The potential in connected microgrids of distributed energy resources can’t be overlooked much longer, writes Shaun Scallan.

When business models meet an immovable object, they find a way around it by adapting and innovating. My working definition of innovation is: “That didn’t work. Let’s try something else.” The immovable object is the current Australian electricity market and its treatment of energy sources other than great big generators connected by long transmission lines sending power one way. The electrons are banished, never to darken their door again. Or rather, they were.

The current National Electricity Market (NEM) works like a diode. It has been well socialised in power generation, transmission and distribution circles that there is a need to deal with pesky electrons coming back up the wire that connects generators to consumers.

(A quick refresher: a diode is an electronic component used to stop current flowing back up the path it came down. For the mechanical minded it is a non-return valve. If you have solar panels, diodes are used liberally to ensure electrical energy generated flows the right way.)

Cue reaction from incumbents. How rude! Electrons coming back? This is not the way things have been done for the last 100 years. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!

Some say the NEM is indeed broken. I say simply, there is a better way.

It is well understood that the NEM in its totality is no longer serving our best interests as consumers of electricity. It works well enough to keep the lights on, my eternal gratitude for that, and this is no mean feat. Kudos the AEMO, TNSPs and DNSPs who deliver this 24×7.

This is about what we do next.

The voltage phantom

Currently the environment for sharing electricity between distributed energy generators is a major stumbling block for development of anything but limited solar deployment that can be consumed on site. Voltage rise is the cry. We just can’t deal with it, say all players, like a mantra that will somehow stop the inevitable deployment of new energy solutions, particularly at local scale.

The replication of the monolithic generation and transmission model by locating so called Renewable Energy Zones, hundreds of kilometres from load, is another way of keeping the status quo. It’s a model the current players understand, have invested in and, more importantly, are comfortable with. Some may spin this as a transitional strategy. I say bollocks.

I was flying into Melbourne recently and we came over the western commercial industrial complex that presents hundreds of acres of roof space going begging for some solar. I hear the roofs saying, “We can be more than just roofs, we are ready to take on the weight of solar to generate the power where it is consumed.” Your roof provides a number of services, why not extract even more value from it? Yes, strange that I can hear roofs (or is that rooves?) talk.

I have been involved assessing hundreds of C&I sites for solar over the past few years and the common question from business arises: why can’t we export and get full value from the system? More so, why can’t we put more on and generate some value for the business and the community at large, both environmental and economic value? Why not indeed?

Apart from voltage rise, which is allegedly the bane of the electricity distributors and the grid operator, the rules and regulations that govern the markets impede progress. In martial arts direct attacks are not always used; flanking the opponent or bypassing them completely is a proven stratagem.

Similarly, there are a growing number of projects under development that seek to maintain the sanctuary from current regulatory strictures given by the “meter” and probe the limits of the current regulatory framework.

Watts in the box

A key enabler of this is storage – onsite, behind the meter storage. This storage enables full use from existing solar and presents the opportunity for installing more than is needed for onsite consumption and unlocking other value streams, be they energy export or other network services. Additionally, the use of other generation sources can be incorporated; that is, waste heat to energy, bioenergy and the other sources that will inevitably come along in time.

Enter the microgrid, an oldie but a goodie. Microgrids are where it all started and we are going back to the future. The predicted resurgence of microgrids as a key element of our future grid is being touted by many, including myself. Indeed, it can be argued that a borg-like structure of microgrids of various sizes and types is our energy destiny. This is consistent with the “digitalise everything” mindset supported by concepts like the “internet of things”.

Microgrids could be one of the larger silver bullets among a number of elements of the future grid.

The current complaint by the distribution/transmission and market operators is, we can’t manage what we don’t know about. Fair call. Absolutely correct.

Visibility of the Distributed Energy Resources (DER) is needed and I am not just talking about a register here, which is really of limited value but an important first step. What we need is some direct visibility in real time as to what is happening with DERs around the network, very much like we have for the larger scale generators.

What we need is some direct visibility in real time of DERs.

Believe me the visibility is a technical triviality, it is easy to do and the so called IoT revolution has made connectivity of devices even more accessible and cost effective. The scale of the job, however, is large – but not insurmountable.

Data, electrons … what’s the difference?

I use the example of the internet itself as an example as to how to deliver services efficiently and effectively through a disparate set of hardware and software that utilise agreed industry standards. The workhorses of the internet are routers (computers that direct data across the internet) and servers (the powerful computers that are the repository of data and systems, such as Google and internet banking), not forgetting the communication links that physically connect the flow of information on this data superhighway.

I think of servers as generators delivering data in much the same way as electrons are exchanged in a power system. Routers on the internet direct information from source to destination, often over varying paths to optimise response times. Lots of stuff under the technological covers here, stuff that can facilitate the routing of electrons in a power system rather than electrons in the form of digital information. Layers upon layers of analogy here. The point is this: the means of orchestrating distribution of electrons at scale and over broad geographical areas exists already. I contend that DER orchestration is just another use case of internet technology.

Visibility is a key step. How we orchestrate this growing distributed energy resource ecosystem becomes a classic control system challenge from an execution perspective, but a little more tricky from a regulatory framework and planning perspective.

The added advantage of distributed energy is that, when done effectively, you have decomposed the supply/demand problem into locally solvable equations. Support from adjoining distributed energy resources means that the summation of all resources can be a balanced and stable system. Solve locally, aggregate globally – is another way of saying it. 

There is a point where we need to step right out of the current regulatory framework, and that time is upon us. Tinkering with regulations will take us so far, what we need is a step change.

Plenty of opportunities beckon. It is an exciting time to be in energy.

Shaun Scallan is head of products at Capricorn Power and before that was institutional program manager at Planet Ark Power.