Australia’s energy transformation has begun

By Paul Grad, energy writer

“Households, businesses and entire communities can now become genuinely self-powered completely or substantially, depending on their circumstances and preference,” Australian economist Ross Garnaut recently said in an interview.

Garnaut became the new chairman of ZEN Energy Systems, a community renewable energy provider, launched at Tonsley Park in Adelaide.

The founder of ZEN Energy, Richard Turner, said there’s been a huge over-investment in the grid, resulting in a huge cost per head of the population. He said the new company chair would find ways new companies like ZEN can benefit – rather than disrupt – the market.

“It’s about what the people are prepared to pay to stay on the grid, compared with what they will pay to leave it,” he said.

The idea behind the formation of ZEN Energy was to use 100 per cent renewable energy to power homes, businesses and entire communities, at a lower cost than electricity from the grid.

However, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar require suitable energy storage for reliable and cost-effective use of the electricity generated. The inherently variable nature of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind brings the need for matching power generation to demand. Storage can also protect against errors in forecasting, remove barriers to connecting renewable resources to a variety of grids, provide frequency regulation, and can delay costly grid upgrades.

Turner said energy storage is the way to recover those high electricity costs.

“People can now make themselves as grid independent as they want to be,” he said.

“We have the technology available right here and now.”

A new report from the Australian Climate Council said battery storage costs for households would continue to fall dramatically. Chief executive officer Amanda McKenzie said it could be a game changer allowing households to control their energy and energy bills.

“Already 1.4 million Australian households power their homes with solar. Household batteries will mean that households can store the power they make and have the flexibility to use it later on,” she said.

The report found solar PV systems with added battery storage will become the most economical solution to providing electricity as feed-in tariffs are phased out and grid electricity becomes more expensive.

“Australians are forging a people-led renewables revolution. Australia leads the world in rooftop solar with more than twice the solar PV penetration rates of the next country (Belgium) and more than three times the penetration of Germany, the US and the UK,” the report said.

“Now we have the opportunity to lead the world in household battery storage with major companies choosing Australia as their first market.

“In fact, going off-grid by installing battery storage could be cost-competitive with staying connected as early as 2018 as the price of battery storage falls.”

The Climate Council noted some of the biggest savings for households with solar PV would come from being able to store the energy they make from their solar panels but don’t use during the day.

“Currently, those householders are forced to export that energy at very low prices. With battery storage, they’ll instead be able to use it later, thereby saving themselves from having to purchase electricity during the expensive peak demand periods,” the report stated.

However, many people in the business, including Turner, can see complete grid independence is neither yet possible nor desirable, and will not happen any time soon.

Australian utilities all use renewable energy sources together with some form of energy storage, including various types of battery, pumped hydro storage, and flywheels. Many storage systems operated by the utilities are attached to power stations and, in many cases, the utilities install, own and operate rooftop solar systems with batteries in homes and businesses.

Origin Energy has decided to focus its business on rooftop solar and battery storage. It will own, install and maintain rooftop solar systems, and charge the homeowner for the use of the solar electricity. Origin said it won’t charge upfront payment from householders, rather, they will pay a fee under a power purchase agreement, common in the US and now proposed by many electricity providers in Australia.

Recently, Origin partnered with ZEN Energy Systems to install a 3MW rooftop solar array on the Mitsubishi factory at Tonsley, South Australia. Origin had hired a founding executive from US-based Sungevity and put him in charge of its solar technology business. However, that did not work out. Sungevity decided to quit Australia, due to the constantly shifting policy environment.

The company said at the state level, utilities and regulators are changing tariff structures and increasing fees for network connections and metering for solar homes. On the federal level, the Abbott Government asked the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to stop financing rooftop solar. Sungevity sold its stake in the Australian business to a new business named RoofJuice.

Ergon Energy is also heavily involved in solar and storage for households. Ergon has announced a deal with US solar panels supplier SunPower, of California, and solar integration system company Sunverge, also of California, to conduct a solar and storage trial in 33 homes in the Queensland towns of Toowoomba, Townsville and Cannonvale. Each household will get 4.9kW of solar PV, a Sunverge Solar Integration System that comprises a 12kWh/5kW battery storage and control system, with a back-up power capability 6kW inverter, along with on-board computing and cellular communications. The assets to be installed in the homes will be owned by Ergon and the households will pay a monthly fee of about $90.

Ergon has an agreement with Japanese company Panasonic for testing a new residential battery product. The product includes a lithium-ion battery storage system and network adapter. The Panasonic system has an 8kWh of usable capacity and 2kWh output. Ergon is also installing its battery-based technology called Grid Utility Support System (GUSS) which will improve the quality and reliability of electricity supply to rural customers on single wire lines, known as single wire earth return (SWER).

The Charters Towers region is the first to have Ergon’s GUSS units installed. The utility has installed two GUSS units at New Moon Station, 150km north of Charters Towers that will feed into its SWER network supplying remote properties in the area. Another 18 units will be installed on other SWER powerlines between the Wide Bay/Burnett area to Dajarra.

Western Australian electricity generator and retailer, Synergy, will conduct a large-scale community energy storage trial in Western Australia’s Alkimos Beach in partnership with property developers Lend Lease and LandCorp. Energy Made Clean is the system’s designer and installer. The four-year $6.7 million trial, partly funded by Synergy and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, is scheduled to begin in 2016. The system will include 1.1MWh of lithium-ion battery storage that will service more than 100 homes with rooftop solar panels.

As for energy storage attached to power stations, utilities operate several systems, including pumped hydro, batteries, flywheels, compressed air, and molten sand.

Origin operates two pumped storage hydro power stations, known as the Shoalhaven Scheme, located in the Southern Highlands of NSW. The scheme consists of the Kangaroo Valley and Bendeela Pumping and Power Stations, and the Fitzroy Falls Reservoir, Bendeela Pondage and Lake Yarrunga. Bendeela Power Station has two 40MW pump turbines. Kangaroo Valley Power Station has two 80MW pump turbines.

Hydro Tasmania has installed a battery system at King Island, capable of 3MW power contribution and storing 1.6MWh of energy. The installation uses an “ultra-battery”, developed by CSIRO. The ultra-battery is a combination of a lithium-ion battery and an ultra-capacitor. It has higher energy efficiencies, a longer lifetime and superior charge acceptance under partial state of charge conditions. The battery’s higher efficiency is due to the fact that it can operate for long periods in a partial state of charge.

Sydney-based battery storage developer Ecoult is entering the commercial and residential battery storage markets in Australia. Ecoult believes the ultra-battery can compete favourably with the lithium-ion battery. It has just launched its 25kW ultra-battery targeted at the commercial market. It intends to launch its residential 5kW version.

Hydro Tasmania has also signed contracts for a renewable energy project on Flinders Island. This project will be able to displace up to 60 per cent of the annual diesel fuel used on the island. This project, called the Flinders Island Hybrid Energy Hub, will use technology similar to that used on King Island. It involves integration of wind and solar generation with the existing diesel power station.

Horizon Power operates a flywheel project in the Western Australian towns of Marble Bar and Nullagine. The installation includes more than 2000 solar modules and a solar tracking system. The solar energy system generates more than 1GWh of energy per year, supplying
60 per cent of the average daytime energy for both towns, saving 405,000 litres of fuel and 1100 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. The installation employs the PowerStore flywheel-based grid stabilising generator from ABB. The system’s rated power is 500kW.

Origin noted solar penetration in Australia is expected to grow from about 4GW now to between 18GW and 20GW by 2030. A spokesman for Origin said: “The future will be marked by technology such as smart meters, solar panels and batteries for storage, and we will embrace this technology, not fight against it”.

As the Clean Energy Council said, “the global market for grid-connected residential PV solar installations coupled with energy storage is predicted to grow tenfold to reach more than 900MW in 2018, up from just 90MW in 2014. Australia can, and should, be a key player in the global storage market”.