Community solar with a view: Why sharing may be future of energy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One Step Off The Grid

Two years ago, NSW solar installer Geoff Bragg had a vision. “Imagine a system where one customer could sell energy to another customer, via the Distribution Network Service Provider, who ‘clips the ticket’ for transferring the energy,” he wrote in an article published on RenewEconomy in March 2014.

“Anyone with a smart meter could join the market as a buyer or seller,” Bragg wrote. “…If that sounds difficult to do, remember this is an IT and accounting exercise (the physics is sorted already). Think about peer-to-peer file sharing… It would be a piece of cake for a handful of the right IT boffins.”

Fast forward to September 2016 and Bragg is working on turning that vision into some sort of a reality.

His company, New England Solar, and local real estate group Paragon Property Partners are co-developing a unique project near the NSW regional city of Armidale that offers buyers the chance to not only build their dream home from scratch in the NSW northern Tablelands, but to become part owners of their own power company: a purpose-built embedded network through which to buy and sell the solar generated on the community’s rooftops – and stored in its batteries – peer to peer.


Armidale, New South Wales

Launched to the local community last Thursday, the project, called Lingerwood, comprises 10 neighbouring properties of 5 acres each on which buyers can build the architecturally designed smart home of their choice.

“People will buy the lots of land, including the embedded network, and then we will offer a (solar and battery storage) design,” Bragg told One Step Off The Grid in an interview on Tuesday.

Bragg says the solar and battery storage systems used across the development will vary in brand and capacity from house to house, depending on each household’s particular needs or wants.

“Some might choose lithium-ion battery technology, some might opt for a flow battery,” he said. “But the sizes will likely be similar to the solar and storage packages offered to people on the wider grid, ranging from 7-15kWh of storage, and 3-6kW for PV.”

The smart meter technology – which is being custom-made for NE Solar by some of those IT boffins Bragg had imagined, in this case who are “pretty well connected with the ANU” – will be uniform throughout the development. And the data they collect will be sent out to a third party that will process it and do the billing.

The embedded network assets, meanwhile, that enable the electrons to flow between households, will be community-owned, effectively making them shareholders in a utility.

That “utility” will comprise a 200kVa transformer installed on site, connected to the Essential Energy distribution network via a main switchboard and ‘gateway’ smart-metering point.

Each household will then be supplied via underground sub-mains to supply pillars, located on community land adjacent to each house lot. This behind-the-meter network is connected to each house via 10 separate smart meters.

Lingerwood site

These shared assets will be managed by the Lingerwood “community entity”, a mechanism along the lines of a body corporate that will contract with a yet to be determined local “renewables friendly” electricity retailer, to supply the gateway with energy as needed, and credits for exported clean energy.

The system should work, says Bragg, in a way that ensures a household selling its solar gets a better rate than the 5c/kWh they would get for selling it directly to the grid, while the household buying solar gets it for cheaper than the 23c/kWh might pay if they were buying power from the grid, averaging at somewhere around 15c/kWh.

The ultimate aim, however, is for the households to be largely energy autonomous, relying on the embedded network – and perhaps the wider grid in periods of inclement weather.

For Peter Cooke, a director of Paragon Property Partners, energy autonomy is an important part of the sales pitch for Lingerwood.

“People are very interested in the notion of, not only going off the grid, but being pretty much autonomous; having their needs met by a community utility and only as a matter of last resort …going back to the grid for energy,” Cooke told One Step Off The Grid.

Indeed, he says the original plan was for Lingerwood to be completely off-grid, but the projected cost of diesel back-up proved prohibitive, so “council suggested we do the community title.”

But while Lingerwood has the blessing of the local council, it has a few more regulatory hurdles to clear before it can start trading electricity, including getting a retailer exemption from the Australian Energy Regulator, that will allow the community entity to function as the Embedded Network Operator.

For Bragg – whose 2014 utopian vision of peer-to-peer energy trading had the blessing of enlightened energy market regulators – the need to work around market rules is disappointing.

“The interesting bit from my perspective … is that the only reason that this kind of model is able to done in a regulatory sense is to get an exemption,” he told One Step.

“So while there’s a desire for these sorts of transactions, there’s no regulation to allow it. …It shows how slow the networks themselves are moving when everyone else is getting on with it.

“If the principal can work in a small way, then why can’t  it work beyond that gateway meter?” he said. “We need a political understanding of, and support for the concerted push to get the regulators up to speed.”

Bragg said that in New Zealand, networks were looking seriously at a shift to peer-to-peer energy trading, but that in contrast to Australia, it was the networks who were driving this push in NZ, and not the small proponents.

“In New Zealand, networks are seeing it as an opportunity to generate a new revenue stream.” In Australia, he added, “while the networks recognise (peer-to-peer energy trading) is going to come, they’ve got other more pressing things in mind, like how to stay competitive and alive.”

Cooke, too, is critical of the Australian system, but also confident that the Armidale project will get the all-clear.

“These projects should be actively encouraged, not have regulations placed in the way,” he told One Step. “But we’ll jump through the hoops and it will be a live project very soon.”  

  • Kenshō

    Exactly the kind of approach I had hoped for, as long as each household has 100% control of the CPU in their inverter/charger and the choice to participate or not. With the capacity to stand alone and remain connected in place, a truly interdependent sharing and utopia would evolve. Such an approach would ensure the local Embedded Network Operator remains fair to all local households and also enabling collective bargaining with the larger electricity retailer.

    • DJR96

      There is nothing new about the inverters/charging/storage, all regular gear that complies with all the rules. The difference is having the data from all their smart meters managed by one entity. That entity is the only “customer” connected to the wider grid. Now that is the way to go!

      • Kenshō

        Exciting stuff. Sounds a prototype for the new community based distributed RE/storage.

      • Geoff Bragg – SEIA

        You get it. It is simple, but exciting.

        • Kenshō

          What about a community diesel generator and/or wind turbine instead of the grid? If there is a community building like a tractor shed or tennis court, there could be an inverter/charger there capable of managing 2 external AC inputs enabling you to choose between: grid, diesel or wind.

          • Geoff Bragg – SEIA

            Yes, the initial design was for off-grid, additional central energy storage buffer & diesel & PV generation. Too costly to sell to the developers in comparison to a relatively cheap grid connection. There are other projects in the pipeline that may go down that path.

  • Kenshō

    Can we have a circuit diagram posted?

    • Geoff Bragg – SEIA

      No need for a circuit diagram, just 10 households supplied by a 200kVA substation transformer, each with solar & storage. Strategically placed smart meters to record energy flows, then some clever billing software.

      • Kenshō

        If it proves difficult to get an exemption from the AER as an embedded network, I think it is important to find a way forward by moving ahead with a community level inverter/charger + storage or a community generator or both. Could smart software help by making any shortfall in power gradually ramp up the cost of power to any individual consumer who is consuming over and above what they allocated on their own individual PV+ storage install? With the community level inverter/charger + generator, even if the AER gives a no, I think its important it is designed to accept a yes in the future and have a reasonable ability to sit there until it gets a yes. What that all says to the world is your moving ahead regardless of lack of cooperation from external entities and they need cooperate if they want your business. Otherwise your in a less powerful position to bargain as an Embedded Network.

        • DJR96

          It is extremely important that the AER and all the other levels of regulation provide the means to do this. Anything less would clearly highlight the current systems inherent protectionism for the big boys. That is no longer acceptable.

          • Kenshō

            This approach can be duplicated on my property with three residential buildings, in small business precincts, industrial applications to mitigate demand charges and in all level of community based infrastructure. The inverter/charger generates a near perfect sinusoidal waveform with the ability to ramp up it’s output power at almost instantaneous speed. It is a powerful computer based power control system able to manage multiple renewable energy generators onsite and coordinate load management behind the meter. There is the technology for powerful community based organisation to leverage fair relationships with grids.

          • DJR96

            And what the big boys need to realise, is that the more of these types of installations there are, the more stable their grid is too. These micro-grids, perform a load smoothing function, which greatly helps the wider grid.

          • Kenshō

            Exactly, everyone benefits. The inverter/chargers can be programmed to draw any shortfall of power the village needs during off peak times. Inverter/chargers may one day be programmed to be capable of responding to price signals to feedback power to the grid when the grid needs it and the inverter/charger deems there is a surplus available.

          • DJR96

            Some inverters can do that already.
            The next technology step is having proper grid interaction/communications. Simplest form would be to use the existing DRED signals. When a demand response signal is given by the distributors due to excessive demand, not only would your air-conditioner reduce it’s energy usage, the same signal could trigger inverters to supplement the grid if it has surplus storage available. Possibilities…….

          • Kenshō

            I personally would not hand control of my inverter/charges CPU over to networks, to switch my appliances on and off and discharge my battery solely at their discretion. I’d only ever allow my system to sell power when it suited my system.

  • Jonathan Prendergast

    The technology solution will be interesting, but the regulatory, commercial and governance structure can be the real game changer.

    I don’t think the regulation needs to be overstated. Hopefully just a process to work through, without too many surprises.

    The project seems a suitable scale and nature for such a test case.

  • Ian

    10 houses with 10 similar sized solar and storage systems with 10 similar semi-rural life-styles located in the same area. A bit pointless connecting them together if you ask me. The main advantages of a community network such as this would be sharing some sort of community backup generator or large sized backup battery system or to negotiate with outside network providers to import and export power at the best rates as a community bloc.

    • Kenshō

      I’m going to have this challenge on my property with 3 buildings. In practice the three buildings don’t all have provision of the same amount of N roof space compared to anticipated power consumption needed. So what will happen is the stronger ones will inevitably export to the weaker ones, rather than all of them accessing the grid through the main connection to the property. Linking them together also significantly reduces the inverter/charger size and price, as buildings can also back each others output power up. e.g. an inverter/charger might produce a nominal 5kW from batteries though be able to source an additional 10kW from its external AC input, resulting in being able to drive a 15kW load onsite. I agree a community funded backup generator would enable them to ditch the grid altogether, if the onsite provision of PV/storage was reasonably solid, otherwise a community generator would need to start for a few hours every day in the middle of winter. A better way to do this might be add one community level PV/storage system on a community building if they had one (tractor shed, tennis club) and have it act as the intermediary to the grid or the community generator. I would locate the 200kVA substation transformer adjacent to such a community building, so this option could be explored if the grid makes an ass of itself.

  • Kenshō

    Wind turbines can be purchased for $5k – $6.

  • Kenshō

    Community Diesel Generator can be purchased for $8k

  • Kenshō

    Suggest community level inverter/charger that can manage 2x external AC inputs e.g.:

    A) grid + diesel

    B) grid + wind

    C) diesel + wind

  • Kenshō

    Whats the fucking deal with my posts being removed when I’m adding information that could move such projects forward???

    • no one is removing your posts. you’ve posted hundreds of times over last few days, and no one has touched a thing. may be you hit the wrong button.

      • Kenshō

        ok sorry, there has definitely stuff that got removed as spam it said.

        • the system is run by Disqus. maybe something triggered it. but the only person with authority to delete comments or block people is me. we have no ability to edit comments either, only people posting.

          • Kenshō

            Another one got deleted. I think the pattern is if I write a long post, then edit it later, it gets deleted.

          • Kenshō

            If I click on my picture, I can go into my “Comments” and see all the posts that have been flagged as spam. They are highlighted in red “Detected as spam”

          • No idea why. just gone into spam basket and saw them there. no idea why they are considered spam and not the dozens others you post. we don’t control spam settings.

          • Kenshō

            Thanks, with the extent of my posts, if I write a post that in hindsight I think doesn’t have value to some section of the community I delete it. I’ll try to be more on topic and brief.