CLIMATE SPECTATOR: What happened to Solar Cities?

There was reason to be sceptical about the Solar Cities program, but a number of success stories suggest it was on the right, albeit slow, track. Now, the government must push on with wide-scale roll-outs.

Climate Spectator

The 2004 Energy White Paper marked the darkest days in Australian Climate Change Policy.

Former Prime Minister John Howard had just kyboshed a proposal from Ministers Costello and Kemp for an emissions trading scheme, and he rejected a recommendation from the government’s Tambling Review Panel to increase the renewable energy target. But eight years later there might be something good to come out of it, via the Solar Cities Program, as I found out at the Solar Cities Conference being held in Brisbane this week.

In past work I’ve been pretty disdainful of the Solar Cities Program. It was quite obviously an attempt by the government to dream up a green fig leaf to cover a great big lump of coal and shiny aluminium metal that was the Energy White Paper. It tried to bill itself as helping build Australia’s leadership position in solar PV when it was obvious to everyone that the amount of solar PV it would support was minuscule compared to countries overseas.

In addition it talked of trialling a range of technologies which had been around for at least one decade, if not many more, like energy efficient lighting, insulation and co-generation. The issue for these technologies was not uncertainty about their physical performance, but more fundamental barriers that required government policy change, not a trial to illustrate they worked.

The program has a million and one objectives and things it said it wanted to trial and types of organisations it wanted to be involved. I remember back in 2005 asking government officials what outcomes they wanted from the trials and then how they might follow-up from the trial into wide-scale roll-out. Their response was it was really up to industry to tell them. Yet industry was composed of a rag tag of groups including electricity network businesses, solar PV manufacturers, local councils, local community groups and energy services businesses that each had a different idea of what was in it for them from the $75 million program. It was just like an episode out of The Hollowmen.

Yet the amazing thing is that something useful has come out of these trials, although one has to ask whether we could have got there in a less circuitous route. The Solar Cities have shown in many cases that demand management is indeed an effective option to augmenting supply. It has also shown that networks can absorb quite high penetrations of solar PV without major problems for power quality.

For example, the Townsville Solar City has illustrated how a combination of household energy assessments and community engagement can lead to meaningful reductions in energy use. And these can avoid the need for costly upgrades in network capacity.

In its trial, Magnetic Island, just off the Townsville Coast, was used as the trial site and then benchmarked against patterns in energy demand growth in Townsville and Ayr. As the chart below illustrates, before the intervention of energy assessments and assorted demand management initiatives the Islands energy consumption was growing quite quickly. After the interventions stated it began to stabilise and then significantly decline. While some might attribute this to the GFC, this can’t explain the decline because other control sites continued to experience growth until around 2011 (partly affected by a cyclone at the time).

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The really important thing out of this Townsville trial is that it has helped open the eyes of Ergon management to the potential to apply demand management more broadly. Interestingly, the manager of the Townsville trial, Ian Cruickshank felt that Ergon could roll-out a number of the demand management initiatives with approval from the regulator under the existing regulatory regime.

There are a range of other success stories in other trial sites and using different demand management techniques.

The Perth Solar City, led by Western Power managed to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in peak demand through the use of devices to automatically cycle air conditioners on and off, without complaint from customers.

Origin Energy found in its Adelaide Solar City trial that the use of critical peak pricing in conjunction with in-house energy meter displays led to reductions in overall energy use on the critical peak day of 14 per cent.

Also of interest is that in Alice Springs, Perth and Townsville they found that network power quality could be easily maintained within specifications under high penetration of solar PV. For example, Western Power established a site where solar PV capacity was equal to over 30 per cent of the rated capacity of the transformer serving the area. The one issue that came out was voltage rising above specification. However, according to Western Power:

"The voltages at the customer level are within the appliance tolerance levels, and as such are not expected to cause any damage to appliances. This household connection-point view, as enabled by the smart meters, flags the need to potentially address voltage regulation issues on saturated solar PV networks.

"From these preliminary results it is clear that a relatively simple adjustment on the distribution transformer tap to a lower level, could allow somewhat larger solar PV system penetration on this network while still maintaining voltages within limits for customers at the end of the low voltage network.”

In light of the outcomes of Solar Cities, let’s hope governments stop talking about tiny trials and start focussing on wide scale roll-out.

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