Taming the solar surge with data and technology: why smart meters and inverters aren’t the only solutions

Urged on by a summer-is-coming anxious AEMO, the South Australian Government is pushing hard to extend control over grid exports from solar to maintain the stability of the electricity system. Similar requirements seem certain to spread Australia-wide. Can consumers emerge as winners, or will new regulations spoil the rooftop PV party?




Australia’s globally remarkable rise of highly cost-effective small-scale distributed energy resources (DER) – which empower households and businesses to become electricity generators in their own right, turning them into ‘prosumers’ instead of just being price-taking ‘end consumers’ – is hitting a tipping point. 

From here, things could lurch back towards the old energy order, where consumers have always been data deprived, rendering them relatively powerless. Or, more optimistically, we could grab hold of ever more powerful smart-home enabled technologies and data-driven solutions to achieve real transformation.

You’ll find three critical factors being argued in this post. We need ready-to-iterate solutions for the next phase of the solar ascendancy that tick these boxes:

  1. Don’t depend on expensive battery storage right now, although in the medium to longer term it will be crucial for how renewables take over
  2. Offer multiple channels for controlling the effective integration of solar into grids, because one-size-fits-all won’t fly (past mistakes along these lines are reflected in the gold-plated networks we have today, which aren’t fit for purpose in the DER era)
  3. Create abundant and measurable value for consumers through applications (apps), with the choice, portability and functionality that we all expect in the internet era

Many so-called ‘smart meters’ – based as they are on early-2000s technologies, and embedded in the utility-knows-best world of traditional electricity systems – won’t deliver on the solution-suite criteria outlined above. Nor can many inverter systems, representing a technology that features in the data walled-garden dreaming of prominent ‘New Energy’ technology companies. With techno-generational change now happening every five or so years, this style of solution can quickly become outdated (in a fraction of the quarter-century projected life of quality solar PV panels). 


The empire strikes back?

What’s unfolding now, starting in South Australia, is a bit like a Star Wars story. The far-flung renewable electricity rebels, with their nimble solar fighters, are gathering to threaten the death star of the traditional, centralised, carbon-heavy energy system. This rooftop rebellion has spread far faster than the once all-powerful established energy regime ever expected, but is the empire now striking back?

None of this is happening in a galaxy far, far away. It’s here and now.

In the longer term, a close to 100 percent renewables electricity system is inevitable, and highly desirable economically, socially and environmentally. Engineered storage technologies, such as batteries from small to mega scale, vehicle-to-grid, and pumped hydro, will ‘balance’ the future grid; but, especially early on in the energy transition, so can more basic solutions such as leveraging hot water as low-cost ‘storage’, and orchestrating remote control of fleets of ‘strategic loads’ such as pool pumps.

We basically already know how to do this, propelled by wind and solar, and global capital is stampeding in this direction of renewables plus ‘firming’ through interventions such as storage and demand response, and also energy efficiency. (Bloomberg New Energy Finance has just reported that two-thirds of new energy generation capacity added globally in 2019 was renewable wind and solar, and that doesn’t happen without having investors on board and a long-term investable trajectory.)

But we’re not there yet! Nowhere near it. 

Meanwhile, the surging success of solar in particular, and its prolific spread across Australian household rooftops (like no other country’s residential sector anywhere in the world), is now facing a Darth Vader regulatory moment. 

Solar types may not need to flee off planet just yet, but they sure as hell need to know that the energy industry empire is reasserting itself. Less than five years ago the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) had no real concept for DER in its outdated repertoire, but more recently it has proven to be a fast learner (supported in no small part by real-time, very granular data from Wattwatchers devices, and similar technologies, which allow unprecedented ‘visibility’ of low-voltage networks – including how crucial equipment, such as inverters, are actually performing during grid disturbances e.g. voltage fluctuations).


Regulatory change on steroids

So let’s get specific: in energy regulation terms, South Australia is moving at lightning speed to drive changes in how consumers’ solar systems interact with electricity networks, which the state government is promoting as a better option than restricting solar installations from happening at all. The perceived threat is uncontrolled blackouts as early as this coming summer unless the proliferation of consumer-owned renewables in South Australia is tamed, or at least corralled.

The big point that needs to be made here is that there are more technology options in play than the dominant vested interests, both old and more recent, may want you to think. And if consumers are going to gain real power of choice in the evolving electricity system, then we can’t rely on utility-controlled smart meters, always the go-to solution for established energy players, to free the electrons; nor proprietary inverter technologies, which often turn out to be less intelligent, and less open, than their mainly international promoters would like you to believe. 

There’s a third way. It lies in more agile and cutting edge Internet of Things (IoT) technologies – like Wattwatchers’ devices, and our ADEPT platform for managing fleets of devices in real-time – that offer both solutions in their own right, and flexibility to augment the important, yet frequently limited capabilities of smart meters and also inverters. For example, handy apps, because consumers who have invested thousands of dollars in their own rooftop solar generation systems – and increasingly battery storage, or electric vehicles – will want to see serious personal upside if the regulated energy system wants to reach into their private domains and ‘control’ their PV.


Fleshing out the 3 critical factors

The ‘New Energy’ era needs new thinking as well as new technologies. With the ground shifting on solar PV in South Australia, and every likelihood similar regulatory changes will spread Australia-wide, there are three key factors to consider:

Don’t be too dependent on storage right now: For industry insiders who were in  the audiences at All Energy Australia in 2017, back when huge trade shows and conferences were a thing, you may remember the boosterism around home batteries, with heroic expert predictions in the realm of 500,000 to a million deployed by 2020. Hint, it didn’t happen. Storage options, including batteries, are crucial to delivering the long-term vision of a 100% renewables future grid. But right now there are 20-plus times more sites with solar systems than with batteries, and solutions need to focus on solar generation itself from roughly 2.5 million sites with rooftop PV, and regular strategic loads like hot water, air-conditioners and pool pumps at up to 10 million homes and businesses. For example, while battery storage remains expensive – both in terms of upfront cost, and payback – ‘hot water storage’ can be both cheap and abundant.

Offer multiple channels for controlling the effective integration of solar into grids: One-size-fits-all just won’t fly when it comes to making the transition from the coal-dominated, centralised generation Grid 1.0, to a renewables-dominated, highly-decentralised Grid 2.0. The notion that all the changes required at the consumer level will be deliverable through utility meters, no matter how ‘smart’ they are, is technologically dubious, but more importantly is anathema to everyone who is seeking to empower consumers in the energy system, when historically they have been disempowered. Data is key to achieving this, and needs to be controlled by consumers themselves rather than metering coordinators, or network businesses, or energy retailers, or market operators. The newly-awakened ‘prosumers’ don’t want to be disconnected!

Create abundant and measurable value for consumers: This will happen through applications, with the choice, portability and functionality that we all expect in the internet-enabled era of ‘apps’. The freedom and flexibility required to make this an attractive and rewarding experience for consumers is not going to come from more set-piece technologies like smart meters and inverters. It needs the agility, variety and real-time data immediacy of IoT, for interactivity, integration and interoperability.


FOOTNOTE: This post is the first instalment in a two-part blog series. The second instalment will follow next week. 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.


About Wattwatchers:

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.

More information at: www.wattwatchers.com.au