Playing with fire: coronavirus and the perils of Perth’s solar transformation.

Why the solar-powered grid needs to smarten up to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Western Australia’s Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Roadmap puts the region out front in the race to achieve a grid primarily powered by the sun. Described by an energy expert as a ‘laboratory experiment in the uptake of solar’, the state is a pioneer in the development of Distributed Energy Resources (DER), or a grid powered largely by residential photovoltaic panels.

Western Australia’s unprecedented leap into the unknown seems natural in a region blessed with so much sunshine and in an age of clear climate distress.

The city’s isolation from the rest of Australia is another factor driving solar innovation. On the opposite coast, higher population densities and interlinking urban areas mean states can rely on one another via the National Energy Market (NEM) in times of shifting energy demand. Perth and Western Australia exist on an island of one. 

For all its good intentions, being among the first places on earth to base half of its generation requirements on residential solar photovoltaics is a risky endeavour.

Solar and wind energy are notoriously variable and unpredictable. Without the impetus provided by traditional thermal generators, maintaining the necessary grid frequency to ensure quality and continuity becomes an ever more delicate balancing act.

Powered by Perth: At the forefront of discovering whether residential solar is the answer to the world’s energy problems

Overcoming the ‘dumb grid’: why solar needs to smarten up and fast

In an age where the words ‘smart’ and ‘energy’ are rarely seen too far apart, rooftop solar is often wrongly perceived to be a smart solution. The truth is quite the opposite. As sources of energy generation go, the domestic solar system is significantly less sophisticated than any commercial generator. The power it produces gets fed back into the network unrestricted. As new units spread across suburbia, the shortfalls of a critical mass of unmanaged energy entering the grid are manifold.

Coronavirus has brought this problem front and centre. 

From meeting demand to managing over-supply: COVID-19 has turned the solar grid debate on its head.

Western Australia’s focus on building photovoltaic capacity missed the elephant in the room: what if demand for energy suddenly dropped, and tens of thousands of solar arrays continued to feed hundreds of megawatts into the grid without the ability to stop them? Granted, this is not a scenario many considered possible as 2019 drew to a close, but today that situation is all too real.

Storm clouds gathering

Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the operator of Western Australian’s Wholesale Energy Market (WEM), recently released a report warning of the threat of widespread, persistent blackouts if urgent action isn’t taken to upgrade a system ill-equipped to manage the over-supply of solar energy. 

Not only is there a danger of rolling blackouts periodically taking out large sections of the grid, the report also suggests that solar oversupply threatens to take down the system entirely by 2022, a scenario with catastrophic consequences. 

Power grids are notoriously difficult to manage, and adding renewable sources at every nerve ending makes that job significantly more complicated. Once they collapse completely, bringing them back to life is a Herculean task, particularly when the underlying problem remains in place. 

What you cannot monitor you cannot manage: Lack of grid visibility is the biggest obstacle to solar grid adoption.

The key challenge is grid visibility. Without knowing what’s happening across the network in real time, grid operation teams are reactive rather than proactive, guessing more often than knowing. 

In an increasingly complex world, that is a risk Perth cannot afford.

Is the solution at the edge or is it somewhere closer to the middle?

AEMO’s proposed solution is to fit each new rooftop solar system with a smart inverter, paid for by the consumer. The result would be a grid that is significantly less dumb, where new certain units could be switched off by the operator in emergency situations. Another solution touted is the integration of synchronous condensers, which strengthen the backbone of the grid and make it less susceptible to consistent, high-energy volumes. Banks of battery systems are another possibility, capable of soaking up the excess power while the sun shines and feeding it back in after dark.

A problem that all of these solutions share is cost. Consumers, disincentivised by the cost of the smart device, are less likely to install systems, reducing the mitigation effort. Batteries, while steadily decreasing in price, still make little economic sense. Synchronous condensers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and maintain.

Is there light at the end of the thermal generation tunnel?

The solution, it turns out, is not at the edge of the network. Rather than simply fitting a switch to a small number of solar systems, what operators need is visibility of the entire grid in real-time. 

Introducing VECTO System – real time notifications the moment problems arise

Developed in Cape Town, South Africa, VECTO System is an innovative grid management system developed to meet Africa’s steep energy challenges. It is a solution in two parts – a device installed across the network, and a software platform that visualises the data and provides real time notifications when network performance moves out of accepted safety thresholds.

Each VECTO System device is a linux-based edge computer, which process data locally as it enters the device, while simultaneously streaming it onwards a central data store. With a built-in GPS clock that is time synchronised to within ±100ns from absolute time, the full fleet of devices work together in perfect harmony, delivering the full picture of network performance.  

VECTO System VECTO 3 Class A Multifunction Power, Power Quality & Synchrophasor Analyser
Beneath the compact exterior is processing power with real punch. The VECTO System VectoIII® is a Class-A multifunction device unlike anything on the market.

The VECTO 3 edge-computing measurement device records and reports on a comprehensive set of RMS, phasor, harmonic, environmental & synchrophasor data, encompassing over 9,000 parameters.

VECTO System’s data visualisation platform — VECTO Grid OS — reports and interprets the data for the end user. Available for all smart devices, VECTO Grid OS will notify the appropriate team members at the moment anomalies occur on the network. If storm clouds suddenly begin to form over the city and solar supply drops rapidly, VECTO Grid OS will send emergency push notifications and emails in real time to the people who matter.  

Accessible on any device, VECTO System notifies selected users when anomalies occur, and can escalate issues if not resolved quickly.

Beyond emergency notifications, VECTO System’s unique capabilities can also:

  • Provide interaction and control down to the mini-substation level, providing engineers and operators with unprecedented visibility and remote management of the entire enterprise.
  • Predict, detect and prevent wildfires caused by high voltage power-lines.
  • Provide detailed information and insights through an ongoing forensic record, enabling long-term decision making and informed capital investments.

Keen to know more?

VECTO System is set to change the way the power grid is managed. If you’d like to see more of what the system is capable of, speak to us.

Have any questions? Drop us a line below…

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