Batteries… the Swiss-army knife our system needs everywhere

Community batteries have been in the spotlight in recent years, and why wouldn’t they? They give the local community a sense of empowerment in their sustainability goals, retailers get the opportunity to arbitrage stored energy in the wholesale market and attract/retain customers through a unique value proposition, networks find them potentially useful for deferring investment in poles and wires, benefits in reliability and even resilience!

It isn’t everyday that new types of equipment start showing up in the street, but it’s quite likely that the next time you see a big box on a pole or near a park it could be a battery that will play a vital role in Australia’s future renewable grid.  Batteries have a swiss-army knife-like versatility that will help ensure the smooth operation of a renewable grid, but a tool is only as good so long that it is on hand to be used.

We need more, almost everywhere

Our future energy system is not only going to have to manage the inherent variability of renewable power at the grid scale, but at every level of the system between transmission (high voltage) and distribution (low voltage). Indeed, we are seeing this now with Minimum Demand events being forecasted over the next few years all across the NEM.

The reason for this is because not only are we building huge solar and wind farms, but millions of Australians are putting solar PV on their roof tops every year and this is creating greater variability (higher highs and lower lows) in all levels of the system.  We’re going to need something that can act like metaphorical “shock absorbers“ to suck up the excess and fill in the gaps.

We also need to recognise not all of Australia lives in a big city and rural networks look different to accommodate different kinds of customers. It makes sense that batteries in rural networks won’t look the same, be the same size nor do the same things.

One size does [not] fit all

As we alluded to earlier, batteries are going to appear in all sizes, have different applications and to support different groups of customers.

Community Batteries are pretty big, generally around the 200kW/400kWh and placed on a large, concrete pads. The primary purpose of a battery this size is to ensure there’s enough space for a large number of customers to either fill up the tank with surplus energy (ideally renewable) or supply enough energy for a reasonable amount of time.

Batteries of this size can also help defer or reduce network investment in that area for a few years as demand naturally grows, or to accommodate things like Electric Vehicles (EVs).

However, some networks like United Energy and Ausgrid have started implementing much smaller sizes of batteries that can be installed on poles to address other types of issues such as improving local network reliability, providing grid support, allowing more renewables to export into the grid, network investment deferral and resilience.

In the country, a larger number of smaller batteries could also significantly improve customer reliability on long, stringy lines in rural areas and in extreme cases, might even help power customers that extra bit longer during a natural disaster event.

We also shouldn’t forget the synergies (I hate this word, but it applies) of where batteries combined with self-healing networks and dynamic voltage management can deliver outcomes greater than the sum of its parts.

20th century rules for a 21st century grid

Using batteries as a case in point; how do you design regulation for a tool that is so versatile and can be used across such a broad (and growing) range of applications while still delivering the National Electricity Objective (safe, reliable, efficient and no emissions), promoting competition, protecting customer welfare and discouraging anti-competitive practices? Big questions that we are all still grappling with.

Needless to say, the world is changing every day and it’s been hard for the regulations to catch up.

Our market body friends at the AEMC, AEMO and AER aren’t sitting on their hands – far from it, but speaking for myself, I think we can only apply so many gradual, bolt-on solutions before things (such as engineers and lawyers) start to break under the stress of trying to figure out what the rules allow on any given day.

A case in point might be the AEMO rule change for Integrating Energy Storage Systems, a monster 591-page rule change (which I definitely read end-to-end) on how battery storage should be treated in the regulations which quite possibly caused more than a few in our industry to quietly contemplate self-harm.

It’s an exciting time for network batteries, but I reiterate that a tool is only as useful as long as it is available (in this case electrically connected). We’ll need more batteries, soon and a lot of them across a range of different locations with communities who have different energy requirements and challenges. The entire sector must work together to support the proper integration of these very important innovations.