Archive for February, 2016

Seeing storage in a better light

It’s a sign of the times that only 20 months ago a substantial independent Australian report on electricity networks forecast that storage technologies might not really impact on the east coast market until the middle of the next decade and now claims are being made by at least some analysts that a million homes here will have batteries supporting rooftop PVs within five years.

The problem with all such predictions is that there are so many variables in the policy and regulatory mix as well as bumps in the innovation development road that 20:20 foresight is even less likely today than in the past. This does not, of course, stop a whole heap of people from dropping their opinions on us – and that only becomes a problem when politicians (aka policymakers) start intervening to promote concepts they like or think the voters will like.

We too seldom get the opportunity to pause and subject what is going on to some dispassionate scrutiny; in the case of storage, one such review will take place at the end of February when the Electricity Storage Future Forum, which I am co-chairing, will be held in Sydney. (See www.questevents.com.au/electricity-storage-future-forum-2016)

This is not an event to proselytize the technology – social and mainstream media have been playing that game for months in Australia and a number of other countries, often with what would be breathtaking naivety if such goings-on were not now so common – but an opportunity for people with expertise to canvass the real issues and opportunities.

Thus the forum will include such speakers as Paul Fox, chief technology officer new energy at AGL, John Pierce, chairman of the Australian Energy Market Commission, Paula Conboy, chair of the Australian Energy Regulator, Ian MacGill, director of the Centre for Energy & Environmental Markets, Phil Mackey, general manager, solar and emerging businesses, Origin Energy, Zeno Atherton of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Simon Gamble of Hydro Tasmania, senior executives of Transgrid and ElectraNet, Gavin Dufty of St Vincent de Paul, Nicola Falcon, planning manager at the Australian Energy Market Operator, and professor Anthony Vassallo of the University of Sydney (and more).

I’m particularly looking forward to a panel discussion where my co-chair, Jim Snow of Oakley Greenwood, will moderate ESAA’s Matthew Warren, Jim Bradley of the Energy Networks Association, Dufty and Daniel de Schutter, general manager strategy of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, in a debate on “the economics of storage for multiple stakeholders in the energy chain.”

One of the questions being posed to the panel is “What will be the biggest challenges for suppliers, networks, generators and users?” You could hold a conference on that point alone.

There is so much hype and hoopla out there in the “debate” on storage that, it seems to me, this is a really timely event: storage is not the holy grail but its arrival at this time in a commercially applicable form (even if one that is still emerging) is potentially at least of considerable importance.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply: over what time, led by whom, at what cost, with what changes to regulations and implications for safety standards and so on.

Electricity supply is serious business not a game for ideologues, activists and rent-seekers (let alone the political remora fish); there is unarguably a significant transition in train but, mishandled, a fair bit could go wrong and still more large amounts of consumer and taxpayer money could be wasted.

The purpose of the Electricity Storage Future Forum is to produce a clear view of the state of play.

In this context, I saw a comment last month by the UK Secretary of State for Energy, Amber Rudd, that “storage represents a fantastic opportunity and is a necessary partner for renewable generation helping to create a secure (supply) system.”

Fair enough, so long as one goes on to place the opportunity in the wider milieu of a resilient, reliable, affordable power system serving the best interests of all consumers (who in Australia are not only 9.4 million household account-holders but also 1.3 million businesses, most of them small businesses).

Hard though is may be for the “death of the grid” mob to get their heads around the point, one of the major implications of this technology is how it could be applied at network scale to make variable generation (eg wind and solar) more flexible and useful, changing the equation for coping with peak demand.

In passing, it seems to come as a huge surprise to some people that energy storage is not something just now leaping out of the power box – pumped hydro-electric storage, which accounts for most of the world’s grid-scale storage capacity, has been with us (here and elsewhere) for decades.

The emergence of new storage technologies (do note the plural, this is not only about batteries) at a time when the international power supply sector has a whole set of drivers for pursuing change, including the ongoing need to provide electricity to tens of millions of poor people around the world, not least Africa and South-East Asia, is not a threat to the industry but an opportunity that, like all other opportunities, needs careful management to deliver optimum benefits to consumers as well as to investors being asked to put huge sums of money on the table.

The Electricity Storage Future Forum is a premium chance to better wrap our minds around the issue locally. I’m really looking forward to being part of it as a personal learning experience.