Virtually ready for solar's next thing

Electricity distributors will take control of virtual solar plants as they emerge, with aggregated energy flows set to enhance solar's dispatchability.

Virtual bookstore? Amazon.com; Virtual encyclopedia? Wikipedia.org; Virtual university? OpenEdu.com.au.

The Dictionary (virtual of course) describes the phrase thusly:

(Adjective); Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition: “the virtual absence of border controls”.Not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so: “virtual images”

This pretty accurately describes what virtual power plants, VPPs, are and they are starting to come to life around the world. A recent Renewable Energy World interview with Siemens Key expert in product life-cycle management Dr Thomas Werner, provided a fascinating taste of where we could be heading; fast.

The simple fact is that software and data management are becoming so powerful and cheap that aggregating and controlling distributed generation sources is already happening in some countries and Werner predicts it will continue.

Importantly, it can overcome’s two critical problems in Australia. The first is that if electricity distributors are going to survive, they need a new way of making money that leverages their in-house skills. Data management of complex networks is something they know how to do very effectively and it seems to me that transitioning to owning and operating VPPs is a no-brainer.

Secondly, in markets like Australia where millions of small systems are operating independently, it could provide a method for aggregating and managing energy flows in a way that solves more network problems than it causes. For the solar snowball to grow larger, we may have to give up a little control.

VPP’s using solar (in particular) also have some other interesting possibilities. Virtual Private Networks already exist in Australia; typically in large tenanted buildings, shopping centres and aged care facilities. There are companies who already specialise in aggregating the buying, management, billing and metering of energy for hundreds of separate clients within such facilities and I believe its only a matter of time before solar is integrated into this mix Down Under.

I’ve also heard stories about the potential for Virtual Solar from several solar industry thought leaders. The concept of utilities installing and owning a proportion of (for example) residential capacity, in strategic geographic locations has some fascinating merit. By owning this capacity, they can 100 per cent control it; using it to increase or decrease network voltage using simple remote controls to switch capacity on or off. They already do this with other technologies, so it's simply an extension that requires some new thinking. Solar in Australia has a unique position because our demand is so temperature related; and spreading it around the country can deliver sufficient geographic diversity enhancing the probability of dispatchability as and when it’s needed.

A key, as Werner highlights, is the ability to forecast generation in advance and have enough diversity to maintain availability within strict limits and the variation in renewable outputs makes this more challenging. But its is not only possible, its working and will get easier as time rapidly passes us by. Modern energy systems simply need to cope with diverse inputs and complex energy management protocols and all it takes is foresight to get them in place.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft built in 1977, just left our solar system. It’s computers can process 8000 instructions per second and today the average smartphone can do it 1.8 million times faster. That’s right, your smartphone  There’s a pretty good chance that Moore’s Law is going to help us achieve VPPs sooner than we expect.

Nigel Morris is the director of SolarBusinessServices.

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