Solar installers in Victoria’s east have been left confused and frustrated after a number of applications for rooftop PV and battery storage systems have been rejected outright, effectively denying customers access to cheaper power bills through solar self-generation.
The problem has cropped up on the AusNet Services grid in the state’s east – see map below – where constraints on the existing network, pushed to the limit by a booming rooftop solar market, have seen the distribution company set solar export limits ranging from 5kW to zero, for some households.
Solar export limitations – while controversial – are nothing new on Australia’s National Electricity Market, particularly as old-fashioned grids play catch up with huge consumer demand for solar, bolstered by state policy incentives that cut costs of the technology in half.
As we reported here earlier this month, the networks lobby group Energy Networks Australia recently put forward a plan proposing that Distribution Network Service Providers across the NEM should set a maximum solar export limit of 5kW across the board – anything less than that would have to be justified – and no limitations to what can be installed behind the meter.
According to AusNet’s website, on residential systems, the Hong Kong and China-owned distribution network service provider (DNSP) does not allow more than 10kW total inverter capacity per phase or more than 5kW (3.5kW on SWER) export per phase due to network restrictions.
“In some circumstances, where the grid had reached its capacity threshold i.e. it is unable to support any more generation, we have to export limit a customer,” AusNet’s FAQ section explains.
“This means that we must set a limit on the amount of energy you can feed back into the grid, for example: If you have a 6kW solar system you can technically generate and export up to 6kW energy. However, if the grid can only support 3kW generation in your area, then we will request that your system is limited to 3kW. Any energy produced on top of that is typically lost as heat.”
It then goes on to stress that “while we may have to export limit you, you are still able to access the main benefit of solar energy which is to use all of the energy you generate for your own consumption and therefore reduce your energy bills.”
But a number of installers working in the AusNet service area have reported to One Step Off The Grid that applications for solar and storage systems configured, as instructed, for limited or zero export are still being rejected, based on the capacity being installed behind the meter.
One such case, detailed by Matthew Wright here, shows AusNet rejecting an application for a Powerball 2 battery system by a customer near Bairnsdale, because it was registered as an inverter in the application system, and therefore took that household over the capacity limit.
On top of that, they say an increasing number of households applying for solar on the network are being restricted to zero solar exports to the grid, meaning that all of the solar generated by the home system has to be either consumed on-site, or – if there is no battery – go to waste.
Andy McCarthy, the founder and managing director of Gippsland Solar, said that while he fully understands the need for solar export limitations, the troubles with the applications, and a lack of ready explanation or response from AusNet is putting unnecessary strain on businesses already pushed to the limit.
“We’ve always had a very good relationship with the DNSPs, we haven’t had this belligerent approach to say, ‘like it or not this change is coming’,” McCarthy told One Step this week.
“But it does appear that we do have to get a bit more on the front foot now, because our business cannot stomach this, with stock sitting on the shelves and customers venting their frustration at us, wondering why they can’t just get solar installed.
McCarthy said that the back and forth with AusNet to try to follow up these issues, means that the company is sometimes sitting at 90 days, comfortably, on some of these jobs, just to get a response to the application.
“It’s costing us huge amounts of cash flow, and it’s definitely costing us jobs. Customers are rightly livid about it,” he said.
“I’m concerned that we’re putting out foot on the accelerator and driving more demand, when the system is already struggling to keep up.”
Ironically, the trouble at AusNet’s end seems to stem from teething problems with the DNSPs relatively new Solar & Batteries Pre-Approval tool, an online grid connection application system that was designed to help deal with the sheer volume of applications in the region, and to speed up the process of approvals.
A statement to One Step from AusNet conceded that the new system was a work in progress, but added that since its launch, the solar tool was approving over 90 per cent of solar applications, which was “much higher than previously.”
“The online solar tool has been developed in close consultation with installers and has been submitted to user testing – we will continue to work with them on how we can co-ordinate batteries to ensure safe and reliable supply to all customers,” an AusNet Spokesperson said.
“Automating as many applications as possible is the first step to freeing up our teams to focus on the more complex assessments so we can reduce (the long wait time for manual assessments.
“The regulatory timeline for a manual technical assessment and approval is 65 days – we recognise that is a long time.
“Unfortunately there will always be some exceptions to automation that will require a manual technical assessment, and sometimes the engineers on the ground are able to use additional information that might give a different outcome.”
AusNet said that it had put solar export limitations in place – mostly in regional areas and areas with high penetration of solar – to ensure that as many customers as possible could access the benefits of solar, while maintaining safe and reliable power supply to all.
“We are actively looking at a range of technical and regulatory solutions to help transition the grid to facilitate customer choices. This isn’t a quick fix, and will take some to implement,” the company said.
“In the short term, we have undertaken a number of technical improvements, including local voltage adjustments at the distribution transformer, tactical fixes to the network, updated inverter settings to enable more solar into the system, a program of upgrading the network on an as needs basis, as well as community trials.
“In the medium to longer term, we are working with the regulator to develop economically fair assessments for upgrading the network.
“It is crucial that the integration of solar doesn’t lead to unnecessary increases to the cost of our network services for all of our customers, not just our solar customers,” AusNet said.
For companies like Gippsland Solar, which has built up its regional business to nearly 60 full-time staff plus “subbies,” the obstacles in the path to grid 2.0 are well understood. But cooperation and communication will be crucial to survival – and to keeping customers on-side.
“I just think everyone needs to work together, to be honest,” McCarthy tells One Step.
“We have a lot of common goals. We’ve got to get away from the guns at 10 paces approach; the us and them mentality.
“For us, we’ve got so many chips on the table now … so the stakes are very high. We’re talking about direct impact on employment and cash flow.
“Solar companies have enough to deal with, with fluctuating STC prices, changes to rules around scaffolding… the last thing we need is more bottlenecks.”