Virtual power to the people

By Claire Ginn

15 March 2016

5 minute read

Sun in Sky - Flickr skyseeker

Household solar is on the rise – Image credit Skyseeker/Flickr

Across Australia, neighbourhoods are changing. Household solar is on the rise, and the amount of electricity being generated by these rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panels is increasing. People are also investigating energy storage options, all the while expecting their household generation and storage devices to sync seamlessly with the grid.

What you may not already know is that this user-generated energy has the potential to affect the stability of our energy supply. How? Well, the more solar panels in a neighbourhood, the more likely you are to have high and fluctuating voltages and unstable power supply that makes it tricky to export your solar energy. This could lead to restrictions on the amount of household solar-based electricity connected to the grid.

The other challenge with household solar is that it’s totally dependent on weather conditions, so a bit of afternoon cloud cover could ruin your air-conditioned bliss. We’d go so far as to say that changing weather conditions are the ultimate kick in the shins for renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

But these renewable energy sources are an important part of our low-carbon energy future, so we need to sort it out, and pronto! With that challenge before us, we’ve identified a system that can help.

VIRTUAL POWER TO THE PEOPLE

What used to be a relatively straight line from the power plant to your light switch is now far more complex. So if we take a step back and start to look at household solar systems alongside traditional power plants and other energy generators, what we see is a large, interconnected network…

Behold, the ‘Virtual Power Station’. It links energy sources like rooftop solar panels with energy storage devices and load control systems in a web-based network, to create a single reliable energy supply, much like a power station.

Here’s how it works: a central control point intelligently monitors the power output of each energy generator in the network – for example, each set of solar panels on your street. The Virtual Power Station can then combine them into a single electricity supply and provide it to the grid. Essentially, it’s turning a collection of separate, fluctuating power sources into one smooth, reliable energy source – what’s known as a ‘dispatchable supply’. As you can see in this graphic, neighbourhood houses connect through a network, and power sources and storage devices ebb and flow throughout the day.

CSIRO_VPS_Diagram_Animation_3-1600px (002)

BENEFITS

Happily, the Virtual Power Station offers benefits to both the producers and users of electricity.

Households are paid more for their electricity and waste is avoided

The electricity market pays more for electricity that is dispatchable, and the Virtual Power Station is creating an electricity supply that is more attractive to energy distribution companies. It helps households to take advantage of peak prices, and by avoiding energy waste it provides financial benefit to consumers in constrained network areas.

Improving access to the grid for household solar

Creating a dispatchable supply of energy also ensures that the grid can use it. By managing power quality in constrained network areas, the VPS allows higher penetration of solar generation and more renewable energy in the energy mix.

Smoother sailing on cloudy days

By combining energy sources and storage systems, the Virtual Power Station can overcome low solar generation on cloudy days.

Adding value to existing renewable systems

The Virtual Power Station can be added to existing renewable generation systems, increasing their cost effectiveness by adding value to the power they generate. This could also enhance the attractiveness of renewable energy technology and lead to greater uptake.

Solar panels are a fantastic renewable energy source, but their their rise in popularity could cause instability on

Solar panels are a fantastic renewable energy source, but their rise in popularity could cause instability in our energy supply.

Use each system as a weather sensor

Accurate prediction is important for dispatchability. The web-interface will report power generation data for each site meaning you could potentially use each solar panel as an indicator of cloud density or solar intensity and each wind turbine as a wind speed sensor.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

As it’s powered 100% by renewables, no GHG emissions will be created as a consequence of energy production. Also, ‘green power’ has the potential to be worth comparatively more to the electricity market, further improving the economic case for renewable generation systems.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Before your neighbourhood can depend on a Virtual Power Station, we need to:

  1. Run some simulations to assess what works best, and see what impact it could have Australia-wide
  2. Refine a control system for individual sites – managing the quality of neighbourhood power and making sure wastage is minimal means $ savings!
  3. Do lots of maths to figure out how energy distributors can best work into the VPS, and
  4. Most excitingly, following some simulations in our Renewable Energy Integration Facility, we’ll test the VPS in a new Lend Lease residential development.

Once our testing is done, we’ll supply our information to Australian distribution network operators in the hope we’ll be able to better address the challenges that arise from increasing levels of PV-based electricity in distribution networks while improving power quality.

We’re trialling the Virtual Power Station thanks to funding support from ARENA.

We’re collaborating with SMA, The University of Newcastle, Tritium, Selectronic, Lend Lease and Ergon Energy to bring the Virtual Power Station to life.

Learn more about our pioneering energy research here.