W.A. sees solar future, but battery storage and EVs are not allowed

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W.A. energy minister Mike Nahan has done an about-face and predicted that solar will dominate the future. But the state owned utilities require solar households to sign contracts promising not to install battery storage or purchase electric vehicles.

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WA energy minister Mike Nahan has finally seen the light about the potential of solar energy – but it will take more than a new political posture to usher in the full potential of the solar revolution in the west: there are still significant cultural and regulatory obstacles in the way.

Nahan last week conceded what had been obvious to many who understand energy markets for some time: the WA grid, based around fossil fuels and centralized generation and an expansive grid – and a massive subsidy from the government that amounts to $600 million a year – is unsustainable under its current structure.

The answer lies in a system based around decentralized energy, with rooftop solar at the core. Within a decade, Nahan, suggested, rooftop solar will be on most household and business rooftops and will account for the bulk of daytime power demands. This, admits Nahan, will push coal generation out the door.

But it is one thing to envisage a solution, it is quite another to put it into place. As Nahan touts the assets of solar – “cheap and democratic” he says – the state-owned utilities seem intent on slowing down progress.

nahanThe energy revolution is more than just solar – it will be accompanied by energy storage, electric vehicles and some smart software that will respond to the demand and supply needs of the customer and the grid.

But Synergy, the state owned retailer, and Western Power, the state owned network company – are being accused of erecting walls where none should exist. They are asking solar customers to sign contracts promising not to install battery storage or electric vehicles, for fear of having their solar disconnected from the grid.

Take the example of Margaret River farmer Jamie Mcall, who installed a 5kw rooftop solar system five years ago.

At the time of installation, Mcall was hoping to get the prevailing feed in tariff for rooftop solar, which should have been 46c/kWh for exports back into the grid.

It didn’t happen, because of paperwork problems, but because of the metering design, when he exported solar power back to the grid, the meter turned backwards, reducing his bill. He ended up with a net tariff of the type that prevails in the much of the US, and the Nothern Territory.

That was fine – until he was contacted recently by Synergy this year announcing the installation of a new bi-directional meter.

solar imageMcall inquired about the feed in tariff, know in W.A. as the renewable energy buyback scheme (REBS) but was told he was not eligible for the 7.2c/kWh tariff, because his home was now defined as a business. From now on, Mcall would get nothing for the excess solar electricity he exports back into the grid.

But it got worse. Synergy also informed him that if he installed battery storage, or an electric vehicle, his solar system would be “cut off”. Various emails and telephone conversations suggested that it wouldn’t just be his solar panels cut off either.

It turns out that this is a standard contract by Synergy (see below). One it insists is forced upon it by Western Power, which runs the main grid in W.A.

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Synergy says the ruling is written into the current network access agreement, although there is speculation that it could be modified in the next version.

“Synergy has a responsibility to inform customers about potential issues that, if permitted, could place it in breach of its contractual agreements with the network operator,” a spokesman told One Step Off The Grid in a statement.

“The current conditions do not mean customers can not have battery storage or electric vehicle facilities. The conditions mean they can not export energy into the grid if they do. Synergy supports the development of battery storage and is currently actively involved in developing Australia’s first community storage facility in Alkimos Beach.” 

Nevertheless, Mcall is not happy. “Up until this time I wasn’t thinking of battery storage or an EV. Now they telling us they not paying anything for solar, so of course I am thinking about it.

“It suddenly makes sense to put battery storage in – but now I am told I am now allowed. If solar is future, why are they screwing people who invest in it.”

Mcall has put in complaints to both the WA energy ombudsman and the ACCC.

The reason why Mcall’s situation is so powerful is that it contradicts the political rhetoric, yet is typical of consumer experience in both WA, and across the eastern states – be it in terms of low feed in tariffs, inability to export back into the grid, and soaring fixed charges.

Meanwhile, the WA government perpetuates a “capacity” payment system that Nahan admits results in the construction of peaking gas and diesel plants that are not needed and never switched on. This is thought to cost the WA electricity consumer $200 million a year.

The WA Greens have also taken up the issue, noting that Synergy’s letter threatened “disconnection” if the contract was not signed.

WA Greens Energy spokesperson Robin Chapple MLC says he will seek information this week on how many Synergy customers have been forced to sign the contract promising not to install battery storage or purchasing an electric vehicle. It will also seek to make in an election issue at the Canning bi-election, where 50 per cent of voters have rooftop solar.

“Battery storage systems are going to completely revolutionise the way that we use energy, offering West Australians the opportunity to simultaneously save money and cut their household emissions,” Chapple said.

“The Greens solar postcodes report, produced by Senator Scott Ludlam, has shown that 1 in 5 WA households now have rooftop solar – an increase of 19% in just one year – suggesting that WA is prime for the uptake of emerging battery technology.

“Battery storage systems will be at the forefront of a huge energy shift and as such are re-evaluating their Energy 2029 plan so that we have the best policy to allow West Australian’s to benefit from new energy generation technologies.

“But bizarrely the Barnett government seems to be blocking it out of the market completely; a response that is protectionist and frankly not in the best interests of their constituents.”

This story was first published on our sister site One Step Off the Grid. To sign up for the weekly newsletter, click here.

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5 Comments
  1. Jacob 4 years ago

    It is good that the WA grid is government owned.

    I think that means that voters could go off-grid without having to pay a perverse charge to the grid for not being connected to the grid.

    ie, the grid can be left to rot slowly without having to compensate anyone for a loss of profit or executive salaries.

    • Ian Porter 4 years ago

      Naive of you Jacob.
      That the WA grid is government owned means that it is owned by the voters you infer as ‘beneficiaries’. Yes they are beneficiaries of the liability of badly invested sunk capital and long term power purchase agreements with IPPs and it will be those same voters who cop the liability in the hip pocket. Far better that the grid be owned by private enterprise who will not only manage it better and more efficiently (providing there is competition and adequate regulatory protections), but if it goes bust, the investors get stung and not the whole electorate.
      I venture to add that the grid will not ‘rot slowly’. The rot began a long time ago because of wrong decision making and in the absence of good forecasting but its demise will arrive far quicker than most will imagine. Some hard decisions and sensible policymaking needs to be made soon and this needs to take in the whole spectrum of inputs and assumptions based on the forward realities and that should have a strong bias in particular toward embracing new technologies and resultant developing trends impacting the grid.

  2. Miles Harding 4 years ago

    Excellent, Giles – I was wondering how they were going to screw it up!

    The WA Barnett government has a reputation for total ineptitude and botching it’s energy policy, and there’s no reason to suspect they are about to abandon that tradition.
    Many of us remember the MUJA A&B refurbishment, a $350M white elephant. It was made all the more ridiculous when, in August 2014, the state government admitted that the collie coal fields were nearing depletion and that importing coal from Indonesia was being considered.
    One indication of the parlous state of those coal fields was Griffin Coal going broke. The report said that there was no significant mismanagement, simply that the company couldn’t make a profit selling to Muja. Hmm…..

    Possibly, this nonsense from synergy is simply another example of the Barnett government maintaining its traditions.

    So what happens if you already have an electric vehicle and want to install solar?
    It does sound like the state is channeling consumers into grid independent solar with batteries.
    Not the best option, but what is one to do with such morons steering the ship?

  3. Ian 4 years ago

    I guess that means every solar household will be cut off from the grid, battery storage is already universal, mobile phones, tablet computers ,kids toys, cordless tools. All these battery-lovers have already broken their terms of agreement! Or, conversely, perhaps a talking teddy bear attached to a tesla powerwall could be classed as a battery operated consumer item rather than a battery storage unit. You can imagine the inquires by anxious solar householders: ” my son has a remote controlled toy truck, is that an electric vehicle?”, or ” I have a battery powered bicycle, will you disconnect me from the grid” or ” my mobility scooter has rechargeable batteries, is that an electric vehicle? Or ” my tesla model S P85D, is just a toy for me, I dare you to cut me off the grid”

  4. JustThink4Once 4 years ago

    Dirty desperate tactics will only intensify as solar storage reality starts to bite. Perhaps future housing constructions will require that the roof space is owned by the state government.

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