Duck! Why networks want to control your solar and battery

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DSO and DER – an important conversation about control of your rooftop solar and battery storage that deserves better acronyms.

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We can blame disruption in the energy industry for many confusing things, including the terminology. Not so long ago, we had to get our head around Synthetic Inertia and firming.

Then along came the Distribution System Operator, and now, let’s welcome DER Orchestration.

In the recent consultation paper Open Energy Networks, AEMO and the Energy Networks Association are opening the door on a very important next step in the energy transition.

Distribution network companies in Australia have for some time flagged the term ‘Distribution System Operator’ – first gaining airplay by Western Power Distribution in the UK – where their role moves from a relatively passive function as managers of poles-and-wires assets to a greater level of active control of customer ‘behind the meter’ facilities such as PV generation, energy storage and time-discretionary appliances.

The AEMO/ENA paper is an early yet important next step in generating the conversation around the need for new energy markets and DER dispatch.

Mind you, such a concept of DER control is not new.

Many states have for many years employed control strategies and customer incentives centred on time-of-use pricing, time clocks or direct load control to encourage the efficient use of generation and network facilities.

The control of water heating, air conditioning, pool filtering and dishwashers have all been effective in reducing energy use at times of peak energy price or high network demand – Energex’s peak-smart initiative being a case in point.

The AEMO/ENA paper hinges on the forecast of rapid continued growth in embedded PV generation and the uptake of appliances, including batteries, that will play a large part in the shape of the customer energy demand curve.

Underlying this thinking is that as a proportion of energy generation – both by centralised utilities and embedded renewable resources – becomes more variable, the supply-demand balance pitch moves to include adjusting the load to match the available generation.

A number of risks to the vision of an efficient energy future are emerging, including a fundamental risk to the stability of the transmission network and market should the level of embedded generation reach a point where it exceeds the underlying demand, such as on a moderate spring weekday afternoon some years in the not-too-distant future.

The need to send a ‘curtailment’ signal to customer’s PV inverters at such times is considered.

Similarly, a position inherent in the DSO model is the capability of the ‘orchestration’ of the increasing number and forms of generation and control that is forecast to exist deep in the distribution network – mainly in customers’ installations ‘behind the meter’.

Through some form of coordination and largely as an extension of the current demand management philosophy, the fall in network utilisation (aka ‘the duck curve’) and decline in the quality of network voltage control could be addressed.

To achieve this, distributors will need a higher level of understanding of their extensive and diverse low voltage networks, as well as the introduction of a greater level of direct control capability or other mechanism, such as pricing, to influence customer energy use behaviour.

The general philosophy of the DSO and DER Orchestration is an important idea, but as always there are steps to be carefully taken.

Some early work though the role of demand aggregators and developers of Virtual Power Stations is under way.

If we learnt anything from the rollout of the smart meters in Victoria however, bringing the community and wider industry along in understanding and validating the modelling, the nature of the opportunity and the costs will be critical in the success of any initiative.

More importantly, against the background of some of the highest retail energy prices in the world, many of the assumptions of the costs, benefits and alternative models need to be tested and considered in the community.

No doubt, more to follow.

Mike Swanston is the principal of The Customer Advocate, a small consultancy working to support the best interests of energy consumers.

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20 Comments
  1. GlennM 11 months ago

    Just say NO….
    no seriously this does need research but to trust trust the retailers with your investment in solar and that they will use their access for anything other than their own profit is being naive to say the least.

    • palmz 11 months ago

      I think you misunderstood what this is saying. They are talking about the network owners/ operators. (citypower, Powercor)(poles and wires) Not retailers. (AGL, Origin)

    • Charles 11 months ago

      Or we could just ignore it, allow demand at peak times to increase and require the networks to invest further in upgrading their poles and wires… and then we pay for it with our bills.

      • Joe 11 months ago

        The ACCC in its recent report mentioned that our bills are already pumped up from ‘gold plating’ by the networks. Not sure if they can get away with justifying more of the same. With respect to demand increasing at peak times I’d like to see a study of what is happening. With Time of Use tariff rates there is an incentive for households to do some load shifting. Self consumption by solar households will knock off what was otherwise being drawn from the Grid. Solar homes installing batteries will even further knockoff what was otherwise being drawn from the Grid.

        • MaxG 11 months ago

          Watch it… 🙂
          The energy bills will keep increasing! I promise.

          • Greg Hudson 11 months ago

            Not if your over size your PV array and export more than you use.

          • MaxG 11 months ago

            Only if you get something for your export… there is currently talk about reducing the FiT in various states.

      • Nick Kemp 11 months ago

        “and then we pay for it with our bills.”

        Only if we are still connected to the grid. Given the current treatment of customers I would have thought most may seek to be off grid as soon as batteries make it a realistic option.

        It might be an interesting switch when the power (pun intended) is in the hands of the customer

        • Charles 11 months ago

          Everyone likes to make this “threat” but the reality is that going 100% off grid is, in most situations, not cost effective. An an example 10 kWh of battery storage can make you 90% self sufficient; 20 kWh might make you 97%… 30 kWh might make you 99%… but to be 100% capable of being off-grid you need to plan for those times during winter when you don’t see the sun for a week. That’s a lot of solar PV and battery storage. And on the other hand… during summer all that solar fills up the battery by 10am and with no grid connection, the rest of it is wasted.

          It’s way more cost effective to get enough solar and battery for 90% or 95% and then use the grid to cover the occasional low-generation day and to make a bit of revenue over high-generation days like in summer.

          • Ian Porter 11 months ago

            Hence expect loftier connection charges in future. There is no economic case for doing as you suggest, but for those lengthier period of no sun, a backup generator may be a more viable option than a grid connection if the fixed charges escalate too much

          • Shilo 11 months ago

            Assuming you can get fuel. As RE keeps going on in time, less fuel will be able to be bought.

          • Greg Hudson 11 months ago

            One option could be to buy a genset run by gas instead of petrol/diesel maybe ?

          • John Herbst 11 months ago

            Not when Ausgrid wants $200+ in fixed charges per year plus a “capacity charge” on top (see 2019-2025 TSS). Thankfully, the EV is on its way. There are certainly workarounds to get that last 3% off-grid if that’s what we have to do!

          • Ian 11 months ago

            That’s the issue, isn’t it: Not very easy to go off grid as a suburban household, even with solar plus storage, most are thus stuck with needing a network connection.

            Assuming the current trajectory of rooftop solar installations will result in a very significant part of the grid’s generating capacity, and assuming storage will become just as ubiquitous then some sort of control is possibly needed.

            Intuitively we think that there may be a need for centralised control and orchestration of all the millions of generators, loads, storage and network connections, certainly, that’s the way AEMO has operated until this day.

            The question is this: Is centralised control and orchestration really necessary? We have a model for a distributed network already, it’s called the road system. Cars come and go as they please. There may be traffic lights, speed bumps and speed limits but on the whole the only management of the system is improved infrastructure such as highways were needed.

            Using this analogy, the network operators should be looking at generation and usage patterns and modifying their network to suite. Putting extra lines here or storage there, offering a range of tariff options to suit different customer profiles.

            They should be asking themselves these sort of self-auditing questions.

            1. Are we meeting the needs of the Australian people first and foremost? Are we meeting the needs of our corporate customers?

            2. How can we make our network better and cheaper?

            3. How do we compare with other countries in terms of price and freedom of access to the grid by distributed generator/consumers?

            If the gentailers do not become customer-centric then people will seek alternatives.

          • Charles 11 months ago

            The difference is, a road is a fixed size: if it is empty in the middle of the night, it’s not a problem. If a road is busy for an hour a day, traffic moves slower but again it’s not a problem.

            With electricity, the amount of generation on a network needs to be precisely matched with the amount of load on a network. If these figures are out of alignment by too much, you get brownouts or load shedding. And the capacity of the distribution network wiring needs to be to deal with the highest peak demand at any one time during the year.

            If everyone had a home battery and consumed a fixed amount of energy 24/7, the grid companies would love it! Supply power at a constant rate to each property, all the time.

          • Jonathan Milford 11 months ago

            Readers should note that modern solar cells do not need sunshine to generate electricity. The last time I looked at my (CSIRO developed) controller screen when it was raining, my (UNSW developed) cells were generating nearly half the amount of electricity as when it was sunny.
            And when did you not see the sun for a week, Charles? Where do you live?

          • neroden 11 months ago

            Honestly, most of us are OK with losing power for a couple of days a year. If your house is well-insulated, who cares?

            It might be most cost effective to cover 99.5% of the year and call it a day.

          • Carl Raymond S 11 months ago

            Two hundred years from now aliens will visit Earth and plant a tombstone:
            Humans. Forced to choose between 99.5% reliable power and runaway climate change. Oops.

  2. John Herbst 11 months ago

    “We should have more power and control.”
    – Every NEM participant’s plan, ever*

    *The ACCC recently recommended giving the AER more power and control, along with mandatory demand tariffs for everyone! Hooray!

  3. Patrick Parnis 11 months ago

    Battery technology of implemented properly can bolster the economy by giving people more spending money but ignorant governments will always take side of the multinationals and the average Joe will get shafted

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