The power of connected systems is so compelling but so far away… What will it take for our distributed energy resources to sing in key?

The panel

  • Neil Gibbs (chair), founder, Marchment Hill Consulting
  • Shekhar Kamath, general manager business development, Utopus Insights
  • Renate Egan, co-founder and director, Solar Analytics
  • Belinda Kinkead, director Australia, LO3 Energy
  • Phil Blythe, CEO, GreenSync

A network where energy is supplied by a very large number of generators and storage devices of all sizes and efficiently distributed to consumers will rely on an explosion of measurement and an extraordinary high capacity of communication, said chair Neil Gibbs of Marchment Hill. For that all to work out there needs to be a big catch-up.

Australia may be soaring ahead of other nations when it comes to the take up of rooftop solar and plans for large-scale renewables, but it’s being built on a patchwork of technologies that often don’t talk to each other. “We’re finding ourselves in a situation where we have to start integrating,” said Phil Blythe of GreenSync. “We’re all looking at each other sideways going, what do we do now?”

For Australia to be converted to clean energy Shekhar Kamath’s key requirements, in this order, are: connectivity and visibility of data across resources; predictability for wind and solar generation, and; manageability of assets. “None of these challenges is new,” said Kamath of Utopus. “I believe digitisation is going to play a key role in helping mitigate them.”

Belinda Kinkead and Phil Blythe are both looking at ways to orchestrate solar and storage systems so their owners, and maybe their neighbours, are better off. Photo: Narelle Spangher.

Central control

The power of markets, Blythe said, is to decentralise information – or, in the case of electricity, allow the consumer to wrestle some value away from the retailer – so that decentralised decision-making is allowed. One day, this could mean consumers’ home PV systems are guided by artificial intelligence, say. Trials of virtual power plants, however, look like “a step down from central control,” said Renate Egan of Solar Analytics. When consumers make the investments in solar and storage, it’s they who should be handed the power of choice.

Blythe sees virtual power plants in today’s market as a business-to-business activity, where consumers are viewed as “megawatt lumps” whose assets can be traded. “It’s not exactly consumer-facing to treat people like that,” he said. “It doesn’t really flow back to consumers properly.”

Looking ahead, Kamath sees decentralised and centralised decision processes working in tandem. As it stands today, batteries are underutilised and inefficient for customers because the industry has not moved fast enough to free up value in them, Blythe said. “Nobody wants to say that, but that’s what’s happening.” Is it time for government to step and demand some action? Perhaps not such a bad idea, the panel mused, especially considering it’s only a couple of years until West Australia’s network is predicted to get the wobbles as more and more solar is connected.

Consumers want to have more control about where their electricity comes from, said LO3’s Belinda Kinkead, who shared some findings of research among energy users in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley. “They want more meaningful relationships with their service providers and they want to prioritise what’s important to them, whether that’s saving money, keeping it in the local community or supporting climate change.”

Photo: Narelle Spangher.