Energy self sufficiency is happening in major cities. Perth is leading the way. Solar, batteries and microgrids are a thing of the not so distant future. Good article on how things are progressing.

Perth could soon be the first city to be completely solar powered

Emily Moulton

TEN years ago the idea that solar panels would become as common as roller doors was almost laughable.

But today more than 1.4 million homes in Australia have this green technology on their rooftops.

That’s huge when you compare it to what it was in 2005, at just 1500.

Back then, solar power was the type of technology only hardcore greenies, intent on saving the planet, would embrace.

Now, as electricity prices continue to soar, the price of the technology drops and climate change is on everyone’s conscience, many people — as well as our governments — see solar’s monetary and environmental benefits.

There is one state in particular that is embracing solar technology at a staggering rate.

One in every five homes in Western Australia has rooftop solar panels.

On average, around 1800 solar photovoltaic systems were installed on roof tops each month this year.

And there has been an average annual growth rate of installations of about 27 per cent.

This prompted the state’s Energy Minister, Mike Nahan, to predict that WA’s daytime electricity needs would be completely generated by solar PV within 10 years.

And state-owned utility Synergy will soon be offering home battery storage systems to customers, making the idea of power-bill free homes a real possibility.

Earlier this year, gas retailer Alinta announced it was planning to sell solar panels to households as well as battery storage devices when the technology became commercially feasible and the market deregulated.

Battery storage systems could be a game changer — essentially allowing homes to be almost free of the electricity grid.

Currently, rooftop solar panels allow households to generate and use their own electricity while the sun is shining. Anything they don’t use is exported to the grid.

When it goes dark, the house supply switches back to the grid.

With batteries, households will be able to use that stored energy in evening peak times instead.

There is already one home in WA’s southern suburbs which Curtin University research has shown is 97 per cent free of the grid.

Called Josh’s House — initiated by Jemma Green, research fellow at Curtin University — the home is the first low-carbon sustainable living house of its kind to be built in WA.

Recently, a battery storage system was added as part of a wider sustainable living project being run by Curtin University and Low Carbon Living.

The WA Government is also running another battery storage system trial at the Alkimos Beach residential development, north of Perth.

An Australian-first, it is being conducted to examine how solar technology and battery storage systems can become commercially viable for consumers, land developers, electricity retailers and network operators.

Mr Nahan told the WA state-owned utility companies Western Power and Synergy were weeks away from announcing a solution to allow batteries to export to the grid.

“Australia is an ideal test market for residential battery storage products due to high peak tariffs and the relatively large existing base of installed solar photovoltaic systems,” he told

“Western Power and Synergy are currently in discussions to achieve a solution to allow batteries to export to the grid. I expect to make an announcement in the coming weeks.”

Mr Nahan said it has been estimated that solar photovoltaic systems installed on the South West Interconnected System were forecast to generate more than 750 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity in 2015-16.

He told a conference in August he expected Perth’s electricity needs to be generated by rooftop power within a decade.

“That’s the reality,” he said. “So it is going to provide the bulk of additional capacity going forward.

“Solar will also displace a lot of the existing [coal-based] capacity. It’s low-priced, it’s democratically determined and it’s something we’re committed to facilitating.”

His comments show a change in mindset from WA’s Coalition-led government, which has been struggling to resolve its energy sector problem.

Utility prices in the state have soared over the past decade. The government argued prices were too low under Labor, and they had been forced to raise them in order to bring them up to realistic prices.

Recognising the drop in revenue from the popularity of solar panels, and the increasing burden of maintaining its poles and wires network, the government says it wants to drop its subsidy program.

The WA Government subsidises electricity costs to the tune of $600 million a year — or about $500 per household.

That puts a massive dent in the state’s finances, which are in dire need of propping up.

It has also indicated that it will have to close a number of its power stations because solar panels.

Solar panels. The energy source of the future? Picture: Reuters/Benoit TessierSource:Reuters

While Mr Nahan would not say when or which of the stations would be closed, he did say any decision would be made in the “best interests of the state”.

“This government has done more for renewable energy in this state than any other, including the Australian-first trial to examine battery storage and energy efficiency incentives for consumers at Alkimos Beach, north of Perth,” he said. “Reform to the electricity industry is an important issue for this government. Any decision to close generation plants will be considered in due course, and in the best interests of the state.”

Sustainability expert Jemma Green said the words coming from the WA Government were very positive. She is pleased the state’s utilities were getting on board but warns those who didn’t embrace the solar revolution risked becoming obsolete.

“In terms of utility companies, not all of them are going to have an enlightened view,” she said. “In WA, we have already a 20 per cent growth in solar even with a very low feed in tariff. And we have already got nearly 500 megawatts of rooftop solar and 190,000 homes which is more than one in five. It’s not science fiction, it’s happening already.”

Ms Green said when it came to the big fossil-fuel driven utilities there were three ways the government could react — fight, flight or innovate.

Fight, she explained, was where utilities lobbied government against granting permits for renewable projects in a bid to protect their existing revenue base, refusing to accept change.

Flight was when the companies sold off their fossil fuel assets or separated them, essentially giving up.

Innovate, she said, was when companies accepted the change and adapted.

“So, Alinta are now offering solar and battery to consumers. And there other utilities in Australia that are doing this as well,” she said. ‘If you look globally the price of electricity we have here in Australia is very high compared to other places in the world and the only other country that have electricity prices as high as us are Denmark and Germany.

“The price of solar panels will come down even more so it’s a matter of when. Perth is just where it is happening first but it’s not only where it is happening in the world.”.

Perth at night. With battery storage systems Perth could use stored solar power at night.Source:News Limited

Ms Green, who was instrumental is setting up the battery storage trial at Josh’s House, has also embarked on her own Australian first trial, a micro-grid for strata properties.

The project is giving investors, who generally own most of the strata properties, an incentive to install solar power.

The micro-grid will allow apartment blocks and townhouse developments to use a communal battery system that will be managed by the strata company, with any excess electricity generated being sold to the utility and the money given to property owners.

So not only will prices be cheaper for tenants, the owners can make money.

“With the micro-grid the (unit) owner benefits,” Ms Green explained. “And because you have a micro-grid you don’t have to spend as much money on solar system or battery system because you will have economy to scale where one person’s not home so the electricity can be used by the neighbour.

“Whereas in current apartments that offer solar, they individually wire each unit to the solar panels with its own inverters. So you have a lot of inverters and if one person is not home they are selling their electricity at the grid for seven cents an hour, while the neighbour is buying it at that moment for 26 cents.”

So how does she feel at the possibility that Perth could become the first city in Australia to be completely solar powered?

“I lived in London for 11 years and moved back to Perth three years ago and thought I was going to be moving back to the sleepy back waters,” she said. “It’s so nice to be working on this. I feel at the centre of the universe of what is happening.”