Thursday, 29 September 2011

Solar dream gets caught in gridlock

Courier Mail
24 Sep 2011, Page: 4

THE solar power revolution is in danger of stalling, with the State Government admitting the electricity grid is failing to cope with its green vision. Energy Minister Stephen Robertson confirmed new applications for rooftop solar systems were being rejected in areas where Queensland's high uptake threatened the safety and reliability of its network. Thousands of homeowners hoping for promised power savings of up to $540 via a 1.5kW system are in limbo, with those wanting larger systems even being asked to pay more than $20,000 to help cover local upgrades.

Energex said the state's electricity network since the 1950s had been designed to deliver power from the station to the home and the voltage now heading "the other way" was causing a huge dilemma. Following advice from engineering experts, no more systems will be automatically approved when the penetration of solar photovoltaic systems hits 30% in neighbourhoods. The penetration refers to the maximum capacity of the transformer supplying the local zone, which can include 50 homes. In a bid to cut power bills, more than 107,000 Queensland households have jumped at the Solar Bonus Scheme, launched in 2008, exporting 72.5 million kW hours back to the grid.

However, unless significant, costly upgrades are completed, many who might want to add solar panels in the future may not be able to. Energex is warning Queenslanders considering installing solar to make applications well before entering a contract with an installer in case they are not able to proceed. Spokesman Mike Swanston told the Courier Mail about 600 local distribution transformer zones on the Gold Coast, Brisbane Valley and Sunshine Coast had reached saturation.

Mr Swanston said, at this stage, only a handful of applications had been "rejected outright", but he confirmed that 30% saturation was the "trigger" for applications to be investigated. He said the areas reaching capacity were very localised and "one street may be OK, yet the next street cannot accept any more,generation without upgrading". "As a general rule, applications to connect systems over 3kW capacity in rural residential areas where there is already solar photovoltaic nearby are being examined closely".

Mudgeeraba resident Andries Kaden was stunned when his application for a 10kW system was knocked back. Mr Kaden was told there were enough solar systems in the area and the transformer would have to be upgraded for him to install one. "Energex told me if I wanted to proceed I would have to pay between $20,000 and $30,000 for an upgrade", he said. "I couldn't believe it because we have all been told to grab this, but it's not possible. You had better get in quick if you want solar is all I can say. "I fought this all the way to the minister and they have since said I can have the system but I am a guinea pig to see if the network can handle it".

Mr Robertson advised Mr Kaden he was to be part of a trial "to see if the electricity network can operate at higher penetration levels". With regard to the request for payment, he said that if Energex did not ask for capital contributions in situations such as this, the cost would "ultimately be reflected in the electricity tariffs, to the detriment of all customers". Opposition energy spokesman Steve Dickson said it was another example of a government that failed to plan while running with spin about being clean and green. "They've rushed out with the solar program without properly checking on whether distribution systems can actually handle the uptake", he said. "We have all these people who are being invited to go solar because it's better for the planet and will reduce their bills, but the reality is their applications may be knocked back because we don't have the infrastructure".

Mr Swanston said voltage management on the network and in household wiring was historically set up with one-way power flow in mind. "With embedded generation, customers are able to inject power back into the network, reversing the flow and changing the profile of the voltage (or electrical pressure)", he said. "It is similar to the water network the pipes get smaller and the pressure is designed to be lower as you get closer to the house. Start pumping water backwards into the small household pipes and strange things happen". Energex is trying to solve problems by requesting the size of the generator be reduced, adjusting base voltage, making changes to street connections, or suggesting customers change consumption patterns to use the generated energy in the home more effectively.

Ron Flynn, of Sunshine Coast solar company SolarOn, said the industry was well aware of technical challenges caused by the high uptake of solar systems in some areas. Mr Flynn said there was no doubt infrastructure had to be upgraded to match the demand if the industry was to thrive into the future. He said, because it was no longer a given that applications would be approved, he worked with clients to identify hurdles before any contracts or money changed hands. In some cases, he said, a solution might be to reduce the size of the system applied for: "I think it is the responsibility of the solar company to educate customers and help them with applications. You can't just sell a system knowing the client may be knocked back, or asked to pay for an upgrade to infrastructure".

Federal Climate Change Minister Greg Combet recently hinted he might pressure states to dump or wind back solar schemes because they might be a waste of money. Mr Robertson said Queensland's Solar Bonus Scheme was the most successful scheme of its type in Australia. He said it provided Queenslanders with affordable access to solar power, helped them save money and was also helping create green jobs. "Today, there are approximately 1000 accredited solar installers in Queensland, compared with just 78 before our scheme started".