Houses & early feed-in tariffs helped reduced rooftop solar costs, it's time to focus on apartments and the impending storage boom

Australia is in the middle of a rooftop solar boom with news last week that in the March quarter 351 megawatts (MW) of new capacity was installed including 127MW for the month of March alone.  According to SunWiz, the uptake is accelerating.

The acceleration has been attributed to high prices from electricity retailers and the consistent cost reductions in photovoltaic technology that has created an environment where many house-owners and businesses have increasingly greater access to technology that allows them to thumb their noses at electricity retailers.

Those lucky enough to own a house or business premise and have the budget to install a rooftop solar system, especially one combined with a battery, are also starting to see shorter payback times.

Booming solar installations throughout Australia's suburbs, one would think, should be seen as a great achievement of those politicians and groups who believe in greater self-determination and less state intervention - regardless if state subsidies helped us get to the point where we are. Alas, it's not the case with the merry 'Monash forum' rabble.

Much like moving to 100% electric vehicles would solve the emissions challenge of cars, a 1 for 1 replacement doesn't solve the physics/congestion challenge in cities; increased solar rooftop & battery package purchases by households and business adds significant weight to tackling the electricity generation emissions problem, however, it won't be available to every household - in a financial sense, but more importantly in a physical sense.

The issue of unchecked low-density growth at the fringe of cities is well understood - increased urban densities in the inner and middle rings of our cities are a direct antidote to it - but those who will probably live a significant proportion of their lives in multi-dwelling buildings won't be able to participate in the generation side of a distributed energy grid to the same extent as those who own houses.

Apartment buildings and higher-density workplaces will, of course, be able to install electricity generation infrastructure on their roofs but at best this local generation will cover the electricity required to light, heat and cool common areas plus a bit more, at worst there will be a negligible impact.

If we accept there will be an energy production divide at the household level - those who live in houses which can install a PV system on the roof versus those who live in apartments/units - then in the interests of equity, apartments and the higher-density parts of our cities will need specific policy treatment.

'The grid' is the machine that includes generation (thermal power stations, wind turbines, solar arrays, dams with hydro turbines located at the base of them), transmission (the 'big' power powerlines), distribution (the 'small' powerlines in your street) and substations which are the bridges between generation and transmission as well as between transmission and distribution.

Our grid mainly operates in one direction - from generation through the transmission network to the distribution network to the power outlet in your home/business to the device or appliance that's plugged into the power outlet.  Those appliances/devices plugged in are considered 'behind the meter', everything else is considered 'in front of the meter'.

The leadership at the Australia Energy Market Operator, which oversees transmission planning in Victoria's case but overall it monitors the operations of the electricity network around the country, has begun talking about the need for access to the behind-the-meter infrastructure that is rapidly deploying in Australian households and businesses.

"At the moment there is no framework for moderating the feed into the grid from rooftop PV systems,” Jenny Riesz, Principal at AEMO, quoted in RenewEconomy, said. “We can turn down the large-scale wind and PV if we have to, but there is no way at the moment to control rooftop PV systems".

As AEMO chief Audrey Zibelman has repeatedly asserted, this behind the meter energy generation and storage resource has enormous potential to be harnessed by the market operator, in any number of ways, to help provide crucial grid balancing and particularly peak shaving services.

And extensive modelling by Energy Networks Australia has supported this view.

It showed that by orchestrating the nation’s distributed energy resource (DER), and coordinating the dispatch of it in a sensible way, network charges could be reduced by 30 per cent, annual savings delivered to households, and up to $1.4 billion in network investment avoided.

Rooftop solar: Australia's greatest opportunity and its greatest risk, RenewEconomy

The are multiple solutions to the impending problem of excess generation and not being able to control it.

“There is a huge amount that we can do about this,” Riesz told the conference on Thursday. “It’s just that we have to get on and do it. Now. Now is the time.

Key among the possible solutions is increasing daytime demand. This can be done a number of ways, such as shifting hot water clocks from night into the daytime; coordinating the distributed storage “that’s coming in at a rate of notts”; or using electric vehicle charging to mop up excess generation.

“Electric vehicles coming in could enormously help, And we could have other sorts of flexible loads like water pumping, and so on; if we provide the right tariffs and incentives, a lot more of that can be done during the day, to suck up this energy,” Riesz said.

Rooftop solar: Australia's greatest opportunity and its greatest risk, RenewEconomy

Australia's rooftop solar boom is happening in an energy policy environment that's been stuck in a rut for a decade. The former South Australian government went out of its way to facilitate a batter for the grid based on a twitter conversation - this is what an inept and paralysed federal government looks like.

Helped along early on in the piece by high feed-in tariffs set at the state level, solar PV + batteries is now at the stage where house-owners wield significant power (pardon the pun) and developers foresee including systems as standard in house and land packages in the not too distant future.

Apartment-dwellers won't have the same access to generation participation opportunities that house-dwellings currently do, but they could very much play a massive part in the need for the country to invest in storage.  If they're given an incentive package similar to the one early adopters of solar PV systems received.

Lead image credit: sonnenbatterie.de

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