We know solar works, we know it is a billion dollar industry, but how is it going to evolve in the future? To answer this question we only have to look at the activity around batteries and the talk of grid independence, which is pervading all corners of the energy industry.
Solar with Battery Hybrid inverters (formerly known as Grid-Tie with Battery Backup or what the CEC calls multi-mode) have actually been around for a long time.
I, personally, got my hybrid inverter system installed back in the year 2000, and it cost a bomb. But systems were available for a number of years before then, from early movers such as Power Solutions Australia (whose product range was acquired by Selectronics and re-badged SB Pro), and Xantrex (which has now part of the Schneider Electric solar division).
In early systems, such as mine, the batteries were there primarily to bolster supply reliability. They stayed charged most of the time until there was an interruption in the grid (something that happens rarely on Australian’ grids, especially in cities with regulated service levels, meaning grid power must be supplied for 99.9+% of the time) at which point the household supply would seamlessly transition from the grid to solar and batteries or just batteries at night. This type of system was a niche product back then – for enthusiasts, but certainly not for the general public.
Fast forward to 2014, battery inverters are now being released by almost all inverter manufacturers, and their prices are dropping fast. Most of these units are converging on a number of capabilities beyond working as a simple “Solar UPS”.
Likely standard capabilities include the ability to timetable when the batteries will be charged from the gird, when batteries will be charged from solar, when the inverter will satisfy a customer’s on-site self-consumption by drawing on the batteries in preference to the grid (usually during peaks and/or critical peaks) and the ability to limit grid exports to a maximum amount, to keep grid operators satisfied (should they place a cap on household solar power exports) and also limit imports to a maximum rate.
Grid operators in future may only allow 3kW, 4.5kW, 5kW or 10kW maximum feed-in rate, but a hybrid inverter could have a higher rating itself (to both feed-in and satisfy local self-consumption) and be configured so as not to exceed those grid operator-imposed limits. In addition, grid operators could also mandate the maximum amount of energy that can be drawn from the grid through such an inverter. In this case the new hybrid inverters can be set to only ever pull say 3kW max from the grid (a requirement for battery inverters in some parts of the South Australia).
Such intelligent power management is the way that a solar hybrid inverter competes with the old energy industry – i.e. by maximising self-consumption of cheaper solar energy that you’ve generated whether it be consumed at the time or withdrawn from the inverter’s battery.
But next-gen hybrid inverters can save you even more money with just a simple software update and an Internet connection.
The third generation of hybrid inverters (very few people in Australia even have a first or second generation solar hybrid inverter) is hitting the market lead by the Bosch Power Tec’s BPT-S 5 Hybrid. Not (upfront) the cheapest solution but a premium, high quality one, and one that is showcasing weather forecasting technology.
What is weather forecasting technology, you ask? Well, without weather forecasting, a customer with a hybrid inverter and a decent sized battery bank to easily match his evening, night-time and morning demand on a day of low solar contribution would have to rely on the grid at some time during the evening peak (paying higher rates) and, if the next day was also to be a very low solar day (i.e. heavy rains and cloud), then they’d also be relying on the grid during that day and the next again paying higher peak usage rates.).
Enter weather forecasting by your hybrid inverter. A hybrid inverter with weather prediction capability generates solar during the day and uses approximately 30-50% of it on-site in real-time, depending on the time of the year. During the night the inverter downloads weather data from the Bureau of Meteorology or some third party aggregate of that forecast data. If at 11pm if it looks like the next day is going to have very little solar generation potential the inverter then decides to recharge the batteries based on that knowledge of tomorrow’s weather forecast at cheaper overnight off peak rates, which are often 50% or more cheaper than peak rates.
The net result is overall cheaper energy for the solar customer as any peak time usage will now just cost a small premium (losses in charging and discharging) over off-peak power instead of the full inflated peak power price.
Therefore weather forecasting reduces peak power consumption (peak power brings in more revenue for the conventional energy industry, including networks and generators) and causes more of old energy’s revenues to go to the solar PV juggernaut, which keeps it moving along as more volume and a bigger market decreases prices for everyone.
The hybrid inverter industry is moving fast and we can expect that within 12-24 months every offering on the market will be capable of processing weather data and making the decision to recharge our batteries on off-peak power if grid power is required.
In the future, with dynamic power pricing potentially matching 5 minute or 30 minute activity on the electricity market these kinds of inverters could become very reactive to price with minor updates to their software, something that would minimise costs to power consumers further.
In 2014 we already have the technology (with more coming) to really decouple our power capacity requirements (maximum grid power ‘upload’ or ‘download’) and our power usage requirements (kWh units used and billed) which now will allow us to always get our power at the cheapest price possible this also makes the risk premium that we are currently paying retailers for managing supply demand matching almost redundant which should lead to a further lowering of prices.