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FEATURE: It’s been about a month since South Australia’s new “smarter homes” rules for rooftop solar were ushered in to help stabilise the grid. So how are they doing?

Since 28 September, any new rooftop solar systems need to be equipped with the smarts so that the solar connection to the grid can be turned off in, say, the middle of the day when the sun is shining, and few households are using energy.

While the remote connection and disconnection attracted the most attention, the government’s rule changes also included export limits on distributed solar systems, new low voltage ride-through requirements for smart inverters, minimum technical standards for smart meters and time-of-use tariffs.

The new regs are designed to help stabilise the grid by allowing the market regulator to better match supply with demand. It will also eventually allow the grid to hit 100 per cent renewables, according to SA’s Department for Energy and Mining.

Great idea…not so sure about the execution

While almost the entire solar industry supported the government’s proposed rules in essence, most also agreed that the way the changes were executed left much to be desired.  

Consultation started in late June for a late September implementation, but the changes were swift. This alarmed the industry, with suppliers and manufacturers concerned that they would be left with non compliant stock and that there wouldn’t be enough time to run laboratory tests for all products.

Eddy May, the managing director of major South Australian solar installer NRG Solar, says that the rules have left consumers confused.

He says while the rules are “ultimately for the better”, the messaging has been so unclear that consumers are choosing to delay installing solar.

“People are still buying solar and do understand that solar and battery storage is cheaper than any other form of energy in SA, but then you hear that something new is coming in that sounds a bit scary… so you sit on your hands.”

He says there’s fear that a third party will take control of their solar and turn it off on a whim, potentially diminishing their returns. It didn’t help that some people thought it was the government and energy retailers, not energy regulators, taking on this curtailment role.

He recognises that as a trailblazer, the SA government was “probably never going to get this right”.

“Being able to learn from this is really important.”

He says that any regulatory changes should have focused on savings for customers.

“My view is if we had a retail offering to consumer that allowed them to make more money from cheaper power when the market is saturated with solar in the middle of the day, than the customer will want to be part of it.”

The state’s only electricity distributor, SA Power Networks, is currently trialling flexible export inverters technology, which allow solar systems in high-generation areas to keep earning money by allowing solar export limits to be automatically adjusted every five minutes based on signals sent by the distribution network.

May says this pilot program, which is due to wrap up in six months, will “pretty much make the government’s new rules obsolete”.

Overall, May is confident the industry can get over the speedbump, even in pandemic conditions that have already wreaked havoc on the industry.

“This has impacted business in the short term but the future is really bright for solar in SA.”

A few questions remain unanswered

According to Clean Energy Council director distributed energy Darren Gladman, the new rules have caused much less disruption than first expected.

He says the government listened to industry concerns, including concerns that specific technologies would be locked in, and built in much more flexibility than was initially proposed.

While happy overall, Gladman says there are still some question marks hanging over the new requirements and whether or not other states and territories will follow SA’s lead.

One is the use of elected third parties to take responsibility for managing the new mandatory smart meters that are able to separate generation and load.

Gladman says it’s “slightly odd” to open this capability up to more than just the distribution networks, which are traditionally responsible for managing blackouts when things go seriously wrong.

There’s always more than one solution to a problem this big

During the consultation period for the new rules, the chief executive officer of smart metering services company Intellihub Group, Adrian Clark, recommended using the 200,000 or so electric hot water systems across South Australia to soak up the excess solar generation.

“These hot water systems can be used as one large coordinated battery energy storage system in exchange for a cheaper, lower cost or even zero tariff solution,” he wrote in a submission.

“Consumers benefit with low cost hot water. Energy is used, not wasted; and grid stability is maintained.”

The proposal would see smart meters used to control hot water load and dynamic exports with other layers of operability to help stabilise the grid and make consumers money.

While the coordinated use of hot water systems as a battery was not explicitly adopted by the government, Clark told The Fifth Estate that the new rules represent a step in the right direction for a more flexible, responsive grid. 

His company is also working on the dynamic export trials, which he says is the “holy grail” to solving stability woes while benefiting all customers financially.

This includes households without solar (as more solar in the grid will push wholesale prices down) and those who want to install solar, but live in an area that is already flooded with distributed power.

Why the rush?

It’s probably not a coincidence that the new regulations came into force on the anniversary of the 2016 state-wide blackouts that saw a severe storm trigger a series of technical faults.

Concerns about grid instability is a chief reason a $1.5 billion electricity interconnector between South Australia and New South Wales will be built, with the interconnector to be a backup link to the rest of the national energy market in the event the Heywood Interconnector from Victoria fails (as it did in the 2016 blackouts).

But this critical project has faced serious delays and setbacks.

“When there’s too much solar in the gird, and you can’t export it anywhere and can’t shut it down it can cause a blackout, even statewide,” Eddy May says.

“If the interconnector goes down in spring and NSW is not sorted out there will be big problems.”

According to May, the government was probably spooked by the idea of coming into spring, with its unpredictable weather and few households running their airconditioners, without the backup link to the NEM. He says this is one of the main reasons the government rushed the technical changes for small scale solar through in a matter of months.

“Spring is the danger period, they were really keen to get something in place by spring,” Gladman says. 

May says that although South Australia is where the problems of high solar uptake have been seen first, once the state gets its second connection to the NEM “a lot of these problems start to fall away.”

Western Australia is the other place to watch

Western Australia is the only other state showing leadership in this area, Gladman says. Free from the politics of the NEM, the state is “doing some really interesting stuff”.

“It’s the place to watch.”

In April last year, the state government announced the roll out of 238,000 “advanced” meters to be installed over the next three years.

The smart meter rollout is part of the state’s routine meter replacement program, and will allow remote oversight of the amount of renewable energy flowing into the South West Interconnected System (SWIS) from sources such as rooftop solar.

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  1. Talking about SA as though it were a parochial island not connected to the NEM is narrow-minded. Until we have displaced all fossil fuelled power from the entire Australian grid there is no “excess” to be curtailed and even when we have then hydrogen is the next step (but not before). Surely long distance HVDC interconnectors and pumped hydro storage are both the interim and final answer, not curtailment? The grid will need this to enable the transition to 100% renewable anyway – it’s just needed in SA first because they have shown the leadership. Why is our gloom and doom reserved for renewable energy – forever erecting obstacles rather than investing in future proofed solutions that never demotivate renewables investment small scale or large?