Upper Clutha Project Media Article - The News

Article originally published in The News, written by Simon Henderson

Power trials set to begin

Options for a ‘‘virtual powerplant’’ for electricity will be trialled in Wanaka over the next few weeks.

Aurora Energy is partnering with Auckland-based company solarZero to trial non-network alternatives to building new electricity infrastructure.

It means solar panels and battery storage installed by SolarZero on customers’ properties could be called upon when the load on the network increases.

SolarZero director of public affairs and policy Eric Pyle said the aim was to find alternatives to building more large-scale infrastructure.

‘‘What it means is as demand increases you don’t build new powerlines.’’

Instead, a network of homes with solar panels, batteries and smart computing power would be able to provide power back to the electricity network.

This would help with peaks in demand, and if there were power cuts individual homes would still have back-up power from batteries, Mr Pyle said.

For homeowners there was no upfront cost for the hardware.

They signed a long-term contract and paid a fixed monthly fee for electricity.

The hardware of the system remained the property of solarZero, which managed the installation, maintenance and servicing.

If homeowners sold their home they could take their contract with them or make arrangements with the new owners, Mr Pyle said.

Aurora Energy general manager asset management and planning Glenn Coates said solarZero came forward as a leading service provider following a call for registrations of interest to seek non-network alternatives to increase the supply to the Upper Clutha and Wanaka communities.

The process was about finding reliable, lower-cost alternatives to building new network infrastructure and ensuring the increase in supply could meet not only current but future demand as the regions continued to grow, Mr Coates said.

University of Otago director of the Energy Management Programme Associate Prof Michael Jack said his team was one of the research partners of the GREEN Grid project, a six-year project led by the University of Canterbury.

The essence of the problem was local electricity networks such as Aurora Energy’s sometimes became constrained because people often wanted to use electricity at the same time.

‘‘For example, in winter evenings, and that leads to congestion periods on the lines.’’

This meant lines had to be of a scale to meet peak demand, even if that occurred only at certain times.

A virtual powerplant could pipe electricity back into the lines, reducing peak demand by using electricity stored in batteries to be shifted around to where it was needed, he said.

‘‘If you can reduce the amount of demand during those congestion periods you reduce all the upstream infrastructure that you need to build.’’

Total electricity use was likely to rise as more electricity was used for heating and new technologies, such as electric cars.

Research around the world was focusing on the idea of flexibility, which was why solar panel and battery solutions became so important.

‘‘They are basically a way to flex demand.’’

They could enable more renewables to be used and could also help accommodate future electricity demands.

‘‘It is about adding some smarts on to some of these devices and allowing them to be controlled.’’

Smart monitoring could enable control of appliances ranging from washing machines to clothes dryers and even electric vehicles.

There had been research internationally but very few ‘‘real-world trials’’ in New Zealand.

‘‘I think the idea of electricity grids just supplying one way is quite an old perspective.’’

This was something people needed to get their heads around, he said.

‘‘There is an opportunity for your neighbour to sell their electricity to you, for example.’’

Those sorts of trading platforms were being explored.

It could be that in the future electricity could be given away in the same way someone could give to a worthy cause.

People could be ‘‘gifting electricity that is excess to what you need to those who need it’’.

Read more about solarZero and the Virtual Power Plant project in Upper Clutha: