Eleven years ago, Richard Turner was trying to nut out how to fit his kids’ cubby house with a solar panel and battery, to run a light and a television at night, when the sun wasn’t shining. Long story short, it was no easy DIY task.
“Back then, there was no industry at all,” says Turner. The only suitable solar hardware he could find was from a local hobby shop. And then he needed to find a battery to match, and wiring, and make it all safe…
“I worked it out, because I did physics and maths at school, and I enjoyed it. But I also did commerce and marketing, and I saw an enormous opportunity here to provide people with a fully branded and integrated (solar and storage) system. …There were no barriers to how big you could go.”
Back in 2004, Turner took up that opportunity and the result was ZEN Technologies, now a highly successful Australian solar and storage company based in Adelaide.
But since then another opportunity has presented itself to Turner, and that is to provide Australian consumers with an option to use 100 per cent renewable energy to power their homes, businesses or entire communities, at a cost cheaper than electricity from the grid.
The result, ZEN Energy – the nation’s first dedicated community renewable energy provider – was launched on Tuesday at the Tonsley Park innovation hub in Adelaide.
One Step Off the Grid spoke to Turner on Tuesday afternoon, after ZEN Energy’s official launch, and he said that already the inquiries were coming thick and fast.
“People, emotionally, just want this technology,” Turner said. Regardless of being on the grid, or off the grid, they are ready for it.”
To cater to this need, ZEN Energy will be based on a unique model of sustainable power generation, storage, delivery and retailing, with a primary focus of working with communities to “take ownership” of their energy demand and supply, using a range of renewable energy generation technologies and lithium-ion battery storage.
Its a model that has attracted some big names, too, including leading Australian economist Ross Garnaut, who wrote the Climate Change Review for the Rudd Government in 2008 and is the Adelaide company’s new chairman.
As Garnaut told ABC TV’s 7.30 this week, he, like many others, has observed the huge and rapid reduction of renewable energy costs in Australia to the point where they are among the cheapest in the world, providing one of the biggest game changers in the energy landscape in over 100 years.
“And I’ve been disappointed that the established energy companies have not taken on the opportunity that’s there,” he said.
“All Australians, no matter where they live, should have the opportunity to harness affordable and clean renewable energy,” Professor Garnaut said at the company’s launch on Tuesday.
“Households, businesses and entire communities can now become genuinely self-powered completely or substantially depending on their circumstances and preference. Australia’s energy transformation has begun.”
According to Turner, one of Garnaut’s major roles as chair of the company will be to work with Australia’s energy market regulators and policy makers to find a way that new comers like ZEN can fit into the energy picture in a way that will benefit – rather than disrupt – the market as a whole.
“That’s the hard part, Turner told One Step, “because there’s been huge over investment (in the grid). That is a huge cost per head of population that won’t be worn very well by the public.”
If networks can’t find a way to spread out this cost fairly, and without unduly penalising consumers, it will force disconnections, he says.
“And utilities don’t want that. Governments don’t want that… It’s about working out what are people prepared to pay to stay on the grid, compared to what they will pay to leave it.”
As we reported yesterday on RenewEconomy, the South Australian Power Networks have just proposed new tariff structures in an attempt to address that very problem.
“This is their first attempt to rejig things to recover those (network) costs,” Turner told One Step. “The technology people need (to counter these tariff changes) is energy storage. “Then they can control the size of the connection coming into their house.
The fact is, he adds, and the networks know this, “people can now make themselves as grid independent as they want to be.”
To this end, ZEN has a decent market advantage. Firstly, the company has taken years to find the right technology and control systems for its branded lithium-ion battery systems.
Further, ZEN has a share in US energy storage company Greensmith – and Greensmith, in turn, has a share in ZEN Energy – which currently claims a massive one-third of the US energy storage market, including credits for installing the world’s largest energy storage system, at 20MWh; the same platform and size, says Turner, that ZEN hopes to roll out in regional Australia.
Greensmith, says Turner, was founded by a US team from the cloud computing space, who have gone on to use the same sort of software platforms to design their storage systems’ so that they can communicate with the solar systems and maximise energy self-consumption and smart system functioning.
“We coined a term few months ago: ‘storage ready solar’. And that means solar that’s ready to communicate with your battery and energy management system. That’s what we’ve been installing for our customers.
“We have the technology available right here and now. We’re 12 months or two years ahead of Tesla, with technology as advanced as Tesla’s, and price competitive with the grid. And its Australian manufactured.”
But while one of ZEN Energy’s stated primary goals is to work with communities to “take ownership” of their energy demand and supply, Turner doesn’t necessarily see a mass exodus from the grid in the near future.
“There will be a thinning out of the grid, that has to happen – that will happen,” Turner continues.
“But it should still make sense to have a gateway to the main grid as a back-up network. One main gateway, the rest is though a microgrid.”
“So there’s a whole new opportunity for a new type of company to evolve to go and set up (renewable energy plus storage) microgrids in regional Australia.
Another big challenge for the Australian market, however, will be educating consumers about battery storage.
“We’ve got a bit of a challenge in educating people about energy storage. …You need to be pricing energy storage systems not only by the kWh, but also by its capabilities.
“It’s very important to understand the amount of power that a battery can put out. What we’re finding is majority of imported systems can only put out 2kW of power, and that only just covers the air-con.
“People need to be very very aware, not only how many kWh their storage system is, but how much power the battery system can put out.”
Turner says consumers should also be wary of “all these people bobbing up saying they’re energy storage experts.
“It takes years to understand lithium-ion batteries. It’s a very very slow process. … People need to be mindful that, with solar and storage, you’re putting a full power plant in your home.”
As for the energy generation technology ZEN will be using for its microgrids, it won’t just be solar and wind.
“It could be a centralised plant, or a fully distributed system. It all depends what delivers the best economic outcome for the particular customer,” Turner said.
“A lot of regional areas exist because of a certain industry, so quite often the energy source will be a bi-product of that industry, so biomass, cogen, hydro. And sometimes they’ll be baseload resources that can run those communities.”
And while ZEN is getting “an inquiry a minute” from consumers across the energy spectrum, Turner says some of their biggest customers – and biggest upcoming projects – are new housing developments.
“The fact is, in Australia, solar and storage in your home is competitive with the grid or more competitive,” Turner said. “Australia should have the lowest-cost power in the world. if we can deliver that, then why wouldn’t we.”