A battery power revolution in the making

Analysts predict a huge future for batteries in global energy storage. On Tasmania’s Bruny Island we have a chance to see what this might look like.

South Bruny, focal point of the Consort project. PHOTO Bruny Island Life

Dusk on South Bruny Island, focal point of the Consort project. PHOTO Bruny Island Life Blogspot

A revolution is brewing in meeting rooms and computer laboratories around Australia, and right now Bruny Island, of all places, is at its epicentre.

It won’t shake our civilisation to its foundations and it will take time to have a widespread impact, but it will eventually affect us all. It’s all about energy storage, and it comes in the form of batteries.

A current focal point of battery storage is Consort, a project to enlist Bruny energy consumers to help make the electricity grid work as it should. The name comes from the opening and closing letters of “consumer energy systems providing cost-effective grid support”.

Over the 100 years or so of grid-supplied electricity we’ve grown to expect power to be there when we want it, but a host of challenges is making it harder for utilities to maintain standards. Consort aims to turn that around with the active help of consumers.

That’s especially challenging in light of past campaigns by various power utilities against government support for renewable energy. At times this has come across to rooftop solar owners as a hostile act, stopping them from getting a fair return for the energy their systems put into the grid.

TasNetworks, the state-owned utility that delivers electricity to Tasmanian homes and businesses, is confronting that challenge by joining home owners on Bruny Island, along with Reposit Power, a Canberra energy company, and three universities in the Consort project.

Reposit is dedicated to “smart energy”, using advanced solar-battery control software to get maximum return for owners by learning, adapting and predicting electricity usage, even enabling them to sell their power back to the grid when prices are highest.

In doing this, the Reposit system considers things like the current cost of grid energy, anticipated weather conditions and energy use over the next day or so, and network requests for support.

An Australian National University team is developing algorithms to enhance this system, to which TasNetworks will contribute its grid management expertise.

Analysis of human behaviour – always the big unknown in any game-changing venture – brings in specialists from the Universities of Sydney and Tasmania.

The Sydney group is looking at how to value what batteries contribute to a grid and how people might be encouraged to use them, while the University of Tasmania’s School of Social Sciences is studying how people use battery storage systems in their homes.

The social research seeks to know how people respond to feedback from the battery-controlling software, to ensure that it informs them clearly, simply and comprehensively about what’s happening to their home’s energy.

What brings all this together is the particular challenge of supplying power to Bruny Island. Here, peak demand often exceeds the capacity of the island’s main undersea cable, requiring a diesel generator to fill the gap, and voltage can get too low at the extremities of the network.

TasNetworks wants a consumer-led solution whereby home battery systems set up for the financial benefit of the customer provide the energy needed to compensate for network deficiencies.

Last April ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – announced a $2.9 million, three-year grant for the consortium to run a trial to allow about 40 Bruny Island households to use battery storage while providing the incentive to sell power back to the grid.

Bruny residents except for those in the far north (who use a different undersea cable) have until the end of next week to apply for the trial. Successful ones will get a new solar-battery system for their home, mostly funded out of the ARENA grant. Installation will begin in a month or so.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that Australia will lead the world in battery capacity by 2040, with four out of five households contributing in total a whopping 20 gigawatt-hours. The Australian Energy Market Operator has a similar view.

Consort still has a way to run – this is the first year of a three-year project – but it marks a refreshing shift in the approach of power utilities to the challenge of managing the disruptive influence of rooftop solar.

If it works as proponents expect, it will show Australia and all the world’s developed countries how centralised power utilities and decentralised renewable energy providers can enjoy a positive and mutually beneficial relationship. It can’t come too soon.

• Bruny residents can apply to join the Consort trial at brunybatterytrial.org

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