The future of solar power in Australia

The future of solar power in Australia

with Electrogroup CEO, Glenn Porter

The announcement of Tesla’s Powerwall recently has demonstrated its huge potential to change the way we use and generate electricity.  Australian consumers have already started changing the power dynamic. Individual households are quickly becoming one of the biggest disruptors in Australia’s electricity network, particularly in Queensland.

In September, it was revealed that Australia has the highest rate of household solar panel installation in the world, with 15 percent of Australian homes having rooftop solar. It makes sense. Our largely flat, sun-drenched country provides one of the most suitable environments for generating solar energy in the world. In some extra remote areas, generating off-grid power has become a necessity more than a luxury.

Yet even though Australia has almost double the amount of household solar installations than the next highest country (which is Belgium, with around 7 percent), we fall behind thanks to a lack of large-scale solar projects. Despite our major lead in residential solar panels, the absence of many big installations drops Australia back to the sixth rank in terms of total solar installations per capita.

But that may be set to change over the next decade. Earlier in October, Australia’s Energy Networks Association joined with the CSIRO to hold a workshop that gathered a bunch of industry stakeholders, government regulators, energy retailers and customer representatives among others to discuss the evolution of Australia’s energy network.

The largest change that has taken place over the last decade is the decreasing price and increasing the efficiency of solar technology. Ten years ago, electricity companies could never have anticipated how quickly solar would become an affordable option for installation on residential blocks. As a result, they were blindsided by the adoption of on-site solar generation, leaving us with inappropriate tariffs and a grid that wasn’t designed for the two-way energy traffic it’s now seeing.

Now, the industry is ready to be shaken up again by the introduction of viable energy storage systems like Tesla’s Powerwall, and even the more flexible modular battery that Enphase Energy is trialling over in South Australia (which is the state with the highest rate of solar adoption in the world, at 25%). While we’ve covered a few of the kneejerk reactions of electricity companies to Tesla’s Powerwall, the workshop addressed the fact that energy retailers would have to adapt to this technology or risk getting left behind. Consumers are forcing their way into the energy business now more than ever, and that’s not looking like changing anytime soon.

In fact, for Australia’s energy networks the organisation that are responsible for ferrying electricity from the generators to the customers, and sometimes the other way around consumer storage can come as an advantage. Without battery technology to store their excess energy, solar households are currently generating electricity during daylight hours, selling some back to the grid but still adding to peak strain on the grid during the evening.

Solar users can have a negative impact on the network and on other consumers due to a false sense of confidence knowing they have solar panels installed, some consumers are far less careful about minimising their energy usage, even during the night while their panels aren’t actively generating energy.

Having the ability to store excess solar energy to save for later takes some of the pressure off the grid, and could potentially result in a change in tariffs, benefiting even the people who can’t afford or can’t install solar themselves. Indeed, this is the kind of system that Ergon Energy is trailing in Queensland, with the use of a 5kW battery storage system.

One potentially important development in storage technology that was raised at the workshop was the idea of long-term energy storage. Even in Australia, there is a major difference between solar energy output in summer and winter, so the idea of collecting energy to be stored over a matter of months rather than days could reduce energy demand when the days start getting shorter.

All of these technological advances seem to point to Aussies potentially being able to disconnect from the grid entirely if they are able to manage their power usage and production intelligently. The workshop’s forecast predicts that full disconnection from the grid won’t become economically feasible for regular metro households until somewhere between 2030-40, primarily due to battery costs. However, Tesla’s influence coming into the market soon, that date came a lot sooner.

Interestingly enough, the workshop’s proposals don’t actively seek to stop consumers from disconnecting from the grid. Indeed, some stakeholders even discussed the possibility of assisting in strategically disconnecting certain customers from the grid, when it would be of most advantage to both networks and customers.