Virtual net metering to ease off-grid movement

Byron Bay, NSW

The concept of owning two buildings at two different sites in the same city and generating electricity at one site to use at the other could be come a reality.

Ergon Energy hopes to research the practicality of virtual net metering in a trail with the University of Technology Institute for Sustainable Futures with funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

For those customers physically restricted from installing solar PV and fitting a battery at one of their sites, virtual net metering could provide an alternative to going “off grid”, which could result in Ergon’s network being under-utilised in the future.

Virtual net metering would eliminate the need for the customer to use large sections of the network and, therefore, reduce the network charges that make up a large part of their retail bills.

Ergon Energy distributed system platform architect Tony Loveday said as distributed generation becomes more widespread and storage technology takes off, there is a risk customers will opt to go off-grid, leaving behind an under-utilised electricity grid.

“Measures like these will help network providers like Ergon adapt to a future where distributed generation is commonplace,” he said.

For the University of Technology the trial is invaluable given new technologies that could change the electricity industry paradigm.

“We will investigate how market changes could help consumers and network businesses benefit from local generation by providing alternatives for customers who might otherwise choose to disconnect from the grid altogether or use ‘behind the meter’ options,” University of Technology project director Jay Rutovitz said.

The economics of the idea are being explored as part of research and trials at five sites in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, including councils, community sites and residential customers.

The Ergon Energy trial is taking place at an edge-of-grid community with a mixture of residential and small commercial loads and small generation, such as rooftop solar PV.

Byron shire, New South Wales, will become the first council in Australia to trial virtual net metering – also known as peer-to-peer trading.

In the case of Byron shire, it could mean a large rooftop installation going on top of its sporting centre, which has ample roof space and not a lot of consumption, and the excess capacity credited to the neighbouring sewage plant, which has little roof space for a solar array, but has heavy energy needs, according to Reneweconomy.

Byron mayor Simon Richardson said the shire made the proposal to the local network operator Essential Energy.

“We wrote a letter to Essential Energy, and we said the way we see it you have a death spiral on your economic model, you are increasingly expensive and, as solar and battery storage costs come down more and more people might leave the grid,” Mr Richardson told a solar energy forum earlier in the year.

“That means rising prices for those remain and more people leaving the grid.

“What we want to do is use the poles and wires, so you can keep the customers, although you are going to have to charge them far less. They actually wrote back and agreed with economic business model, and invited us to come down to Sydney and talk.”

Mr Richardson said the initiative is “massively game changing” – as it would not only allow councils to credit excess production from one building to another building, but also businesses – such as in Byron Bay’s industrial estate, to pool resources on one suitable roof and share in the benefits, as reported by Reneweconomy. 

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