Electricity networks are going through a period of unprecedented change. Pressure created by the adoption of renewable generation technologies is combining with smart energy devices, distributed generation and local storage to fundamentally redraw the lines of how, where and when electricity flows through the grid.

While these changes create huge opportunities, significant barriers remain for new technologies that may reshape the grid for the 21st century.

A major problem is that the grid as we know it – large-scale generation with one-way power transmission to passive consumers – has had a century to cement its place at the centre of electricity systems. In doing so, it has evolved into a tightly interwoven system of technologies that are highly resistant to change. Adopting cutting edge technologies in this environment can cause “ripple” effects across the system.

The structure of the broader electricity industry also creates barriers to change by virtue of its capital-intensiveness, complex supply chains, robust regulation and strong focus on reliability and safety.

This environment is unreceptive to Silicon Valley’s innovation mantra of “move fast and break things”, which is driving change in so many other industries; customers prefer well-tested and proven technologies over being treated as guinea pigs.

While the resulting barriers are significant, partnerships are a proven way to reduce the perceived risk of change.

Howdy, partner

Technological innovations often come from less established firms, including start-ups with products that may have often undergone solid technical development but lack established financial and reputational backing. By partnering with an established industry player, an innovative firm can overcome the reluctance customers may experience when buying outside their comfort zone.

An example of this is the Tesla “Big Battery” in South Australia which has operated for the past 18 months providing frequency stabilisation services for the Australian grid. While Tesla was well-known for its stylish electric cars at the time, its lithium batteries were not widely recognised as a viable grid-scale resource.

After a world-publicised Twitter bet between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes, Tesla partnered with French renewable energy firm Neoen and the South Australian government to deploy what was then the world’s biggest battery.

After its first year of operation, the $91 million battery had lowered grid costs by around $50 million, according to Neoen CEO Franck Wotiez. From Tesla’s point of view, this partnership had also proven the efficacy of a disruptive new technology for the grid.

Thai village Ban Pha Dan, where storage is being used to capture solar energy for evening use.

Off-grid, on target

Partnering with trusted suppliers can help to overcome concerns about legitimacy, safety, reliability and compatibility with existing network standards. A partnership can also supply the innovator with insight into the many unstated preferences of technology buyers that often bring innovations unstuck.

Partnerships can also provide the complementary technologies that turn a novel innovation into a complete solution. For example, a battery manufacturer can partner with a systems integrator to leverage established relationships with end customers, while providing the balance of system that turns a battery into an energy storage system.

Redflow Limited, an Australian company that manufactures the world’s smallest zinc-bromine flow batteries, demonstrated this recently by partnering with Thai system integration company TSUS to deliver an energy storage system for a remote village in mountainous northern Thailand.

Unable to access the national electricity grid, the village of Ban Pha Dan worked with TSUS and other government-selected suppliers to deploy a hybrid energy storage system can “time-shift” solar energy from when it is collected during the day to when it is needed at night.

By partnering with a well-respected local expert, Redflow was able to deliver its world-leading energy storage system into an isolated community that had only ever had electricity generated by diesel.

These sorts of partnerships can overturn the barriers to new technologies, significantly increasing the chances of an innovation being adopted. By leveraging the trust and customer knowledge of a partner organisation, innovative firms can often overcome long-established technological inertia to deliver breakthroughs that provide long-term value for the grid and consumers.

Tim MacTaggart is chief deployment officer at Redflow Limited. He spoke at the 2019 National Clean Technologies Conference & Exhibition in May.