?

  • Rob

    Turnbull has turned bull**** into Australia’s policy on climate change and renewables. He’s full of it!