Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Renewable Energy News

Are virtual power plants the future of solar power? – ABC News

By Staff , in Solar Power , at August 18, 2020

When maths teacher Katie Brooks was searching for a new apartment, the solar panels on the rooftop of the Fremantle complex she eventually settled on were a big drawcard.

Ms Brooks said utilising solar energy had helped her save money on power bills.

“I budget every single dollar that I have,” she told 7.30.

“I know exactly where all my money goes and being able to track my power bills, know how much they are, and put money aside also means I can then save for my future goals.”

Katie Brooks smiles at the camera with brown hair and colourful earrings.
School teacher Katie Brooks keeps a close eye on how much money she spends each month.(ABC News West Matteeussen)

The 35-year-old spends just $50 per month on her power bill, but she also makes money because residents in the apartment complex can sell surplus energy to their neighbours in the same building.

“Quite a few of our residents are semi-retired, so if they’re doing their washing, running the dishwasher, running the air conditioning, if it’s a hot day and I’m at work and I’m not using any of my energy, then they can purchase my allocation before we buy from the grid.

“So I get a little bit of money back.”

The building in Fremantle’s White Gum Valley, uses technology created by Australian start-up Power Ledger.

The online software allows residents to trade solar energy in real time and will be rolled out across another 10 developments in Perth over the next three years.

WA ‘ground zero’

A cluster of houses at Alkimos Beach all with rooftop solar panels.
The WA Government is planning to trial virtual power plants in Perth.(ABC News: Briana Shepherd)

According to solar energy consultants, SunWiz, at least 28,000 home energy storage systems are predicted to be installed across the nation this year.

Adam McHugh, a Perth-based energy analyst at Murdoch University, said it was estimated more than 45 per cent of all households in Western Australia would have rooftop solar by 2025.

“The challenges are already starting to emerge and really Western Australia is ground zero for this energy transition,” Mr McHugh told 7.30.

Mr McHugh said solar power needed to “smarten up” so the energy grid was not overloaded with power — leading to potential blackouts.

“So the original solar systems that were put in place weren’t designed for considering anyone else other than the owner of that sole system.

“What we want to do is be able to control them in a very precise way, so that they can provide the ability to balance supply and demand in real time.”

The massive 95kWh Tesla PowerPack equivalent of about 16 of Tesla’s smaller Powerwall batteries.
Batteries are an important part of making a virtual power plant viable.(Supplied: Logan City Council)

Brian Innes, who runs solar energy company Plico Energy, said battery storage was a crucial piece of the puzzle.

“If you’ve got a large fleet of dumb solar on roofs, when the cloud hits, the whole grid gets impacted by that one big cloud,” he told 7.30.

“If you’ve got battery and solar coupled, then it doesn’t impact on the grid in the same way.”

Mr Innes said the idea is for houses with similar systems installed to join up to form what is called a virtual power plant.

Earlier this year the Western Australian Government released a five-year plan that includes trialling a virtual power plant in the suburbs of Perth before Christmas.

“We’re moving quickly to implement microgrids where they’re needed,” WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston told 7.30.

“Virtual power plants are just another example of the technology that we’re utilising to bring down the future costs to the grid.”

‘More work to do’

Dr Heather Lovell, University of Tasmania
Heather Lovell says there are still issues with virtual power plants that need to be sorted out.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

But some experts aren’t entirely convinced virtual power plants are the answer, arguing they won’t suit everyone.

A recent trial of the technology on 30 houses on Tasmania’s Bruny Island revealed mixed results.

“They’re kind of overly optimistic about the predictability of people’s behaviour in the energy context,” said Heather Lovell, a professor of energy and society at the University of Tasmania.

In her study, some participants didn’t like the installation process, while others weren’t a fan of the technology and disconnected from the virtual power plant after the trial.

“It’s a question of supply and demand and there’ll be many households that choose not to have a battery,” WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston said.

“The real benefit is to make sure that all the resources are visible to the network and able to be used for the benefit of the system.”

White Gum Valley apartments
Katie Brooks can sell power to other residents in the White Gum Valley apartment complex.(Supplied)

In Fremantle, school teacher Katie Brooks is happy to test out new technologies and said while selling excess energy to her neighbours was a good thing, there were limitations she would like to see ironed out in the future.

“At the moment we don’t have the mechanism to trade power between the different strata companies,” Ms Brooks said.

“So I guess in the future it’d be really cool, if we had excess power, we could sell it to the neighbours down the road, rather than just the neighbours in the complex.”