Solar panel craze leaves Australia’s grid scrambling for backup

Agnew solar plant in Australia Image: Gold field

Australians’ fervent embrace of rooftop solar is forcing the grid to become more flexible.

The shift has carved out daytime demand for traditional generation and caused bigger fluctuations in electricity use across the day, the Australian Energy Market Operator said in its annual report on the long-term outlook for the grid. With a number of coal power plants set to retire over the next decade, lithium-ion batteries, pumped hydro and improved transmission infrastructure will play a key role in filling the gap, it said.

Abundant sunshine has turned Australia into one of the world’s biggest adopters of rooftop solar, with panels on more than one in four households, according to BloombergNEF. As falling cell prices encourages consumers in other countries to follow suit, other grids will be looking at how Australia deals with the surge.

“As we continue to see the increasing shift toward non-traditional generators and the increasing take up of household rooftop PV, we are encountering new challenges of managing voltage, system strength, and inertia,” Audrey Zibelman, AEMO’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “With minimum demand carved out during the day, there’s an opportunity for innovative solutions and technologies to enter the market and utility-scale energy storage is likely to become increasingly important for daily operation.”

The operator is calling for investment in new grid connections to better integrate the increase in renewable capacity. AEMO has also raised the possibility of gaining increased “controllability” of rooftop solar via enhanced inverter standards on new panels, giving it the ability to curtail output if system stability is under threat.

AEMO’s report sees a brighter outlook for system reliability over the next five years thanks to the rapid development of renewables, improving infrastructure and lower peak demand. It’s also forecasting less pressure on the grid over the coming summer – a time when soaring temperatures often put the network under pressure as homes and businesses crank up the air conditioning. That’s partly due to rooftop solar taking some of the strain, but also because of the ongoing economic disruption being caused by COVID-19.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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