Energy data: perfect blocking the good?

Feature image for Wattwatchers blog post on data

With high penetration of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, our electricity networks need ‘distributed visibility’ too. This could have been achieved years ago with relatively inexpensive real-time monitoring through the cloud. Instead,  the industry is mired in the complexity of concepts like virtual power plants (VPPs) and peer-to-peer trading, with a paralysing host of challenges around consumer engagement and participation, cybersecurity, proprietary technologies, and integration and interoperability.

On my cynical days I think parts of the electricity sector establishment want to make the transition to a cleaner, more reliable and affordable energy future much harder than it needs to be.

Why would they want to do that? 

It’s pretty simple, really. Whatever our more customer-centric Grid 2.0 future ends up looking like, the new energy future is unlikely to be the licence to print money that the old, supply-driven energy industry has enjoyed with Grid 1.0.

Transformation breaks down barriers to entry for new competitors, putting incumbents under new pressures. Just look at how telcos, oil-and-gas companies, technology multinationals and even startups are pushing to eat the lunch of Australia’s traditional energy retailers.  

So a great way to slow down the transition and delay the inevitable, while appearing to be embracing change and acting as good corporate citizens, is to make the solutions as complex, difficult, expensive and far-off as possible.

Or, and this alternative is happening too, you back a solution that is fundamentally flawed and unfit for purpose. Australia has done this, with energy sector digitalisation being defined mainly by a smart grid vision based on ‘smart meters’, using an already-obsolete technology that currently doesn’t even ‘see’ rooftop solar generation.

If all this sounds like conspiracy theories, I’m prepared to concede it could all be explained by confusion or incompetence.

Yet it’s not unlike Australia’s approach to carbon emission reduction. We could have led two decades ago with a straightforward national focus on energy and fuel efficiency, like California did from the 1970s onwards. Instead, we created an unresolved political nightmare around the complexities of emissions trading and carbon pricing.

On the energy data front, rule-makers and regulators keep overlooking one of the simplest ways to better manage low-voltage grids, from which most people draw their electricity.

This has made Australia’s world-record uptake of small-scale rooftop solar systems more traumatic than it ever needed to be.

We have the technologies

Technologies that add smart monitoring to solar installations have been readily available for nearly a decade, but still the vast majority of Australia’s three million-plus homes and businesses with rooftop solar lack real-time reporting and are invisible to network and grid operators. 

Now, if we aren’t careful, we’re headed for an even bigger debacle with electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure.

So what is it the ‘energy experts’ have been missing? Or, dare I say, been ignoring?

The answer is real-time monitoring, over-the-air reporting and lots of data as fundamentals of a low-cost ‘grid visualisation’ strategy, especially to focus on voltage management and its interrelationship with grid stability and power quality for users.

Instead of this, vast resources and energy transition headspace are being poured into highly-complex and expensive concepts like virtual power plants (VPPs) and peer-to-peer trading.

These are very exciting for mainly overseas-based technology companies that want to sell their expensive battery systems and inverters, but less so for mum, dad and the kids who want cool air, hot water, lights on, and affordable, reliable and preferably non-polluting power supplies.

This means there’s endless angst about technological adaptation challenges such as integration and interoperability, not to mention ‘data walled gardens’, mounting cybersecurity concerns and consumer data rights dilemmas.

A key part of the problem is a prevalent desire to control and coordinate things, which is inherently risky in cybersecurity terms, and ultra-challenging to explain for consumers, when so much could be achieved with lots of data-driven intelligence – for both real-time visibility and historical trends.

A number of ‘old sayings’ come to mind. Like ‘you have to learn to crawl before you can walk’ (let alone run), and ‘don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good’.

Why has this happened?

There are many reasons. 

Perhaps the biggest is that smart grids were meant to be the result of deploying smart meters. But the smart meters turned out not to be very smart, consumers hated them, and government-level resolve to make them mandatory buckled.

Then, when rooftop solar took off in Australia, no-one with real power over power worried too much about monitoring all of this new highly-distributed clean generation.

Even where smart meters have been deployed, across-the-board in Victoria and more selectively in other states and territories, they only ‘see’ solar as anything exported to the grid. So the grid and network operators remain blind to all of the solar generation being used on-site.

As solar proliferated, much of it without any live monitoring at all,  attention then turned to the ‘next big thing’, behind-the-meter battery storage.

Instead of hundreds of dollars for a simple monitoring device, or thousands for a solar system, the stakes went up with battery systems typically costing $10,000 or more for a home. 

Now we’re rapidly moving on to electric vehicles, which typically cost $50,000 to $100,000 for standard models, and even more for luxury vehicles.

So what can be done?

Here are some interventions that would make a big difference fast:

  • Require real-time monitoring with readily shareable data for rooftop solar installations of 3kW or greater, and also for new air conditioning installations and EV charging
  • Set an easy-to-use standard for data delivered via APIs (application programming interfaces)
  • Offer government rebates in the order of $200 per site to compensate for the long-term value of data being provided for public and energy system benefit from privately-owned solutions
  • Require smart monitoring with data sharing for all freestanding newbuild homes, making them ‘energy smart’ from the day their owners or tenants move in
  • Subsidise monitoring for social and community housing.

One other thing. This kind of monitoring doesn’t need to be installed in every dwelling. Small units, apartments and townhouses can mainly be excused, although common property areas in the nation’s 370,000-plus strata sites should be covered. 

Primarily, larger solo dwellings with lots happening in terms of energy consumption and solar generation should be monitored, for their own purposes as well as the system’s needs, and a good geographic spread is vital. 

Gavin Dietz is CEO of Sydney-based Wattwatchers Digital Energy.