Tomorrow’s grid will be like an interview with Mariah Carey, perfectly calm and elegant on the surface but delivered through the excited efforts of a legion of personal assistants and essential professionals.

In the case of the National Electricity Market, we can expect thousands upon thousands of owners of solar systems large and small to rely on a regular army of batteries to help them get the most of their PV output so that distribution networks are not upset by exports.

It will make sense that residential batteries are connected in virtual power plants, so that all-knowing aggregators can orchestrate their output. But if those operators are also turning a profit by providing services to the grid, how will battery owners not feel gypped?

For the sake of making the energy transition a popular pursuit, everyone needs to understand how they can play a part. That includes battery owners.

To that end, consumers’ feelings about VPPs are being measured as part of research by the University of NSW, which is looking into the social licence to automate as battery ownership starts to increase and trials or VPPs expand around the country.

Interest and uncertainty

The survey took in 25 customers of solar energy management software firm SolarAnalytics, to sound out how they felt about virtual power plants. A second survey approached a random sample of 15 people, some not owners of solar systems. “It became a bit of a different conversation because then it was about whether they might be interested in getting solar and a battery for the more specific purposes of participating in a VPP,” says Dr Sophie Adams, research fellow in the Arts and Social Sciences Faculty at UNSW.

Only four of the 25 SolarAnalytics customers owned a battery.

The research is not yet complete but the findings are interesting enough to preview. As to the battery owners, one expressed enthusiasm to know how the investment could be geared for extra revenue. Another owner was more sceptical about the concept, curious to know why someone else should want access to their battery when they are already using it to maximise self-consumption of rooftop solar.

“There is a lot of interest in batteries but there is also a lot of uncertainty,” says Dr Declan Kuch, a fellow in both the School of Humanities at UNSW and the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. “Before they get into this space consumers want to see more detail and they need trusted leads about taking the leap into signing up to having someone control these batteries.”

Trust barrier

Respondents expressed varying attitudes when questioned about placing trust in the operator of a virtual power plant, says Kuch, who says there is a gulf between enthusiasm about owning a battery that can contribute to grid stability in an orchestrated system and feelings about who should pull the strings. “That’s where the industry needs to think through this a lot more,” Kuch says.

Electricity is a staple service but most consumers don’t feel the current market arrangements are working in their long-term interest. That’s probably why it’s hard for them to trust anyone along the supply chain. In order to feel calm about their involvement in a VPP owners of batteries will need to know where the energy is going, where the money is going and where the benefit is going. “A lot of people told us they need to understand the details of what is happening,” says Mike Roberts, research associate at the School for Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW and a solar analyst at the Australian PV Institute. “But it’s very complicated, so it’s a hard task to give that level of transparency.”

If battery-makers, networks, retailers or anyone else who is working on a VPP offering in the expectation of providing services to a grid is expecting it will be easy to sign up battery-owners, they need to consider there may be only a limited number of people willing to participate in the market with some of the incumbent providers. “And they usually have an engineering background and they are early adopters,” says Kuch.

Among the others, he says, there is a wariness of outsiders stepping in to help themselves to your solar-generated battery power so they can somehow make money in the market. Instead, governments or other non-market players appeared to be preferred. “That’s an emerging finding that we are working through.”

A job for social scientists

Everyone has to get their electricity from somewhere – and yet they don’t trust the people who provide it to them. And they feel especially queasy about the idea of them reaching into their homes to access their homemade electricity.

Many people are attracted by the idea that a VPP supports the community, but “community” has different meanings for people, says Adams. Many of them simply believe “the last thing you need is more complexity in the grid,” she says.

Just to repeat, most of these findings are gleaned from people who do not own batteries yet. What’s certain is that the automation of distributed energy resources, including batteries, will be an essential component of tomorrow’s grid. It’s a nice little feedback loop, to use a cliché, where the settling effects of networks of residential storage systems are needed to enable higher levels of household rooftop solar. For that to happen, someone had better work out how to pitch VPP participation to ordinary folk.

“There is a real crisis in questions of how to value all of these network services and the automation they might provide,” Kuch says. “It’s going to be really important to have social scientists front and centre to really get the voice of citizens clearly articulated in these policy discussions.”

The engineering faculties of our universities are doing an amazing job in converting the grid to renewables, but it might be the role of the humanities departments to bring us all together for the trip.