Image from ARENA

Recently announced changes allowing networks to charge solar users for exporting power to the grid have been criticised as an “empty victory” for the consumer groups who championed them. And It’s not just solar advocates taking issue.

Representatives from Victoria and Queensland state governments also stated in submissions to the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) they did not consider the reasons for export charges solid enough to support.

Meanwhile, energy network experts have pointed out technological solutions already exist to deal with the issue of grid capacity that the reforms are ostensibly trying to solve.

Representatives from Victoria told the AEMC they did not back the proposed changes to export pricing because “the required analysis has not been undertaken, many unanswered questions remain, and the risk of unintended consequences is high.”

“Pricing exports is likely to have some impact on export and investment behaviour, however it is not clear why a charge that dissuades export of low-cost clean energy will deliver a net positive outcome for consumers,” Victoria’s submission stated.

A Victorian Government spokesperson told The Fifth Estate they were continuing to analyse the AEMC’s final determination, and “won’t be allowing Victorians to be charged for the extra power they send to the grid.”

In its submission, Tasmania joined Queenlsand and Victoria in asking that states be given the choice as independent jurisdictions whether to implement the strategy or not.

Solar Citizens

Ellen Roberts, national director of solar and renewable energy advocacy group, Solar Citizens said much of the reasonable opposition to the planned changes was being ignored

“If we’re talking about congestion in the grid, that’s obviously energy from a range of sources, including rooftop solar,” she said.

Ellen Roberts

“Given that rooftop solar is the cheapest form of energy, why is it the one that should be being constrained?”

Part of the answer is that solar users pay less in fees for the upkeep of the network. Costs that are largely being passed on to those without rooftop solar who purchase from the grid.

With the aim of spreading these charges more evenly across the population, groups such as Energy Consumers Australia backed the reforms as being beneficial to the largest number of people.

However, Ms Roberts says this is a terrible misframing of the issue that aims to save individuals around $15-25 a year from their energy bill, while failing to take into account the impact on the grid overall and solar power’s role in it.

“As a very, very cheap source of power, rooftop solar is responsible for bringing down wholesale power prices for all energy consumers. And there’s lots of research on that,” she said.

“If you’re only looking at the network costs in this kind of abstract way, then you can say that there’s an inequity. But if you look at how much rooftop solar benefits all consumers then there’s a net benefit.”

Ms Roberts said she believes the strategy is reflective “of the fact we don’t have a climate policy in Australia in which we prioritise rooftop solar and de-prioritise more carbon intensive forms of energy”.

Solving yesterday’s problem

DER specialist, Gabrielle Kuiper from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), explained systems already exist, and are being trialled in several states that would render the issue of grid oversupply no longer a concern.

She says SA Power Networks have developed dynamic operating envelopes capable of ensuring exports into the grid from rooftop solar and other devices do not breach any network capacity limits.

“The rule changes were developed before we had dynamic operating envelopes up and running and maybe some of their proponents, at least the consumer ones, didn’t understand the issue,” Dr Kuiper told The Fifth Estate.

They work by adjusting the export or import of electricity from each consumer’s premises on a one or five minute basis, so that there is no strain on the grid.

“It’s also very much about yesterday’s issue. We’ve got 2.8 million households with solar on the roof, but there are increasing numbers of people installing batteries, and in the future hopefully everyone will have an EV,” Dr Kuiper said.

According to Kuiper, EV batteries are 6-10 times the size of an average stationary battery, which on a scale of 14 million vehicles across Australia could play a significant role in the future of the grid.

She also criticised the AEMC’s limited evidence that the grid was in fact becoming overcrowded, which she said was lacking enough data by a long way to properly frame the issue.

“You would expect that in a rule change proposal like this there would be some quantitative analysis of to what extent is people’s solar being curtailed, and there weren’t any numbers presented through any of this process,” she said.

Both Dr Kuiper and the Victorian government welcomed the first two elements of the changes being to formally recognise export services in the regulatory framework and promote incentives for distribution businesses to deliver export services that customers value.

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