Power to the people: how suburban solar could become the Uber of the energy grid

Martin Farrer

Power to the people might remain a political pipe dream, but changes taking place in the energy market across Australia are making suburban homeowners the unlikely disruptors in an Uber-style revolution that promises to change how we all live.

Despite a toxic political debate about energy that cost the last prime minister his job, thousands of households are showing Canberra the way forward as they group their individual solar systems together to form local networks that help to slash bills, stabilise the electricity grid and cut carbon emissions.

Alan Hedges, a retiree in South Australia, is part of one so-called “virtual power plant” (VPP), hailed this week by the energy commission as the way of the future.

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With solar panels feeding a 10kW/h storage battery at his house in Gilberton in Adelaide, Hedges is close to self-sufficient in power and has seen his bills fall to fraction of what he used to pay. The VPP means that electricity stored in his battery – and from others on the network – flows into the national grid at times of peak demand to balance the system and prevent outages.

So not only is he reaping the financial benefits, he is also doing his bit to stave off the mass blackouts that brought the state to a standstill in September 2016.

“I received my first bill the other day and it was $46.57 for 57 days, which works out at $1.68 per day,” he said. That’s 84% cheaper than his old bills of more than $1,000 a quarter.

“I thought ‘wow’, they must have made a mistake. But I’ve read it through and it’s right. It’s amazing.”

Hedges was helped by a South Australian government subsidy scheme set up with Tesla in the wake of the infamous blackouts. But the revolution is going on elsewhere, Elon Musk or not.

Patricia Harris lives with her husband in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Their panels and battery system have enabled them to become one of 237 households who are part of a scheme run by Ausgrid and a Canberra software company called Reposit.

She welcomes the money they save – “we’re miles ahead on the deal,” she says – but there is another motivation at a time when the world is threatened by a climate crisis.

“The system works and it works well. We are making a profit,” she says. “We’ll get the money back for the battery and panels, but we just liked the idea of it. We thought ‘we’ll do our bit for the environment’.”

This empowerment lies at the heart of the matter, according to Rob Amphlett Lewis, chief customer officer at Ausgrid, which sees itself as facilitating sweeping changes that he likens to tech disruptors such as Uber and Airbnb.

“It’s very much like Uber where the individual shares his car,” he says. “Here the individual shares his or her battery and they make money.

“When we have high demand we can call on all that power stored in people’s batteries and ease constraints in the grid. The traditional way to fix this would be to build more infrastructure, but having batteries means we don’t have to build that infrastructure.

“This really is the future and it’s coming very quickly.”

Reposit has been creating such systems in Australia for six years. Its chief executive, Dean Spaccavento, says the company now has thousands of customers up and down Australia’s east coast, from Queensland to Victoria. It adds one megawatt of capacity every month, which is the equivalent of 100 households with a 10kW/h battery, and hopes to add 5,000 customers in the next 12 months.

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The particularly smart part of the system – and others like it – enables the battery to think for itself so that it can be set to control household appliances according to when they are cheapest to use. This reduces demand at peak times and means there is more power from home batteries to be diverted into the grid.

Amphlett Lewis says: “Home energy systems mean appliances such as aircon can be controlled to stay at a certain temperature. It means we consume less. If lots of people turn down their aircon slightly, it doesn’t inconvenience anyone but it can make a big difference and facilitate the use of renewable energy.”

The scheme has been so successful that Ausgrid is planning a community battery scheme in Sydney and is looking for would-be participants to register. This would allow anyone with solar power to connect to the battery and deposit and withdraw electricity. “It means less infrastructure so more savings,” says Amphlett Lewis. “It’s a win, win, win for the community.”

And while it might not fix Australia’s energy woes overnight, it appears to be an important step forward and one in which many people will be able to take part.

“There is no one silver bullet to fix the problems with the Australian electricity market. But these sort of ideas will deliver the future of energy. Customers are taking a big, big role and our role is to facilitate it.”