Photo by Nathan Hurst on Unsplash

A new roadmap to sharing solar in Western Australia has been lauded by the Australian Energy Market Operator managing director and CEO, Audrey Zibelman, as a way to “unlock the benefits of an energy future that is decentralised, democratised and digitalised.”

The electricity grid in Western Australia is suffering from too much of a good thing – rapid and widespread rooftop solar uptake – prompting a new roadmap from the state government to help smooth the transition to clean, distributed energy sources.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in the roadmap is piloting “community powerbanks”, which are a neighbourhood batteries that allow customers to store excess solar electricity generated during the day and withdraw it at night or share it with their neighbours.

This reportedly will make Western Australians the first energy customers in Australia to be able to use these types of community battery systems.

The result is lower electricity bills for all customers, not just those that have solar on their roofs. Renters and apartment owners have traditionally missed out on the bill-reducing benefits of rooftop solar, and community powerbanks will help address this inequity.

The roadmap, which sets out steps over five years, also flags “distributed energy resources (DER) orchestration” for trials, which will look at ways of combining and coordinating rooftop solar, batteries, electric vehicles and other DER.

Existing tariff structures are also set for an overhaul, with the current system disproportionately benefiting people who can install solar are contributing less than their share of system costs.

“This means customers who are unable to access DER are cross-subsidising those who can,” the report states.

As such, WA will pilot tariff structures with time-based price signals, which effectively mean low rates during the day when there is excess rooftop solar generation and higher rates during peak demand such as in the evening when everyone returns home and the sun has gone down.

A number of other initiatives will ensure distribution networks are better able to handle the two-way energy flow and variable generation of DER, which they were not originally designed to do.

The new plan is the work of the Energy Transformation Taskforce, which was set up last year by Minister for Energy, Bill Johnston, as part of the Energy Transformation Strategy.

The problem with too much rooftop solar

Like in the eastern states, Western Australians have embraced rooftop solar but the speed and scale of installations are eroding the security and reliability of the electricity system.

There’s also the widening gap between people who can have solar (detached house owners) versus those that can’t (renters, apartment owners).

The risk of increased costs is another issue, because once uptake of rooftop solar PV sees daytime demand fall to levels that jeopardise the stability of the South West Interconnected System of Western Australia (SWIS), the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) will need to intervene more to maintain system security, increasing costs for customers.

The ultimate goal is to keep allowing customers to use rooftop solar and other DER to keep down their energy bills, and create greater equity in the system so that all electricity customers share in the benefits from higher levels of DER.

The industry is impressed

Clean Energy Council’s director of distributed energy, Darren Gladman, described the roadmap as the “sort of energy policy all Australian energy customers need”.

“The WA plan shows how we can share solar so that everyone benefits from the clean energy revolution”, Mr Gladman said. “When every suburb has its own community powerbank, our electricity system will be fairer, cleaner, cheaper, more reliable and more neighbourly.”

He said the roadmap “breaks rank” from the eastern states’ energy policies and embraces a future where rooftop solar and batteries are the dominant source of energy, and can be shared among neighbours.

“Australian love solar and in coming years we expect rooftop solar to supply more than half of our electricity needs. All governments should follow WA’s lead by embracing the opportunities of solar and batteries”.

Ian Porter, chair of the community thinktank Sustainable Energy Now (SEN), also welcomed the announcement.

“This roadmap is the first step in the process and SEN congratulates the government for producing such a comprehensive and complete guideline.”

Mr Porter pointed out that tariff reform is “always difficult and those opposed to change are likely to focus on those who may be most impacted.

“But without tariff reform to drive behavioural change, the system will not operate fairly, efficiently nor sustainably.

“SEN will now review the roadmap more comprehensively, focusing on the pilot tariff reform exercises to make sure they bring about the best result for the system and its users, which is basically everyone in the southern part of the state.”

Energy Networks Australia CEO Andrew Dillon is also impressed with the WA government’s nation-leading approach to DER integration issues.

“We are moving rapidly from a system dominated by a few large-scale thermal generators to one with more decentralised generation from millions of rooftops,” Mr Dillon said.

“The focus on tariff trials to encourage more efficient uses of electricity and grid-scale batteries to provide security for the Western Australian system are key steps to enable the energy transformation.”

AEMO’s Audrey Zibelman said that the roadmap will help the WA energy industry and consumers “unlock the benefits of an energy future that is decentralised, democratised and digitalised.”

AEMO collaborated with the WA government and industry stakeholders in the design of the roadmap.

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