The WA solar market is being held back by regulations being placed on the industry by grid operator Western Power. The regulations are specifically affecting the commercial rooftop space, creating two effective dead spots.
While the residential rooftop solar market in Western Australia is well established, with newly-merged utility Synergy reporting that around 2,000 solar arrays are being connected to the grid each month, the commercial rooftop market is still in its early stages. However, with some small and middle sized enterprises (SMEs) paying big prices for electricity, and taking into account the state’s prodigious sun, the potential of solar to supply these businesses is huge.
Unfortunately the market is not opening up as many solar business had hoped, with grid operator Western Power introducing regulations that have effectively put a stop to installations between 30kW and 60kW and then again between 150kW and 400kW.
“What we’re seeing is that customers will approach us with a problem around electricity spend, we will then go and recommend a solution,” explains Infinite Energy’s Managing Director Aidan Jenkins. “What we find is that in those dead spots, the financials don’t work.”
Solar arrays up to 30kW in capacity in WA can be connected to the grid through a “fast track” process, that effectively allows the installation to be approved and carried out with a minimum of fuss. However once an installation exceeds 30 kW, Western Power requires that the installation doesn’t feed any electricity into the grid – known as preventing reverse power.
The problem with preventing reverse power is the power quality relay and reverse power prevention system components add considerably to the cost of the installation. The Business Manager with Avant Solar, Ian Milne, estimates that the additional equipment required costs around $12,000, with between $10,000 and $20,000 added in providing the engineering services and documentation related to this, as required by Western Power.
It’s worth noting that every potential application is assessed individually by Western Power and whether the installation is to take pale on the high or low voltage grid plays a role in the protection required by grid operator.
While grid operators in some parts of the world are becoming more familiar with facilitating the installation of medium-sized installations onto the grid, it seems in WA, things are actually getting more difficult for the solar industry. In the last six months a further requirement has been placed on developers of solar projects in the commercial rooftop space.
Western Power is additionally requiring all installations which wish to export electricity to neutral voltage displacement equipment (NVD), on the network side of an installation. As the equipment is required on the grid itself rather than the installation, only Western Power is able to carry out the required works, with costs in the order of $50,000.
“The problem (when an NVD is required) is that only the network operator can provide the solution, for a fixed charged,” says Infinite Energy’s Jenkins. “So there’s not a lot of flexibility
Infinite Energy’s Jenkins reports that both the Sustainable Energy Association (SEA), located in Perth, and the Clean Energy Council have vocal in their opposition to the Western Power regulations that have hamstrung the commercial rooftop solar market segment in WA. Jenkins says that little progress has been made as yet and that the solar industry’s current strategy is to focus on reducing the cost of compliance.
One strategy employed to date by some West Australian solar developers, to circumvent the commercial rooftop dead spot, has been to overload inverters. This essentially means attaching a 40 kW array of modules to a 30 kW inverter – therefore avoiding Western Power’s regulatory hurdles. With a split east-west orientation, Milne from Avant Solar says that peak power output is avoided.
However, even here regulations appear to working against the West Australian solar industry. A relatively new Australian standard for solar, AS5033, requires that an inverter must have at least 75% of the capacity of the module array.
“There’s not scope to say, ‘I’ve got an east – west split, I will never reach peak, so I can go a little bit further,'” says Avant’s Milne, “the standards prohibit it.”
Western Power has reported to solar developers that it is currently working on an online portal through which grid connection applications for commercial rooftop PV systems can be applied. This may reduce the “soft” costs currently holding commercial rooftop PV back WA, however there is considerable scepticism amongst developers as to whether this will eventuate.