Broad solar use gets closer, but what about red tape?

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Working with real customers and the variety of their solar equipment, and integrating it into the power grid, is a key task of the Virtual Power Plant research now coming to an end in Alice Springs.

The scheme, one of five elements of the broader Alice Springs Future Grid program, also got a look at what it takes for the erstwhile Solar City to live up to its former name: The nuts and bolts are the easy part. Government regulation is not.

Lyndon Frearson, head of the Future Grid $12m program under the auspices of Desert Knowledge, says while there are similar VPPs around Australia, some of them several times larger, the local effort is examining the aggregate impact of multiple trials concurrently on the “messiness” of the market.

“We didn’t operate on the basis of only working with new systems. Some VPP trials started out with using the same size of batteries and clients with the same systems installed.

“We worked with a range of system sizes, older and newer ones, and a range of different battery manufacturers.

“That’s the nature of customers. They’re all different.”

Forecasting methodologies, linking in with larger producers such as Uterne on the South Stuart Highway, pricing structures, battery systems and looking at how they are reacting with each other are all part of the experiments.

The big question is to manage the progressive change from fossil to renewable power when customers are all at different stages with respect to equipment, spending money and aspirations, while also ensuring the delicate balance of supply matching demand each and every second.

“It can be a lot messier than what advocates suggest,” says Mr Frearson.

Many more organisations are now involved in the power generation system. Sometimes words have different meanings depending on the technologies people are coming from: “Developing a new lexicon for the future power system is actually critical.”

There are seven to 10 full-time, and the same number of part-time staff as well as local installers working on the Future Grid program along with around 60 residential participants.

A string of reports are scheduled to be written by the end of the year, “for government, business and the community”.

Meanwhile people and their neighbours in Alice Springs seeking to become independent from government and from commercial electricity generators will find two lots of obstacles: Technology is the lesser.

Regulation is the big one, and governments are poised to keep control.

On the technical side there will be central control systems which govern charging and discharging.

There are already examples of that in Central Australian outstations.

Connecting rooftop gear and batteries between several dwellings via poles and wires or underground is no big deal.

The regulations side is a lot more tricky. Our current subdivision and planning requirements require that all properties have stand-alone access to electricity.

They don’t have to use it (but they still have to pay Power Water Corporation for the presence of that equipment).

“You could seek to develop a generator licence for a power system on your property, and seek to procure a licence for generating electricity to a neighbour,” says Mr Frearson.

“The process, for an individual, would be complex. The mechanism would require the groups to come together to develop the infrastructure, the poles and wires, which would require easements, so that at all times there is a right for those wires to be passing through.”

Difficulties may arise when – for example – three householders agree to share power and later the middle one sells his home and says I don’t want this infrastructure on my property. I’m pulling out.

In Alice Springs the easements are largely for poles and wires owned by the Power Water Corporation which private producers can use – for a fee, of course.

Private producers on a larger scale would be required to guarantee uninterrupted supply.

Further, you’ll need a network licence.

To use the PWC wires you’d need a network access agreement, and possibly a retail licence to allow you to enter into a commercial agreement with your neighbours and a generator licence to generate electricity in the first place.

“These licences impose obligations around what you are allowed to do, [even] your creditworthiness.

“Are you a fit and proper person to run a power system because as soon as other people are relying on that they need to know you’re [the right person] to do that.”

The licences are provided by the Utilities Commission, a Territory instrumentality, also in charge of approving pricing.

Concurrent with that is the Australian Energy Regulator, the national body determining the amount that network bodies are allowed to charge for use of their infrastructure.

“The commercial and regulatory hurdles are high,” says Mr Frearson.

There are locations into which bureaucracies can’t stick their nose: “Properties within certain municipal areas will have access to common use infrastructure. And that provides a benefit to everyone but it also limits third parties from providing those services.

“If true independence is what you’re seeking you’ll have to look at a location where that planning and common use infrastructure are not already present. In Alice Springs they are present.”

Mr Frearson says there are new urban subdivisions in Australia where energy can be shared.

“It’s easer when you’re doing it in a greenfield environment where you can build the infrastructure and you can mandate that everybody participates.

“You can put solar on everyone’s roof, batteries are there and you can only buy a property if you agree to the terms of this process.”

There are only few of these because it has proved difficult to manage the trade-offs between that broader community benefit of common use infrastructure and the constraints that are in place.

PHOTO: Our report $75m power station the wrong decision: WA experts, on July 20, 2016 was part of our coverage of the local solar debate, fired up by the government’s decision to buy for Alice Springs 10 gas fuelled generators worth $75m that later was reported to have ballooned to $100.

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