Power by the People

The incentive for Australian households to invest in solar is fading into the sunset with the announcement of a massive slash to the feed-in tariff price. At the same time, domestic solar energy storage might be the answer to the peak energy needs of an isolated Tasmanian community.

This Girl happened upon an amazing woman: sustainability advocate, policy researcher on the multi-disciplinary team investigating the effectiveness of smart-grid residential batteries and she lives in, and loves Hobart.

Veryan Hann is a PhD candidate in energy policy. She’s had two stints in Hobart. The first was for three years in the nineties and she returned about five years ago with her family.

“We came back to Tassie with our three children because we think it is the best quality of life anywhere in the world, and the most beautiful place to raise a family,” Veryan said.

We caught up in one of her favourite cafes, Daci and Daci (she’s delighted by the rosewater meringues) to find out more about what powers her up about energy research.

“I’m looking at a ‘smart grid’ on Bruny Island; smart household-scale batteries! Specifically I’m researching policy and governance during a time of structural upheaval in the electricity sector – and I ask, how can policy support this type of innovation?” Veryan said.

“Energy policy is an exciting field with a huge amount of change. I started studying a postgraduate diploma in energy and the environment at Murdoch University in 2011, and have been studying in the area since, doing a Masters in public policy. There was something about why energy policy is so controversial that I think intrigued me too.”

Case in point: the current feed-in tariff debate.

How did Hobart, or more specifically, Bruny Island become the launch pad for a renewable energy case study?

“Hobart is absolutely central to the research,” Veryan said.

“There are five project partners, two of which are Hobart based – and the project is on Bruny Island. TasNetworks instigated the project and approached the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) for funding.

Here’s the thing right, there’s less than 1 000 permanent residents on Bruny Island, but in the 2016-17 financial year, it attracted almost 150 000 visitors and over 45 000 stayed at least one night.

Visitors mostly stay in summer so there’s a massive difference between the regular state and peak demand.

“The Bruny Island project has an innovation team of engineers at TasNetworks, and a social research team based at UTAS. TasNetworks saw a network issue that could have much wider applicability if it were solved – that is, the perennial and growing problem for the electricity grid – the problem of peak demand,” she said.

It’s no secret that the Island has patchy energy reliability at times. Its two ageing undersea power cables are not designed to manage the growing tourism demand, they’re massively expensive to replace, and the diesel for backup is also expensive.

The study involves 34 households who are testing the smart batteries which store solar power with the view to selling power back into the energy grid during peak times.

“The electricity system in Australia needs future-proofing in terms of cost, reliability and emissions — and residential batteries can be part of that solution.”

The 15,000 Tasmanians on a generous legacy tariff that will finish at the end of the year are primed for a residential battery.

This Girl asked Veryan if she considered herself a greenie. I could see her considering whether she rated as she mentally trawled piece by piece through her garbage bin at home. Like most of us, I figure she can’t claim zero waste and doesn’t want to be a charlatan.

“It’s hard to be a greenie when you’re a busy mum of three teenagers” she says.

She’s clearly a person of integrity. She won’t sign up to something if she can’t put her money where her mouth is.

“I think what matters is a sense of responsibility towards sustainability; including energy. To me the challenge is; how do we get people on the same page so that we can all be sensibly contributing to future environmental stewardship,” Veryan said.

She doesn’t hesitate on the issue of energy equity. Thinking about the reliability of energy supply in South Australia over the last couple of years – and how each blackout impacted the most vulnerable in the community.

“Think about a four-person family on a 40+ degree day, maybe they can deal with the heat, maybe they’re not even going to be home during the hottest part of the day. Then there’s an elderly person, or someone who needs dialysis. They need access to power. Energy equity matters; it’s critical,” she said.

“Policy related to energy fairness and how to address vulnerable consumers are very important issues and requires careful thinking.”

Veryan predicts that about half of Australian homes will have residential batteries attached to their photovoltaic solar systems in 20 years.

“The battery systems work like this: the ‘smart’ (internet-enabled) batteries learn the household energy patterns so it knows when each household uses energy the most.

“The batteries also keep up to date with the weather and network requirements so it knows how full the battery will be on any given day – and can even charge and store from the grid too.

“It’s complex now – but in the future it will be ‘set and forget’ for people that just want that.”

Veryan believes that in the future, instead of building more coal-fired power stations in Australia, the network businesses will be paying consumers for using their batteries to support the grid in those brief, intense times of peak demand. What used to be a one-way flow of information, electricity and payment with the utility will become a two-way flow.

“Consumers will become ‘prosumers’ – both producing and consuming electricity, and trading with the network.”

Power by the people and to the people.

“In the future it will be just another app on your phone that manages your house like a tiny virtual power station – and the app prototypes are there already,” she said.

“It might be sooner for us than 20 years too – I personally think it will be more like 10 or even less!”

Veryan’s role is to understand the households and how they interact with the technology.

“The battery system components are not new but integrating them is surprisingly difficult; with unexpected outcomes, for example, the pricing, how do you pay people fairly? It’s not as simple as it seems, and how much can, or should a household trade? How much choice is fair, and how much customisation is manageable by a utility? The relationship with the utility as a provider is utterly changing – it is being challenged. These are all the issues the research team and I are looking at.”

“What I find exciting is that this is about the future, so it hasn’t happened yet, but there is an element of peering over the curve.

“The electricity sector in Australia is going through ‘growing pains’ and I believe that what is being piloted in Tassie offers one possible solution for a future Australian grid,” Veryan said

The Two Girls are always interested in where Hobartians like to eat so I asked Veryan where she likes to eat.

“The Brunswick Hotel does a pretty famous parmigiana, and every time I go to the Tasmania Inn (which has lovely craft beers), I secretly hope to see Richard Flanagan!

“I also love Vanidols and Annapurna in North Hobart,” she said.

And, p.s. for someone who doesn’t call herself a greenie:

“I love seeing the mountain first thing in the morning – it tells you the mood of the day, it is so aesthetic and always looks different and beautiful.

“I love the Derwent – such a gorgeous harbour and I love the ease and beauty of living in Hobart overall – and I love nature.”

So do we.

Background

Of the five project partners, three are universities – the Australian National University is the lead; their computer scientists created the ‘smarts’ (software) that coordinate the batteries as a ‘virtual fleet.’

The University of Sydney is leading the economics side (how to pay the consumers, and what is ‘fair’ from an economists’ point of view).

The University of Tasmania is investigating the social, policy, and governance impacts, and the project has two industry partners: TasNetworks and Reposit Power which is a software start-up based in Canberra.

The project is funded by ARENA.

For more information

ARENA’s CONSORT project CONsumer energy systems providing cost effective grid suppORT

Bruny Island Battery Trial

Kingborough Councils’ Bruny Island Tourism Strategy

Australian Renewable Energy Agency

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