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When off grid is not grid replacement

With the availability, range and configuration of energy storage options expanding massively in recent years, installers now have a huge variety of options at their disposal to meet the needs of customers.

By Clean Energy Council Team Leader - Accreditation Stakeholder Engagement Luke Pickles

While it is still a substantial leap for many customers to install a full grid replacement photovoltaic inverter system, the falling price of batteries is starting to make it an increasingly realistic option – particularly for businesses that are looking for ways to reduce their exposure to volatile power prices in the future. And it’s a growing topic of discussion across the industry.

What installers are lacking though is guidance on compliance for grid replacement systems. This is particularly important for those who want to supply equipment to the grid replacement market, or those who are trying to develop business models around providing installation services to this growing part of the industry.

I will explore some recommendations to further help installers later in this column.

One person’s micro-grid is another’s grid replacement system

To installers who have been in the industry for even a short time the idea of an off-grid system is nothing new. However, in this scenario it is important to distinguish that we are talking about grid replacement – or micro-grid – systems that conform to requirements which apply to traditional network operators.

Grid replacement systems are increasingly appealing for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the availability, range and configuration options have vastly expanded in recent years. A simple example of this is the prevalence of lithium batteries, tested to appropriate standards, providing high energy density along with deep and frequent discharging. Additional examples include low voltage DC connections, stacking and interconnection of multiple components, and the ever-important remote monitoring.

With such options, and the ongoing reduction in other photovoltaic system capital costs, comes a compelling financial case for some network operators to install and manage systems that do not belong to the traditional central grid network.

This is particularly relevant for:

  • networks where distances within their jurisdiction are significant – such as Western Australia
  • areas where transmission lines traverse sparsely populated regions.

Another reason grid replacement systems are appealing is that some networks are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. This means that when major “back bone” transmission infrastructure fails or becomes damaged, tens or hundreds of thousands of premises can be affected.

In some cases, bushfires have been linked to power lines, outlining the risks involved. Indeed, such risks require some new transmission infrastructure projects to include underground network wiring systems.

Networks rule

Network operators manage the traditional central grid network and operate in a heavily regulated environment. Included within this regulatory environment are service standards, as well as safety and technical standards.

Service standards include reliability and quality of supply, which typically form part of a contractual arrangement with the consumer. Such standards include the duration of unplanned outages which may be further split into specific levels of consumer density, geographic areas and consumer types.

Additionally, consumer guarantee provisions in the Australian Competition Law may apply.

Safety and technical standards apply to the electrical installation by referring to legislative acts and regulations concerning electrical safety and product safety. Again, Australian Competition Law may apply to some goods and services.

Regulations concerning grid replacement and micro-grid systems are an evolving matter currently being discussed at the federal and state/territory levels. Such deliberations include a Federal Parliamentary Inquiry finalised in December 2017 which included safeguarding reliability thresholds and consumer protections.

One catch is that such regulations may only apply where the network operators themselves decide to move a consumer onto – or establish – grid replacement systems. And here’s the important distinction: regulations may not apply where it is the decision of the consumer to purchase an off-grid system.

What the industry needs

Consultation on grid replacement compliance frameworks continues, but the industry can benefit from guidance now.

First and foremost would be a set of guidelines outlining system design and performance, including performance margins, redundancy systems and more. This information would be best developed in consultation with network operators, solar and storage installation solution providers, industry association representatives and consumer advocates.

Additional measures to support transparency include the development of dedicated Australian Standards including formal testing and maintenance schedules and procedures. Standards development takes time, and ultimately needs to be backed by the development of dedicated, nationally-recognised training modules and consumer education campaigns.

Included in the overall compliance and industry integrity landscape should be an industry accreditation scheme for grid replacement systems to maintain the high standards and reputation that has created the conditions for batteries and new, compelling opportunities.

This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of ecogeneration.