The rapid rate of uptake of rooftop solar and world-leading deployment of batteries have increased the urgency for Australia to come up with the answers to cope with its decentralising energy market without compromising reliability and stability of supply.
That’s the view of Greensync founder Phil Blythe, who is predicting 2018 will be a critical year for power market players, innovators and regulators to come together to tackle the challenge to allow for an acceleration in deployment of storage, solar panels and electric vehicles.
“Speed is of the essence here,” said Dr Blythe, who is on the Australian Energy Market Operator’s expert panel advising on technology advances in the sector. Greensync provides a platform to manage distributed energy resources.
“In two years we are going to reach a point where the amount of solar on our networks, particularly in South Australia, is going to reach a critical point, so we’ve got a time limit.”
Australia is already the most decentralised country in the world in terms of the installation of rooftop solar per capita, while South Australia’s $800 million “virtual power plant” project announced by the government last weekend and involving the co-ordinated deployment of 50,000 household batteries again puts the country well ahead of overseas nations and points also to a rapid uptake of storage.
The challenge is a cognitive one rather than a technology one given the innovative technologies being developed to ease the transition away from a centralised power system based around large generating plants directing power one way through the grid to consumers, said David Martin, chief executive of Power Ledger, which uses blockchain technology to allow households and business to trade surplus solar energy with each other.
It’s “too bad” for those who believe the transition is going too fast because it is happening anyway, Mr Martin said.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “There is no central planning in this space, it’s being conducted and co-ordinated – or unco-ordinated – by consumers and an emerging secondary market for energy and distributed energy resources.”
Mr Martin said a low-cost, low-carbon decentralised energy system is possible now if those investing in distributed energy sources can be encouraged to operate those investments in a way that complements the broader supply system. The financial framework also needs to allow value for investments to be allocated at an individual level.
The grid remains at the centre of the network though it needs to be adapted through technology to suit the decentralised system of the future where power is no longer flowing just one way, said Simon Mouat, vice president for energy at Schneider Electric, which is hosting an energy innovation summit in Sydney on Monday.
“There has been a substantial amount of investment going into the existing structure we have today, and we really don’t want to see that investment dissipate,” said Mr Mouat.
“What we need to be able to do is take that investment and through new technology and new solutions enable it to perform in a much more efficient manner going forward.”
The trend away from large thermal power plants to numerous smaller, low-carbon generators has fuelled worries within energy-intensive industry about costs and supply reliability. But Mr Mouat said that advances in technology were mitigating those risks and pointed to Sanjeev Gupta’s Whyalla steel works in South Australia that will use solar panels and pumped hydro for most of its power.
“We are still in the process of change but we are seeing enough evidence to support [the view that] it is definitely viable today and it is certainly cost-effective,” he said.