We are experiencing huge growth in the adoption of rooftop solar panels plus energy storage as a means to gain independence from the antiquated, overpriced and largely fossil-fueled electricity grid. Energy independent homes and small communities linked by microgrids, appear to be leading us to a brighter energy future, and the charge is being made in regions with the highest electricity rates.
However, one expert from Australia, where electricity rates are among the highest in the world, insists that small-scale energy independence is the wrong direction for society. Australia added more than one gigawatt of rooftop solar panel capacity during a benchmark 2017, representing an increase of about 50% over 2016 figures, according to consultancy firm Green Energy Markets.
“People seem to feel somehow that they are being ripped off, and at the same time, there is news everywhere about renewables and batteries becoming better and cheaper,” says Professor Pierluigi Mancarella, of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. These factors are have led many homeowners to a greener, cheaper, more energy independent future, or so it seems.
“Everyone talks about going off-grid, but I don’t really know how many people do a proper cost / benefit analysis,” says Mancarella, who suggests proper calculations would push bill payers back to the grid. “People are not just paying for the kilowatt hour of electricity they are consuming; they are also paying for someone to ensure the lights will never go out,” he explained.
Mancarella argument focuses on reliability, which in turn, he says, has clear and significant cost implications for the end user. “Essentially, there must be a good reason why we have networks or grids. This is very basic power system economics; it’s the first lecture. You do not just buy energy per se; you buy energy and a number of other things, the most important of which is reliability.”
As a world-renowned specialist in the techno-economics of energy networks, Mancarella has been involved in a number of high-profile planning projects. Late last year, he was presented with a Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation fellowship worth $150,000 over three years for his research project – “The ‘FlexCity’ revolution: techno-economic modelling of urban energy systems as the clean power stations of the future”.
Mancarella says “the aim is to create a ‘FlexCity’ powered by clean energy with smart grid technologies where buildings, districts and local players actively participate in the operation of the system to create new, sustainable energy-related businesses.” In an article for The University of Melbourne’s own media portal ‘Pursuit’, he described FlexCity “is pretty much the antithesis of going off-grid.”
It is not that Mancarella wants our electricity system to stay the same, in fact he is a huge proponent of renewable and distributed energy. The integration of distributed renewable energy alongside the evolution of smart technology and the internet of things (IoT) has brought about opportunities to create efficiency and reliability on a regional and national scale. “Effectively, the community becomes a virtual power plant,” he states.
City or region-wide virtual power plants, like the groudbreaking system recently announced by Tesla and others in Australia, take advantage of information and communication technologies to bring together multiple forms of distributed electricity generation. They also utilize artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies to take greater control over supply and demand, creating a highly optimized system that enable better exchanges at every level.
“The grid is really there for a trade. The fact that you now add local generation where the consumers are doesn’t change the role of the grid, it only changes the fact that these transactions, instead of being sort of uni-directional, now become bi-directional,” he explains.
Amid the rush towards household solar plus storage and small community microgrid systems, Mancarella claims we have all the technical tools we need to provide a better service through a macro-level grid. All we need to convince the public and implement a full scale intelligent grid system like FlexCity, he says, is more time.
“We have operated a system like the current one for 130 years and now we’re really disrupting that system. No wonder it’s not happening overnight,” says Professor Mancarella, who also holds role of Chair of Electrical Power Systems at Melbourne University. “You can’t just say: let’s forget what we’ve done the last 100 years, let’s forget industry. This legacy is important and politics is important to drive towards the necessary change.”
Whether Mancarella and other macrogrid proponents can stop the snowballing trend towards small scale energy independence is a simple function of offering consumers a better alternative. Time has never been afforded so easily within the worlds of business and industry, and while large scale virtual power plants seem likely to be part of our energy future, they may need a little competition to find their sense of urgency.
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