A battery of dilemmas

This excellent piece in pv magazine covers a lot of ground across medium-scale/community batteries with a host of voices.

My comments in the article (key ones copied below) foreshadow some work I’ll be putting out in the coming month analysing the relationships between medium-scale batteries and equity, sustainability and resilience.

Limited grid benefits

Electricity networks in Australia operate under a “postage stamp pricing” mandate which dictates every customer in the service area pays the same even though it costs orders of magnitude more to maintain services to far flung farms than to urban consumers. This principle, while based on maintaining equity in the community, sets up a structure where using locally generated power has no financial reward, according to Bjorn Sturmberg, research leader in the battery storage and grid integration program at ANU. In his eyes, this seriously weakens the case for using community batteries as solar-shifting devices when big batteries such as Australia’s Hornsdale Power Reserve are fitted with far more sophisticated software systems and benefit from economies of scale.

Where community batteries are unique is as a solution to particular local network issues, Sturmberg says. Reliability, daily voltage control, reverse power flows, and energy resilience in the face of natural disasters simply can’t be worked out on the continental electricity system, they have to be addressed locally. “That’s the kind of value that you’re unlocking,” Sturmberg tells pv magazine.

Because energy distributors are responsible for regulating those conditions, he feels they are the natural choice to own and operate community batteries. It may be an unpopular view with those seeking greater energy independence but, for Sturmberg, network ownership makes practical and ethical sense, given the postage stamp pricing mandate. “The benefit is then shared among a very diverse set of customers,” he says. “That, for me, makes it the best outcome for the community at large rather than the community of one street.”

Enabling microgrids

Renewable energy and embedded microgrids constitute a specific application for shared batteries that help communities that are already isolated – or prone to isolation by natural disaster – have access to reliable clean energy. Microgrids have also proven cheaper for networks to operate than stringing grid-connected lines to far-flung areas. The Australian National University’s Bjorn Sturmberg believes such microgrids are perhaps most closely aligned to community expectations of shared batteries. That is, such facilities naturally shift residents’ solar power consumption and provide communities with genuine energy independence.