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Taming the solar surge Part 2: It’s time to double down on empowering consumers in the electricity system with data, choice and flexibility

by James Clements
posted on Friday, September 18th, 2020
Australia’s globally-remarkable proliferation of small-scale rooftop solar PV has reached a tipping point. In the second and final part of this Wattwatchers blog series, sparked by urgent changes to solar regulations in South Australia, we question whether decentralisation and digitalisation can still deliver real energy democratisation, and ‘prosumerism’? Or are we seeing a return to more traditional command-and-control management models for power grids?

ALSO SEE SOLAR EXPORT CONTROL SOLUTIONS PAGE

 

In the old energy technology paradigm, you mainly had one hardware to do one job. To bill a customer, a utility installed a meter designed to a ‘pattern’ approved under the National Measurement Act of 1960 (that’s right, pre-dating decimal currency). 

Over half of Australia’s homes still have these analogue dinosaurs: with the big exceptions being Victorian households, where they had a controversial state-wide mandatory smart meter rollout; and rooftop-solar powered homes, where digital meters have been installed to allow exports to the grid to be measured, as well as imports from the grid.

The old analogue meters don’t ‘see’ solar at all, and even the new digital smart meters only measure it as export to the grid, not as generation and the most important thing for householders, on-site self-consumption. The so-called ‘smart meters’ do now have two jobs, providing data for reconciliation with the electricity market as well as for billing consumers, but that’s still only two jobs in a world that craves multi-functionality solutions. 

To ‘see’ solar generation remotely you also need another piece of hardware, a smart inverter; and to compute generation, on-site consumption and export of solar all at the same time you generally need another grid connection monitor as well (or you could add a Wattwatchers-made device, of course, as 20,000-plus PV-powered Australian homes have done already, and see whole-of-home consumption and solar generation in real-time simultaneously).

Now, as the electricity system becomes even more digital and decentralised, we need to expand the work of smarter energy solutions: to provide grid and network operators with visibility and control of distributed energy resources (DER); to enable aggregated fleets of sites for demand response and virtual power plants (VPPs); and also to provide consumers with new services and apps to empower them in the Grid 2.0 future. That means the electricity system and marketplace require unprecedented integration and interoperability across multiple technologies, and data is the connective tissue to achieve this, flexibly and cost-effectively!

Here’s my quick checklist for the kind of solution characteristics we need to see:

Value-stacking – adding value at multiple levels and for multiple participants e.g. the home asset owners, the solution providers, the aggregators, and the electricity system

Empowering end-users – the owners of the home solar and other assets need to be rewarded specifically for helping the electricity system

Operating cost-effectively – there are many solutions if cost is no object, but genuinely viable solutions won’t push up power prices 

Providing flexibility and portability – if there is going to be real marketplace based on DER assets in homes and businesses, people can’t be locked-in by technologies and business models

 

Meanwhile, the South Australian scenario …

Following clear warnings from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), a number of new technical standards and requirements are being introduced urgently in South Australia, aimed at better managing the still-accelerating penetration of DER into the electricity grid. Other jurisdictions are likely to follow.

The sub-text for electricity consumers who are investing in solar generation on their own rooftops is this: you’ll have to surrender some of your newfound energy freedom – in this case the ability to export your electrons to the grid whenever you want – as the lesser of two evils (there are early assurances that this will only happen on ‘rare occasions’). The alternative, we’re told, is that new solar connections would have to be severely size-limited or banned altogether – lest grid stability be compromised, with blackouts the inevitable consequence.

Whichever way you look at it, these urgent changes in the regulatory landscape aren’t going to treat all consumers equitably. The one-fifth or more of households that already have solar PV will retain their current export freedom, at least until they need to update their inverter at some stage in the future, at which point they’ll have to comply. Those investing in solar now, meanwhile, will be captured immediately by the new rules, meaning (hopefully only on rare occasions) they’ll be blocked from exporting their home-generated electrons, and may have their inverter turned off altogether. 

So what are these new requirements? And where does a data-driven solutions suite like Wattwatchers fit in? 

Under the somewhat Orwellian title of ‘Regulatory Changes for Smarter Homes’, the South Australian Government’s AEMO-inspired push is targeting five key areas, being:

  1. Voltage ‘ride through’ standards – the ability of solar system inverters to continue operating during periods of fluctuating voltage levels, especially during grid disturbance events. If many thousands of home inverters all go off at the same time, the cumulative impact can threaten grid stability. This is mainly an issue for the manufacturers of solar inverter systems, and sometimes their installers, although sophisticated energy monitoring technologies can help to validate that inverters are actually performing to requirements, and to ring alarm bells in the right places when they are not. Wattwatchers devices report voltage in real-time, and are capable of measuring down to sub-second samples (250 milliseconds). They can be used to monitor voltage 24/7/365.

  2. Remote disconnection and reconnection requirements – which means market or network operators being able to leverage technologies to remotely prevent consumers’ solar systems from exporting to the grid when stability is threatened, and then ensure they are reconnected when a threat has passed. This could be done with higher-end ‘smart meters’ (what the energy industry calls AMI, standing for Advanced Metering Infrastructure); or by cloud-connected inverters; or by a range of ‘smart devices’, such as Wattwatchers, with remote switching capabilities enhanced by real-time data capture and reporting via the internet.

  3. Export limit requirements – this is a more refined approach than the relatively-speaking blunt instrument of remote disconnection and reconnection, and effectively means dynamic fine-tuning of solar inverter operation to selectively restrict export to the grid at critical times, while allowing solar generation to still be supplied to the home itself. It will usually be achieved by cloud-connected intelligence in the inverter system itself, or via another ‘smart device’ – such as a Wattwatchers – acting as a DRED (industry jargon for a ‘demand response enabling device’).

  4. Smart meter minimum technical standards – it’s fair enough to want genuinely smarter ‘smart meters’, given the millions of quite dumb ones that have been installed in Australia during the past decade. But smart meters are essentially a utility technology, designed to more efficiently manage consumers rather than empower them. For consumers who want more control of their own electricity consumption, and generation, then independent ‘smart devices’ provide an alternative source of data and functionality. Typical ‘smart meters’ currently installed across Australia only ‘see’ solar as whatever is exported to the grid, whereas the highest value for consumers is the solar they self-consume in their own homes and businesses, minimising import and export from the grid.

  5. Tariffs to incentivise energy use in low demand periods – before the DER era, a typical example of a tariff incentive was off-peak heating for electric hot water systems at concessional rates in the middle of the night. But with solar PV now generating large volumes of surplus electricity in the middle of the day, loads like hot water, and in the not-too-distant future electric vehicles, will need to be encouraged when the solar generation is most abundant. ‘Smart devices’ and ‘apps’ can ensure that consumers will have flexibility in using such incentives, including informed discretion to choose when they want to use them, and when they don’t. Data from Wattwatchers devices, for example, helps consumers to analyse and compare tariff options, or to get expert help to figure out what’s best for them. It also provides real-time visibility of whether or not consumers are responding to incentives.

This post provides only a high-level summary of how Wattwatchers is responding to the rapid evolutions in the electricity system, even if these remain more incremental than transformative. It shows the flexibility and versatility that we bring to the solutions table, providing data-driven connective tissue through monitoring and remotely controlling electrical circuits in real-time through the cloud. 

 

FOOTNOTE: You can find the first instalment in this two-part blog series here. If you want more information about Wattwatchers solutions, email us at sales@wattwatchers.com.au. Also see our Solar Export Control Solutions webpage to book an exploratory meeting with James Clements.

 

MORE ABOUT US: Wattwatchers Digital Energy is a technology company focused on intelligent, open and non-proprietary, consumer-friendly solutions for an electricity-powered 21st century. Our solutions suite spans devices, datasets, analytics, software and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, for energy and non-energy applications across home, community, commercial and industrial, and utility use cases. Our horizontal Energy Data Hub model promotes technology collaborations, with dozens of third-party partner integrations with our RESTful API – in Australia, and internationally. Product brands include Wattwatchers (hardware and data to the cloud), mydata.energy (native app) and ADEPT (agile IoT platform for managing multi-technology fleets in real-time). Multi-year projects include My Energy Marketplace, backed by $2.7 million in grant funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA); and MyTown Microgrid, supported by a $1.75 million grant from the Australian Government. Wattwatchers work with other leading technology vendors to develop voluntarily the DER Visibility and Monitoring Best Practice Guide; and is a member of the AEMO DER API Technology Working Group.

More information at: www.wattwatchers.com.au

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