Going virtual – not off grid – the solution to 21st Century power

*Sunverge Energy’s Phil Keogan will be speaking at RenewEconomy’s Innovation and Start-ups in the Energy Sector conference, in Sydney on May 8-9
There’s a lot of talk these days about how we solve the need for cheaper, reliable energy in Australia. Soaring electricity prices and a lack of unity between state and federal governments has left many Australians disillusioned. An increasing number of people are now wanting to take their energy into their own hands and go ‘off grid’.
A survey released by The Australia Institute last year found that 80 per cent of those with PV solar panels would like to go off grid by using battery power. Consumers want to take back control, but is going off grid really the solution?

Living off the grid using a solar battery system certainly appears to have its upsides. You can generate energy free from the sun during the day, and use it at night. There are no expensive, unpredictable energy bills. And there’s no carbon footprint guilt factor.
However, purchasing PV solar panels, an inverter and solar battery outright is a considerable outlay for the average person. What’s more, a number of people have found that their rooftop solar systems do not meet their power needs. This is likely because of the difficulty in adequately determining the correct supply for a household, both to match their current needs and in the future.
Going off-grid forces you to think seriously about managing your power demand and supply, especially short periods of peak demand or periods of intermittent supply.
There is a very fine balance between the size of the battery, PV system, inverter and household use. Household usage of power also changes over time as families – and their number of always-on devices grow. Calculating existing power needs is difficult, but when it comes to five, ten years down the track – not even the most well-meaning installer has a crystal ball to figure that out.
One other issue to consider with going off grid is what happens when there is little sunlight, or worst still, your system fails. No one is there to rush out and restore your power. Sustainable house blog writer Michael Mobbs, who went off grid two years ago in Sydney, recently wrote about his own power issues resulting from heavy cloud cover in recent weeks. Mobbs had to turn off his fridge during the day to ensure his house had enough power at night.
Like an off grid set up, virtual power is when a household installs PV solar panels, an inverter and a solar battery. They gain the same independence and control over their power. The difference is that they remain connected to the grid.
It is a relatively new concept in Australia, but it has shown to have considerable benefits in other parts of the world.
In Sacramento, California, a net-zero energy community built in 2013 turned residential energy storage into a virtual power plant. PV solar panels and energy storage units were placed on 34 new homes and connected to the local grid provider. Customers saved on their bills while still being able to rely on available back up power. Meanwhile, the utility was able to offset loads during peak periods and demand response events.
By remaining connected to the grid, consumers can opt for a more affordable bundled solar storage system paid over time versus having a major upfront cost. This includes all components, installation, warranties and unlike off-grid systems – ongoing maintenance. Already a number of Australian energy companies are offering such plans, giving people the ability to enjoy the benefits of solar storage who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.
With a virtual grid system, power is always available – either from the grid itself, or from the household battery. Another benefit is reliability. The software built into solar energy storage systems is able to pre-empt dangerous weather events and set a program that optimizes the system during the storm. These storage systems constantly monitor voltage levels and other information about the grid, millisecond by millisecond, to determine when to switch to battery power in the event of an outage. This switch is often so fast that users aren’t even aware there has been an outage.
The most exciting notion is what could be achieved if every Australian household with solar panels went virtual – in other words, installed a battery and remained connected to the grid. The aggregation of their energy storage systems via the cloud would create by far the largest power plant in Australia – freeing us of the need for billions of dollars’ worth of new investment.
With a virtual solar grid, the investment in supply is already there. Achieving cost-efficient, reliable power doesn’t have to be a huge cost and problem for the individual, the state – or in fact, the nation. We just have to tap into this virtual network with the technology we already have. It sounds simple, and it is.
Phil Keogan is general Manager of Sunverge Energy Australasia. He will be speaking at RenewEconomy’s Innovation and Start-ups in the Energy Sector conference, in Sydney on May 8-9

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