The recent announcement of Tesla's Powerwall made waves for its huge potential to change the way we use — and generate — electricity, but did you know that Australian consumers have already started changing the way our country creates and consumes power?
Renewable energy images by Shutterstock
Individual households are quickly becoming one of the biggest disruptors in Australia's electricity network.
In September it was revealed that Australia has the highest rate of household solar panel installation in the world, with a huge 15 per cent of Australian homes adopting rooftop solar.
It makes sense. Our largely flat, sun-drenched country (not to mention the weak spot in the ozone layer) 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 per cent), 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.
"It's one of those peculiarities," says Matthew Warren of the Energy Supply Association of Australia. "What we're seeing here is an accidental experiment both in the way we deploy policy and what happens. So we've seen almost no utility scale in Australia, whereas countries like Germany and the US have predominantly utility scale solar, and that's been because of the way our renewable energy target has been designed."
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 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 per cent).
While we've covered some 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 any time soon.
In fact, for Australia's energy networks — the organisations 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.
As it was explained to me, often 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 trialling 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.
Image by King Island Renewable Energy
All of these technological advances seem to point to the potential for Aussies 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.
And not just individual customers either. While we often think of disconnecting from the grid as something that single properties do, another concept that's gaining momentum of late is the idea of a mini-grid. Australia is already seeing this idea in practice in several small, super remote communities in Western Australia.
At the moment many of these communities use a combination of solar and diesel generators, but as the technology improves then it's possible they could move almost entirely to renewables.
It's not just solar either: the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, released on the 7th of October, found that — in terms of global averages — wind power is now as cheap as fossil fuels, and it also remains one of the more popular forms of off-grid renewable energy beside solar power.
One place where a renewable mini-grid system has been put into action is Tasmania's King Island, where wind turbines are used for up to 70 per cent of its inhabitants' energy needs — halving their reliance on diesel.
While Australia's energy networks have thus far been slow in adapting to today's rapidly changing technology, ENA and CSIRO's joint workshop acknowledges that the next decade is going to come with major disruptions.
Australians are no longer happy with being passive consumers, and are more and more interested in taking things into their own hands as the technology becomes available. Electricity networks and retailers are getting ready to adapt to our changing needs, as Australia's energy grid — or lack of — moves into the future.