How the electricity grid will cope with increase in rooftop solar and the future of tariffs – ABC News

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Since the early 2010s, when feed-in tariffs made household solar systems more attractive, Australia has been steadily installing an increasing number of bigger rooftop systems. 

Tariffs are what a customer is paid for exporting excess power back to the electricity grid.

But with one-third of New South Wales homes having rooftop solar and the number increasing, will energy providers stop paying for the often unneeded electricity being sent back to them?

“The amount of solar will sooner or later begin to exceed the actual capability of the network,” Sean Elphick from the Australian Power Quality Research Centre said.

He said companies that generated and distributed electricity generally did not store large amounts of electricity, so the surplus of power provided by household solar systems during the day when demand was low was of little benefit.

That means feed-in tariffs — which have steadily been decreasing — will likely end all together as more household solar systems are installed.

“The energy spot-price can sometimes be negative during the day, so it’s possible there will be minimal or no tariffs at all,” Mr Elphick said.

“This is a signal to people that self-consumption of your own generation is the best outcome for you.”

Managing electricity flow while households are generating plenty of power is a major challenge for power stations such as Eraring at Lake Macquarie.(AAP/Greenpeace)

How the grid copes

Originally set up to distribute electricity from a power station to a house, the electricity grid has its limitations.

“Every wire has a certain amount of current that it can transport and beyond that, the wire will fail,” Mr Elphick said.

“We’re getting to a situation where we’ll have capacity constraints.”

Energy service providers will soon increase the regulation of power sent back to the grid via a device called a dynamic operating envelope.

This is something installed in a household solar inverter that allows the energy provider to throttle the power being sent back to the grid.

An array of battery-like devices attached to the exterior wall of a building.

Dynamic operating envelopes will be installed in more household inverters in future.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

This might come into effect on sunny days when households are generating significant amounts of power they are not using.

“Some network service providers have taken the tack that you can have a 1.5-kilowatt system without a dynamic operating envelope, but if you want to connect a 10kW system, you must sign up to have one,” Mr Elphick said.

“At this stage, I’d say dynamic operating envelopes won’t be used that often, but into the future this is one of the methods that will be used to manage those capacity constraints.”

The exterior of a modern-looking building beneath a sunny sky.

The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre’s microgrid is under construction.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

What is a microgrid?

A microgrid is a system that generates, stores, and distributes its own electricity.

The roof of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong, where Mr Elphick works, is covered in solar panels and the team is in the process of setting up their own microgrid.

“At the university, we have a lot of solar generation here and we’ll install additional storage and equipment to help us manage our loads,” he said.

“The energy of two of our buildings will be self-sustaining, so it will be generated, stored, and released onsite.

“We’ll maintain our connection to the grid if we have days without sunlight, but we won’t be importing much power off the grid.”

Solar panels on a roof, as seen through the branches of trees.

As power prices continue to rise, more large businesses are expected to consider building microgrids.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

Mr Elphick said power prices were likely to continue increasing and that larger organisations, such as businesses and universities, would consider microgrids as a green and cost-efficient solution for their energy needs.

The SBRC would then welcome members of the public to come and learn about how it works.

“It’s very novel for Australia and it’ll be the first of its kind, but we want to demonstrate sustainability concepts to the general public,” he said.

“People can come here, have a look, and we can demystify some of these technologies.

“It’s the future and we want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be involved in that.”

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