TECHNOLOGY: When Andrew Mears founded energy management firm SwitchDin in 2014, people couldn’t understand why a software company was frequenting energy storage expos.
It only took another 12 months for the industry to wake up to the importance of smart energy management, Mears told The Fifth Estate, with software like his playing a key grid-stabilising role that will ultimately pave the way for more renewables in the system.
“There’s been rapid growth… the whole sector has come alive,” Mears said.
In seven years, the software company has grown to around 40 staff, most of which are based in Newcastle. It was also one of just two innovative Newcastle-based companies to reach the semi-finals for Impact Tech Ventures’ national Australian Technologies Competition.
The company is already supplying its software to major European companies, including solar manufacturing behemoth Q-Cells, with plans to expand further into the region. Mears also alluded to upcoming work with major US customers that’s yet to be announced.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
The company’s software links up and orchestrates distributed energy sources and loads from a large range of suppliers.
It does this in a few different ways. It can use a gateway device, called a “Droplet”, which is loaded with software capable of talking to all the different brands of solar panels, power metres, airconditioning units and hot water systems that a customer might have on their site. The device communicates and controls all these disparate assets.
For newer devices that are already configured to connect in this way, the company can control them by connecting them with its own cloud-based control panel platform called “StormCloud”.
The ability to connect decentralised energy assets up and control them from a centralised platform has many perks, Mears explains. With this technology, energy assets in homes and businesses can be linked up to become virtual power plants that can participate in the energy markets.
For the company’s customer base of electricity retailers, network operators and energy device manufactures, the ability to aggregate energy generating and energy consuming devices unlocks attractive new value streams.
A property developer building a retirement village, for example, might choose to connect the rooftop solar and battery systems in each home so they can function as one large power station and trade excess solar to the market and support its stability.
The software helps manage microgirds
To date, Mears says his company’s customer base has been dominated by distribution networks that use the software to manage microgrids (self-sufficient energy systems that are sometimes not connected to the main grid). Energy Queensland is rolling the technology on all its remote and regional microgrids, including at Lochhart River, an Indigenous community in far north Queensland.
WA’s regional utility Horizon Power is also using the software to manage remote microgrids, with Mears reporting that one of their sites managed to switch the diesel generator off entirely for a full day.
“This was a testy to verify that you can have 100 per cent renewables in a regulated utilities service in Australia. That’s really the first time this has been done.”
The company is also working with retailers, including providing energy management services for Simply Energy’s VPP in South Australia and Origin Energy’s VPP in Victoria.
“If you think of a retailers job as to buy energy from the spot market at the variable price and sell it onto customers for a fixed tariff, the retailer is exposed to all the ups and downs, and by coordinating the batteries and the solar, they can help to minimise the variability which helps to manage their risk.”
This type of software may help with rule compliance too
In South Australia, the company’s connective devices are being used to comply with the state government’s Smarter Homes rules that mandates remote disconnection (and reconnection) of solar systems when there’s an excess of solar flooding the grid in the middle of the day.
He says the rules are necessary to allow high penetration of solar without destabilising the grid, and that similar rules could be adopted in other states and territories.
“It’s basically increasing the amount of solar in the network. In fact, they are suggesting it can double the hosting capacity of the network.”
Manufactures: a growing customer base
Manufacturers have emerged as the next exciting phase for the business, Mears reports, with manufacturers wanting to embed that software into their product to be sold pre-configured to participate in aggregated activities. He’s already managed to pick up Q-Cells, the company responsible for almost 20 per cent of thew world’s solar panels, to embed the software in their residential battery product.
“There’s lots of growth there – what it’s going to be about is enabling ubiquitous connectivity.”