Serious upgrades are required to electrify everything

This is an edited extract from a presentation delivered today (27 October, 2022) at All Energy Australia by Wattwatchers Program Manager, Tim McCoy, a tech specialist who runs major grant projects day-to-day. These include Heyfield MyTown Microgrid, funded by the Australian federal and Victorian state governments, and My Energy Marketplace (MEM), funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA)*. Tim’s topic in the Digitisation stream was: ‘Planning an energy project for behind the utility meter monitoring and control.’

TIM MCCOY, PROGRAM MANAGER, WATTWATCHERS DIGITAL ENERGY

Unfortunately, the image above is the starting point of the journey for many people looking to install solar or to start their journey into renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Yes, that’s an asbestos front cover that the customer is holding up to take the photo.

No, it’s probably not up to code or even particularly safe. Not even close.

But the previous owner got an air conditioner installed a couple of years ago and that got squeezed in with a new breaker just fine!

The cost to upgrade all of this to something suitable for behind-the-meter monitoring and solar was over $2,000, and there are millions of these around Australia.

You might notice that the meters in the image above are branded ‘Sydney Electricity’, and as a Victorian myself, living in the only state to have rolled out digital meters (aka ‘smart meters’) for electricity billing to everyone, I thought it was worth doing the comparison to our northern friends (see image below).

So while this is a slightly dusty example of a Victorian smart meter, in a somewhat more modern meter box, it really doesn’t fare much better than the last.

The ceramic fuses all needed to be removed and upgraded. The flammable chipboard meter panel is rapidly becoming more and more brittle and breaks apart when touched.

So how do we go from this to smart switchboards to support behind-the-meter monitoring and control projects?

Deploying devices is our business

I’ve been looking after Wattwatchers’ two major grant projects for the last two years. 

One is our ARENA funded My Energy Marketplace* – or MEM project, which is to install 5,000 Wattwatchers devices at homes and small businesses as well as 250 schools.

The other project is Heyfield MyTown Microgrid, which has installed our devices at 75 homes, 12 small businesses, and 2 schools.

We also support many other customers to deploy our devices around Australia, of which over 50,000 have been installed. So we know a thing or two about installing behind-the-meter devices.

The ideal project?

A simple project plan … if only everything always ran like clockwork.

Here is the ideal project: a three-year duration with six-monthly milestones for mobilisation, installations, then a year of data collection and a year for data analysis and reporting.

Of course, the ‘ideal’ and where you end up can be very different things.

Let’s rewind a little, and start with our customers or participants in a research project. Our recent projects have reminded us of a lot of the important elements:

  • Engagement takes time. You need to make time for your customers or project participants to explain what you are doing and why you are doing it.
  • Terms and conditions need to be easy to understand and easy to accept.
  • Consent forms and any initial surveys and other data captured need to be integrated into a single process to make this seamless for customers.
  • Having FAQs is essential to addressing the obvious questions early – but be prepared to update it regularly and learn things along the way.
  • What about what happens after your project finishes? Who owns the equipment and how much will it cost to remove or maintain?

Ethics approvals take time

A lot of projects also have universities or other educational institutions involved to provide research and insights on the data collected.

This comes with a research ethics approval process that in our experience can take 6-12 months to complete, before you even have the documents to begin installations.

It’s important to factor this into your project and was one of our own lessons learnt on our Heyfield MyTown Microgrid project.

All of this overlaps with the important early mobilisation and community engagement stages of a project, and it’s easy for potential participants to become disengaged if there is a long delay between project launch event and actual on-the-ground installation activity.

Back to our electrician installers

That’s Brenton Stuart (above), by the way, from our project in Heyfield.

His electrical business is based locally in Heyfield, and he and his team genuinely care about doing a good job. Having a local team that you might just happen to bump into at the pub on the weekend has its advantages to installation quality and customer feedback as well!

Training is important for the installers, and we’ve found that the just-in-time method to train installers the day before or even better on the same day as their first installation keeps everything fresh in their mind.

We don’t need to do much – a 45-minute session usually covers everything, and then we provide enhanced ‘hyper-care’ to be on call during their first few installations to make sure they have understood everything and get through the commissioning process successfully.

From then on, it’s more about answering questions on unusual installations like two- and three-phase sites, with different combinations of solar and battery equipment, installed in unusual locations (like the garden shed).

Having a group of friendly customers as pilot sites is always a great idea which is a chance for the entire team – from customer and community engagement to the installers and the customers themselves – to get more familiar with the whole installation process.

We’ve found that 4-6 Wattwatchers devices can be installed each day, but of course that varies by location and complexity of each switchboard. Ten is the current record by one installer who had an absolutely perfect run that day (and never again).

Tangled logistics and spreading the risks

Getting logistics right at the moment is extremely difficult for a lot of different industries. Questions we had to ask ourselves in a number of recent flood events are: ‘Where is the stock?’, and ‘Is it under water?’. 

Plus these major weather events are on top of the state of the global supply chain at the moment. 

In my 15-year career in electronics product design and development I’ve never seen it this bad. Some parts have 52-week lead times or more! Although it has been improving a little over the last few months, even if that does mean a few alternatives and substitutes.

Small orders of equipment might be just 2-4 weeks for delivery, but large orders can potentially have 6-12 month or more lead times. which must be factored into project plans.

Our advice here is simple – order everything, order it early, and keep it in locations that are as secure from fire, flood, and other natural and unnatural disasters as possible. 

I did say locations – plural – make sure you distribute the stock to a number of locations to provide some additional redundancy to deal with these major events when they almost inevitably happen.

Keep it real

A more realistic planner for a three-year project?

In the real world, projects are hard, lockdowns did happen, and weather events continue to delay and impact everything. 

This puts a lot of pressure on the final year for data analysis insights and is something we are working through on our Heyfield and MEM projects right now.

Projects need to be iterative and flexible to deal with the changes of working in the real world. And all of this while maintaining the critical community engagement throughout the project to maintain your social licence and participant goodwill. 

Without the community, these projects will absolutely fail and we’ve been grateful to the wonderful community support in Heyfield and the groups we have engaged with as part of the MEM project.

TALK TO TIM: If you are planning a project, including grant applications, you can email Tim McCoy on tim@wattwatchers.com.au to organise a virtual chat to support your efforts.

*ARENA ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

The My Energy Marketplace project is receiving funding from ARENA as part of ARENA’s Advancing Renewables Program. The views expressed herein are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government, and the Australian Government does not accept responsibility for any information or advice contained herein.