Big changes may be afoot for the household rooftop solar and battery storage sector, and the days of an uncontrolled “free for all” may be about to end – at least for those connected to the grid.
Regulators, market operators, network owners, and even new technology providers are urging a change in the way that distributed energy such as rooftop solar and battery storage is managed.
It has dawned on authorities that within a few decades, according to their own predictions, distributed energy may account for nearly half of all generation delivered into Australia’s sprawling electricity grid.
That should not be a problem per se, but only if it is not properly managed, delegates at the annual Energy Networks Australia conference in Sydney were told on Wednesday.
Much of the focus has been on the issue of tariffs, and “social equity” around solar, but the real problem is about harnessing the resources and using them for the grid benefit, both as a provider of energy and network services.
“The real issue is we that don’t have control over our rooftop solar resources,” says Phil Blythe, the head of software specialist Greensync, pointing to the 1.7 million household systems already in the market, a number that will grow to 2.5 million systems within a few years.
“At that point we will have lost control over a significant portion of the generation fleet,” he says, unless a system of smart controls, new policies and structures are put in place.
One vision of how that may look will be released over the next few days – a joint study by Energy Networks Australia and the Australian Energy Market Operator about the appropriate platform to manage the growth in distributed energy.
Right now, most of it is installed behind the meter, consumption is not visible to networks or operators, and the usage can only be guessed at. And it cannot be martialled into a dependable resource.
Companies like Greensync, Reposit, Tesla, and sonnen have ideas of how that can be done – through the creation of virtual power plants and other “aggregated source” that links and connects these resources.
The question is how to do that in a coherent way. According to AEMO’s Violette Mouchaileh, its manager of “market enhancement”, that could take three different forms – a centralised system with AEMO, a hybrid system in partnership with networks, or via a third party.
Mouchaileh referred to the so-called “duck curve”, which is appearing in states such as South Australia and Queensland, and is pushing grid demand to deeper and deeper lows in the middle of the day?
“We seeing more variability in the system. It affects how we manage (the grid) in real time,” she said..
Mouchaileh pointed to the need for data visibility, a robust network regime and market frameworks, access for aggregators and improved forecasting.
One of the issues will be about access and tariff structures, although tariffs is not believed to be a subject of this initial study by ENA and AEMO, which follows ENAs work with the CSIRO on the Future Grid and the importance of distributed generation.
Andrew Dillon, the head of ENA, noted that one third of homes in Queensland and South Australia had rooftop solar, 25 per cent in Western Australia and 17 per cent in NSW (and growing fast).
This compared to just 20 per cent in Hawaii and Caifornia, often seen as the global leaders in the uptake of rooftop solar.
Dillon says networks have done a remarkable job ascting as a “sponge” to rooftop solar, soaking up excess generation, and facilitating two way flows. The new study would seek to find ways to co-ordinate future growth and harnessing that resource.
NSW is also proposing trials on distributed generation, and its ability to reduce network congestion and defer upgrades of poles and wires and sub-stations.
Energy minister Don Harwin said the government see opportunities for rooftop solar and battery storage and wanted to remove regulatory blockages to these new technologies and new business models.
Harwin pointed to the technology changes – rooftop solar, battery storage and elecric vehicles – that were being driven by consumers.
“Governments should not be resistant to the shifts in technology that give consumers greater autonomy,” he said, adding that consumers want more choice and as a politician with a Liberal outlook “I welcome this.”
He said the government wanted to remove regulatory blockages to these new technologies and new business models and the trials would focus on understanding the changes in networks.
“The NSW trials will make a significant contribution to future of distributed networks. We want to be able to reduce network bills by 400 a year by using smater technologies.
“We do want to do things differently. We want to own the future.”
Blythe, however, said that action needed to be taken soon, or the scale of the investment would get out of control. “We have a very short timeframe to get those policies and structures in place.”