Community solar: the devil is in the wires

2348 Lyndon FrearsonBy ERWIN CHLANDA

 

The average household spend for electricity in the NT is $1850 a year.

 

Multiply that by 25 years, the lifetime of a household photo voltaic plant including battery, and you get $46,250.

 

That’s pretty well double the price of the solar and battery gear. A no brainer?

 

If you think you’ve heard it all before you are absolutely right: This newspaper, for example, has done a report about these issues as recently as October 19.

 

But the nature of this beast is that the technology is extremely new and progress is extremely fast.

 

Lyndon Frearson (pictured) is a leader in the field. He is the CEO of Alice Springs based Ekistica, which employs 26 boffins and has clients across Australia and South East Asia. He can fill in knowledge gaps as they develop.

 

He says there is a lot more being written about storage systems than achieved on the ground: “There is a level of enthusiasm that is not necessarily matched by the data we have.”

 

The good news is there’s a massive drop in costs, especially for lithium-ion batteries, because more and more we’re paying  just for manufacture. The “embedded cost” for R&D is being spread across a larger production base.

 

2493 Ho Chi Minh electricity 3 OK“The prices are now more heavily commodity driven with volumes going up,” he says.

 

We spoke to Mr Frearson especially about the ambitions of a growing number of people in Alice Springs looking at becoming producers of electricity, on their own or with their mates.

 

He says there is no limited economy of scale: For example, battery storage for 100 houses costs 100 times as much as it does for one.

 

In fact, there are “inflection points requiring additional infrastructure”: As systems get bigger, and exceed the regulatory requirements for low-voltage plants, cost grow disproportionally for metering, transport and transformers.

 

In solar, small is beautiful.

 

Mr Frearson has reservations about the new lithium-ion batteries, in contrast to lead acid batteries which have been around for the best part of 150 years. Servicing can be a problem, especially in remote areas, as well as heat.

 

The crux is the level of certainty of supply: Generating 99% of your demand is a lot more expensive than – say – 80%, and firm costings are still a work in progress.

 

Also, cloudy days will prevent the optimal charge of batteries.

 

2493 Ho Chi Minh electricity 1 OK“There is a big difference between building a solar plant and battery that allows you to reduce your bill down to zero versus going off grid. It comes down to what level of certainty do you need about your supply,” says Mr Frearson.

 

“It doesn’t give you much more energy by going from 90% to 99.9% reliability, but you’re spending a lot more money to get the extra little bit of certainty. That’s where the discussion about batteries becomes complex.”

 

And this is where the wires, owned by the government in our case, come into the equation.

 

Communal power generating is more feasible when the participants are in close vicinity rather than spread all over town which would make them dependent on those wires.

 

Communal use of batteries to smooth out peaks and troughs would make sense – but much depends on what “those electrons are flowing through”.

 

Says Mr Frearson: “If the whole of the Old Eastside decided to form a commune and go off line, everyone would need to agree that they want to disconnect from the grid and you would need Power Water to agree to sell that portion of the grid to that commune, as a mini-grid.”

 

Alternately, it’s not hard to imagine that close-by households could run cables between them – bypassing the grid – but clearly it would need to be more substantial than running an extension cord over the back fence.

 

“Technically, is that feasible? Sure,” says Mr Frearson.

 

“But being electricity there is a reasonable level of safety risks associated with doing that. One of the ways we manage safety in our electricity system is by regulating it fairly tightly.”

 

Special dispensations for self-contained private utilities have been given for caravan parks, airports, shopping centres and retirement homes, he says.

 

How much of this regulation is safety related and how much is a convenient way of eliminating competition?

 

“The reality is that like much of our social infrastructure, part of the common agreement is that when we decide to build it, that we all benefit from it. There is a need to ensure it doesn’t get broken up or undermined.”

 

PHOTOS from the Alice Springs News Online archive: power wires in Ho Chi Minh City, a seemingly unregulated electricity distribution system.

 

 

 

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4 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Trevor Shiell
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    Why is it that there are around 60 off grid facilities already in operation in this country ranging from Goulburn in NSW to King Island to a complete new suburb Just North of Perth, where 20 odd houses get power from a battery bank the size of a shipping container, to Moololabank, near Melbourne, and now Chile on a large scale and Morocco where they have a solar / molten salt facility which is to power 2000 houses, with a similar facility in Spain.
    One of these has been financed from Wall Street where they know a thing or two about making money, as does Lend Lease Corporation the promoter of several of these subdivisions here.
    That could have happened here, putting us right at the front of the industry, with another thing to advertise the place but we did not.
    Now we have three shopping complexes going off grid-Griffith in NSW and several others in SA – all being put in by a former Geothermal explorer, and to be followed by several others.
    That also could have happened here but no one was looking.
    Regarding the cost of infrastructure, the recent inquiry into costing revealed that 40% of the consumer cost is in the distribution system.
    Once in tertiary economics classes it was taught that the electricity industry was the perfect example of cost reductions due to economies of scale.
    This was partly true until the infrastructure was privatized. Spark Infrastructure, for example, which acquired the distribution network in SA and Vic years ago, showing that each entity must report to shareholders and that economies of scale suddenly went missing.
    The energy losses in long distance transmission are obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of physics.
    This is why Germany is moving towards carbon nano tube transmission while we live 50 years behind.
    It therefore makes sense to move development to the source of generation to minimize costs and encourage industry.
    I see no sign of that here.
    In addition lithium storage will be obsolete shortly with the advent of nickel and vanadium flow batteries, and in the longer term thorium molten salt reactors.

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  2. CherryM
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 8:42 am

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is. One one hand it is talking about community solar, on the other hand it is talking about going off grid. They are two separate things.

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  3. Leigh Childs
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Steve did you read in a recent Guardian newspaper article that the German government is asking its population to use MORE electricity as their renewables are producing too much electricity?

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  4. Steve Brown
    Posted October 31, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    Yes, and then there’s all the community facilities of which we are all joint owners! Places such schools, hospitals, police stations, street lighting, ecetera, the list is endless.
    All of these facilities require power 24/7 as does welfare housing, hotels and motels, all connected to the rest of the grid.
    Consumers on the remaining grid would, as they do now, have to pay their share of those costs, plus, the share of those in the community system.
    This is already occurring of course, on a smaller scale, and the costs to the poor old hapless consumer who can’t afford to instal solar, are already escalating.
    The only fair way to rectify this imbalance, which of course nobody wants to hear about, all studiously avoiding the subject, is for owners of solar systems to pay their share of those costs!
    Another words, pay not only for their use of the grid, but for the existence of the grid.
    Yes, even if they are operating a stand alone system.
    This of course effects the whole viability of installing solar, dragging its payback time out by quite a bit.
    However, if we are to honestly asses the true worth of solar to the community, then these costs really must be taken into account.
    It’s time the rose coloured glasses came off, frank and honest assessments are made.
    Governments parading solar as world changing advancement are often actually subsidising its installation while blithely ignoring the true and growing cost to community. Just face up to, and come up with, some fair and equable answers!
    Now we seem to be adding lithium iron batteries to the mix, as if they are some kind of nice environmentally friendly answer to our storage problems, when to my eye, precisely the opposite is true.
    I am an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of renewable power but it must be truly honestly viable, covering all the costs, and it absolutely must create less pollution than our present systems of generation or we are all fooling ourselves.

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