The Northern Territory is gearing up to deliver its first ever solar and battery virtual power plant, after signing up energy software outfit SwitchDin to help deliver the ground-breaking trial.
The Alice Springs Future Grid project, dubbed Solar Connect, will link up and manage the rooftop solar and battery storage resources of 50 households on the Alice grid, testing out how the collective resource can be used to the benefit of all parties – not least the greater grid.
Where SwitchDin comes in is to apply its Stormcloud smart digital platform to orchestrate these interconnected behind-the-meter resources, which initially will mostly comprise solar and batteries – controlled by inverters – but will also include electric vehicles and energy loads, like air-con, hot water and pool pumps.
And while 50 households might not sound like much compared to a number of the VPPs already well underway in some of Australia’s eastern states, particularly South Australia, in the scheme of the NT’s electricity market, it’s quite a big deal.
“It’s not huge,” says SwitchDin COO Marc Sheldon, who explains that the initial Solar Connect VPP will comprise a total of around 300-400kW of PV and on the battery side in the order of around 400-500kWh of storage capacity.
“But in the context of the Alice grid, which has daily maximum peak electricity demand of between 16MW and 60MW, at this point having 300-400kW of controlled load is quite significant,” he tells One Step Off The Grid.
The NT, which is not part of Australia’s National Electricity Market, has three regulated networks, including the southern electrical grid, which services the Alice Springs area which is home to about 28,000 people.
Alice Springs also boasts a super high penetration of distributed solar on its grid, with panels installed on more than 25% of houses to currently total around 22MW of residential solar capacity.
This means that under certain circumstances, such as on sunny days with low loads, as much as 50% of all power in Alice Springs, and 75% of household demand, can be supplied by solar PV systems.
It also means that the ability to harness this resource will be fundamental to Alice Springs’ journey to 50% renewables by 2030 – a target the NT government committed to in 2017, for the entire Territory’s electricity supply.
To this end, one of the key areas of focus of the Solar Connect project is customer engagement. Out of the blocks, the community response to the VPP has been strong, with 120 households signing up through an Expression of Interest process.
Of this number, 40 households were identified to be “ready to go,” with solar and battery storage – and a suitable inverter – already in place. Another 10 required some upgrades.
The team behind the Solar Connect project is keen to see how these households go being a part of a VPP, which at points will require the handing over control of least some of their assets for use in grid services.
“The Northern Territory electricity system is built on a long and successful history of engagement with consumers,” says Lyndon Frearson, Future Grid project director from Alice Springs engineering firm Ekistica.
“We have a very engaged community who want to see how the future unfolds.
“But there’s also an element of what does this mean for me, as a householder? And what can my actions here do to benefit the grid.”
For its part in customer engagement, SwitchDin is seeking to make the experience for the participating households as seamless and transparent as possible, while also working with what customers have already got, rather than mandating the use of certain types of technology.
“It should all look and feel the same in terms of access and control for all stakeholders. The core focus here is that we want to make it as accessible as possible,” Sheldon says.
And that will be important he adds, because the VPP pilot, which they hope to have up and running by July or August this year, will be trying out a fair number of things.
Frearson says the Future Grid team is keen to see how customers respond to what is essentially a more sophisticated version of a time-of-use tariff; how they feel about opening up access to data; and what sort of levels of grid-reserved battery capacity they might be comfortable with – compared to what levels are required to be of any use.
On the grid side, they will be looking at achieving a new level of software and hardware integration between the power system operator, the network owner, the householder and the retailer, and finding a way to implement that smoothly in the future.
“We’ve been doing this for a while in a number of places,” Frearson tells One Step. “But the NT grid has some very unique requirements and challenges to deal with.
“Alice sits on the cusp of being a relatively small network and a relatively large microgrid. It’s rather robust but also rather fragile.
“We’re trying to feel out what could make or break the system, so this needs to be managed very, very carefully. And through Solar Connect we can test these things in a contained environment.”
Frearson says the Future Grid project has been inspired in no small way by what Horizon Power has achieved down in Western Australia – but he says the key difference there is that it’s all government owned.
“Through a quirk of history, Alice springs has ended up with a system which is on the edge of being a microgrid or a nertwork,” he says.
“It has separate network and system control, competitive generation and retail companies… In that sense, we bring the next level of complexity into the picture – how do you do all that within the constraints of all these different parties being involved?
“Creating the solar connect VPP has involved engineering and economic challenges, legal and regulatory arrangements and community engagement, requiring an enormous collaborative effort between project partners,” he said.
Project delivery is coordinated by the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, on behalf of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA). The main project partners involved include Jacana Energy, Power and Water Corporation and the Arid Lands Environment Centre. CSIRO is on board as a knowledge sharing partner.