Australia’s distributed solar faces blunt options without the right data

The growth of renewable energy in Australia has often been celebrated and demonised at the same time.

We’ve seen calls to curb the export of solar produced by residential rooftop systems, as well as network operators touting these systems as an opportunity, and working proactively to find solutions to better integrate distributed energy resources (DERs) into the grid’s operation.

According to APVI, 21 per cent of premises in Australia have rooftop solar installed, and we can expect 220,000 new systems to be added each year. The cost of doing nothing or not optimising the integration of DER is estimated to be over $100 billion according to CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia.

While improving visibility over DER is a logical approach towards better managing systems as they come online, we need to acknowledge the role that other technologies will play in stabilising the grid as the demand for energy independence continues to grow.

These other technologies range from home batteries, to community batteries, and virtual power plants (VPPs) to dynamic solar export control and demand response; all of these tools are already being deployed across Australia, although not yet in a coordinated or comprehensive way.

From a regulatory perspective, initiatives such as the DER Register managed by the Australian Energy Market Operator will allow regulators to forecast, plan and more effectively manage new DER that are connected to the grid.

But what Australia hasn’t sufficiently addressed is the role consumers want to play in the evolving energy market. A consultation paper from the Energy Security Board on how we can move to a two-sided market by 2025 will hopefully address these aspirations.

With so many Australians investing in rooftop solar and home batteries, the lack of a co-ordinated approach means homeowners are not maximising their DER investment. This is detrimental to both homeowners, themselves, as well as to the electricity system as a whole.

Network operators have, in many cases, resorted to blunt tools to manage the complications associated with growth of DER – these include blanket solar PV system size limits and zero export rules for customers on certain sections of the grid. From a network’s perspective, this is the only surefire way to ensure grid stability in those areas.

But this viewpoint is only valid insofar as the equipment being installed is both invisible and unmanageable for the network operator. This type of ‘dumb’ kit is, sadly, still the norm.

Even in cases where an inverter or battery does have the ‘smarts’ necessary – the operational visibility through real-time data and secure control – to date, there hasn’t been a framework in place to take advantage of solar and/or storage that is ready to play a more sophisticated part in the grid’s operation.

Manufacturers and the solar industry continue to collaborate to build processes and technologies to support our transition towards a higher penetration in DER, but they are often let down by market regulators and network operators who are still catching up. More needs to be done.

We need regulators and network operators to change the rules in the energy market to offer more flexible, customer-friendly options so we can achieve a win-win scenario for households who want energy independence and a grid that supports their ambitions.

At SwitchDin, we see benefits in collaborating as an industry to help increase the uptake of smarter, more responsive DER.

For example, we’ve worked closely with manufacturers to promote the uptake of home batteries by supporting them to meet VPP-ready requirements in the South Australian, Victoria and New South Wales home battery schemes.

We’ve also worked with battery manufacturers who have used our hardware to connect their systems to Simply Energy’s VPP in South Australia. In Western Australia, we are working with utility Horizon Power to incorporate more DER into regional microgrids in Onslow and Broome by providing visibility and secure control of these customer-owned resources.

These are concrete steps towards the smarter, multi-directional electricity system that will become business-as-usual in the near future.

The DER Visibility & Monitoring Best Practice Guide is another example of how we are working together with industry to increase the uptake of DER.

A group of local and global technology vendors – SwitchDin, Solar Analytics, GreenSync, Enphase Energy, Redback Technologies, Edge Electrons, Fronius, sonnen, Tesla, Wattwatchers and SMA – have worked together on this guide, which we see as another major initiative that looks to solve the challenge of allowing more solar on the grid without destabilising it.

The Guide aims to improve real-time visibility to support the planning and management of DER while building on the goals of the DER Register. It specifies a common static and dynamic real-time data set collected for new behind-the-meter DER installed on low voltage electricity networks.

Through this initiative, we believe we will increase confidence in the quality and performance of DER to owners, industry and government alike through the provision of real-time system performance data to customers and energy industry entities.

Data collected can be used by regulators and network operators to support their decision-making for different use cases such as network state estimation and performance, fault identification, DER hosting capacity, constraint management and reporting to how DER can be orchestrated on a network.

Courageous decisions need to be made to equip the grid with what it needs to achieve its potential to support the growth in DER. Instead of waiting for standards and industry regulation to catch-up, we can transform Australia’s grid right now using the right data, hardware and software platforms.

Andrew Mears is the CEO and founder of SwitchDin

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