As the steady progress of solar across the rooftops of Australia paid dividends to system owners who saw their energy bills fall, signs of stress began to show elsewhere. Voltage levels rose in areas where PV is popular as excess solar energy was exported around midday, with not enough people home to use it all. Batteries are the answer, of course, but they are also expensive.

At a far bigger scale the completion of large-scale PV projects around the country has seen a new problem, as a surplus of generation pushes prices towards zero or sometimes into negative territory.

The owners of solar PV plants have been whipsawed, seeing their high hopes dashed by the harsh realities of curtailment, crippling marginal loss factors and low prices.

Again, the answer is to build batteries. But when energy prices are falling, not only at off-peak, it takes a gutsy bean-counter to say the price of storage has fallen to a level where investment makes sense.

That time may have come.

Push the button

Renewable power producer Vena Energy Australia in late January announced it will begin construction of Queensland’s largest grid-scale battery near Wandoan in the Western Downs.

Its Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) will have an initial capacity of 100MW and store 150MWh of energy, enough to power up to 57,000 homes, it says.

Vena had previously announced plans to build a 1GW solar plant at the site, which is about 2,000 hectares and close to significant load demand in the Surrat Basin, with its large population of gas wells. It’s been a tough climate for solar developers across the country, however, and a 50% fall in investment in clean energy projects last year reported by the Clean Energy Council is a grim predictor for the future pipeline.

The solar sector has been struck particularly hard, especially where strong resources are not matched by adequate grid-connection opportunities. Can storage help to solve grid constraint issues in Queensland and beyond?

“Storage assists by providing power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow,” Anil Nangia, the head of Vena Energy Australia, tells EcoGeneration. “Furthermore, the response time of batteries means they can improve power quality and system stability.”

As solar supplies the daytime load, other sources of generation are struggling to manage the steep ramp up to the evening peak. This is where storage can step in, Nangia says.

“Batteries can release energy almost instantaneously, subject to the cooling system within the BESS. By providing fast response to increased demand within the grid, the BESS can assist by providing sufficient power to effectively respond to the ‘duck’ curve.”

Anil Nangia, the head of Vena Energy Australia, says although battery infrastructure and technology is still considered to be a niche product it can be viable.

Fast response

A supplier hasn’t been confirmed for the project but Vena says the Wandoan South BESS is based on lithium ion and will use manganese, nickel and cobalt to increase the life of the battery cells. “The battery will be a 1C battery, however [it will be] limited by the number of inverters,” he says. “The final decision regarding the Wandoan South BESS infrastructure has yet to be decided, with a considered shortlist developed.”

The battery has a 12-month construction program and is expected to cost $120 million. The Wandoan South BESS is a first for Vena Energy but the company has obtained approvals for battery storage to optimise other investments.

Vena will build, maintain it and own the storage project but the company has agreed a 15-year contract with leading energy retailer AGL for full operation rights – to buy electricity cheaply during the day and sell it at a profit during the peak and offer frequency control and ancillary services to the grid. The site is near AGL’s soon to be completed 450MW Coopers Gap Wind Farm.

“Currently, battery infrastructure and technology is still considered to be a niche product,” Nangia says. “It is important that an off-taker is able to benefit from a variety of markets to make the project viable.”

The site is also close to a strong grid-connection point with updated electrical infrastructure.

Without government support

Investment in solar in Queensland has fallen, but Vena plans a huge PV project there – up to 1,000MW, although Nangia says it will likely commence with a commitment for 100-200MW.

“The Queensland Government is still committed to delivering 50% renewables by 2030, we’re also expecting the consistent closure of thermal plants; starting with Liddell in 2022-23, other coal fired station are expected to close in the following years,” he says. “Therefore, it is important to have an established and orderly replacement of generation available to the grid, to avoid blackouts and high prices; renewables can help to remedy such situations.”

The Darling Downs region storage project relies on no government subsidies and permits are in place for storage to grow from 100MW to 450MW, “as the need arises,” Nangia says.

AGL CEO Brett Redman said the agreement was consistent with AGL’s strategy of developing and/or contracting flexible storage and generation to support the transition from coal generation to renewables.

“The battery will enable AGL to leverage excess solar generation in Queensland and provide capacity when the Coopers Gap Wind Farm and other renewable power sources are not generating,” Redman said in a statement in January.

Nangia says local employment and procurement opportunities would be established throughout the 12-month construction program, with the labour force anticipated to be 30 strong during construction.

“We plan to significantly invest in the local region, with local purchasing likely to include a wide range of products and services from fencing contractors, concreters, welders, electricians, plant and equipment operators, transport contractors and administrators.”

More on the way

Vena Energy is also advancing plans for a $650 million solar project at the site, as part of the Wandoan South Project. In Australia, Vena Energy is progressing over 2,500MW of renewable energy projects across the country and last year commissioned a 95MW solar project at Tailem Bend in South Australia.

Vena Energy Australia is the Australian arm of Vena Energy, a leading independent power producer of renewable energy in the Asia-Pacific region, with over 11GW in operation, construction and development.

Headquartered in Singapore, and with presence in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, India, Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Vena Energy manages the development, design, procurement, construction management and operation of all its solar and wind projects.

The Wandoan BESS project shows the cost of storage in the utility range has come down to a point where it can be viable without any government support.

The age of batteries has begun.