PV Power — the Pathway Forward

A couple of weeks ago former CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) Ivor Frischknecht delivered a talk at the Australian National University.

He touched on many of the challenges and opportunities — and the difference between a challenge and an opportunity is, very often, a matter of how one looks at the same thing — posed by the transition taking place in the National Energy Market.

Broadly, there are two positions taken up by stakeholders: techno-pessimism and techno-optimism.

The techno-pessimist tends to dismiss the potential of solar to contribute on a large-scale to any energy policy for future. They point, primarily, to the fact that residentially produced PV makes up about 4% of the power on the National Energy Market at the minute. If we were to go, say, 80% renewables — then to work out how much it could contribute we just times 4 by 4. That leaves us with a sobering 16% cap on a residential rooftop contribution to the total NEM (crucially without batteries). The rest would have to come from somewhere else.

The techno-optimist answers, however, that the data is outdated. Sizes of solar arrays on average are much bigger than they were in the past when we reached that underwhelming 4% in the NEM. In 2010 the most common system size was 1kW. In 2018 it is now 6.8kW.

15.84kW Residential Array (Not All Panels Visible)

Buying habits have changed as well. Sizing a system is principally dictated by space, not price. Prices of panels having been driven down with time. Black coal is really more expensive just to run, than it is to buy brand new panels plus inverters which have essentially nil ongoing costs once installed.

360W Guinness World Record Holding SunPower Panel

Higher wattage panels also allow one to get more out of the same amount of roof-space. As recently as 3 or 4 years ago the aveage panel was 260W-270W. This day and age they are available up to 360W for residential customers. 300W+ is quite common, if not already the new normal.

Modules are more efficient too. 15% (average)-24% (SunPower) of usuable sunlight is converted into usable electricity. Just 8 panels today produces 25% more than the same number did only 8 years ago. This could improve by another 4%-5% in coming years. By even more if certain avenues of module material and manufacture prove worth pursuing.

Housetop solar as a 50% source of generation is very viable. Add in Virtual Power Plants, big batteries, commercial installations, solar farms and firm that up with wind, hydro and a last resort of cleaner coal.

Firmed renewables are a fresh and immense incentive to modernise a grid desperately in need of it. Take an easy enough example: voltage regulation. The grid requires to be maintained at 50Hz. When there is a fluctuation for any reason, the technology presently in place is to literally heat up a bit of metal until the current trips. Space age, right?

It makes more sense, is easier and in step with where we are as modern society to do it digitally. Like the Tesla tech at the Hornsdale Power Reserve — which kicks on to stabilise grid frequency in SA quicker than the human eye can blink. How much more quickly than a coal power plant then!

The main problem with PV is that solar exports at a slightly higher voltage to the grid than vice versa. In certain situations this voltage rise trips the inverter which then restarts itself. This is decidedly susceptible of being dealt with, again by simply digitalising the process. Inverter tech is already there — there are 1.8 billion of them in Australia capable of communicating with the grid. It's the grid that can't communicate with them. That's the beast to slay!

The other issue is incentivising solar for homeowners. Local governments are actually doing rather a good job of offering reasons for buying a solar system. The Federal Small-scale Technology Certificates programme is still in place. But Frischknecht expects the best way to proceed would be for Councils to take on financing the purchase of one and then factor it into the rates. People are less inclined to default on their rates than on a loan, given the seriousness of the possible consequences.

Why not get a headstart on modernising your home? Be in touch today to look into a solar or storage solution for your home or place of business.

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