Why Australia is leading the way for solar energy

 —  Article by Jessica Abelsohn
solar panels on Australian homes
Image credit: Shutterstock

In the fast evolving world of solar energy, it’s no longer a case of every building for itself.

In February, Australia launched the world’s first digital marketplace for solar energy, the Decentralised Energy Exchange (deX), which aims to change the way energy is produced and consumed. By supplementing large-scale power plants with a decentralized rooftop solar model, deX is aiming to create a virtual power station which enables homes and businesses producing excess energy to sell it off to others within the grid.

At the heart of the network are smart grids of rooftop solar panels and batteries that store excess electricity. During peak times, the network searches for households with batteries and excess energy, and passes it to other consumers.

Cost savings across the board are one of the big advantages. “deX makes it easier for businesses and home owners to get paid for feeding renewable electricity back in to the grid at peak times,” Simone Concha, Sustainability Director at JLL Australia, says. “This will reduce electricity bills, and reduce payback periods for solar storage systems, making it easier to start the journey to carbon neutrality.

“Electricity distribution networks also benefit by not having to upgrade systems which run into many billions of dollars,” she adds. “In turn this benefits everyone, not just those profiting from it, due to less taxpayer money going in to infrastructure.”

A new way of thinking

Innovative thinking is essential to tackle the energy needs of the future. The trading of electricity through solar panels mirrors other peer-to-peer networks, such as Uber, Airbnb and Spotify which all encourage consumers to connect and work collaboratively.

“Peer-to-peer energy trading is hampered by policy and retail legislation, however the deX program looks to overcome some of these challenges by purchasing electricity directly from the small generator and trading it in the wholesale market through the electricity retailer,” Kate Slattery, Energy and Sustainability Services Manager at JLL, explains.

With 1.6 million rooftops fitted with solar, Australia has one of the highest uptake per capita in the world. “While individual solar panels and batteries may not seem like they have enough power, when aggregated together, households become a powerful energy source,” Slattery adds.

Of course, there is still a way to go, with two pilot programs being launched in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria. And there may need to be some incentives involved too to encourage greater participation down the line yet Concha believes there are opportunities to extend such thinking into commercial property.

“deX may help to reduce payback times for installing solar storage systems,” observes Concha. “Commercial real estate will increasingly need solar storage systems, as one of the steps on the way to becoming carbon neutral.”

Making the most of the sunshine

Australia is on the cusp on embracing solar energy on a huge scale with a number of large-scale projects under construction. Take, for example, the solar farm and battery project slated for the country’s Riverland region. With 3.4 million solar panels and 1.1 million batteries, the AUD 1 billion project, billed as the world’s largest, is set for completion by the end of 2017.

It follows on from a record breaking 2016 for solar energy in Australia. The country completed seven big projects last year with costs for large scale solar dropping significantly in recent years. Now, the Clean Energy Council predicts that solar could soon surpass wind as the cheapest form of renewable energy.

“With the development of the solar market, we can expect material costs to be reduced while specialist industry knowledge improves and increases,” says Slattery. “This will provide customers and organizations with access to high quality renewable power generation systems that are also commercially feasible.”

However, Slattery cautions that challenges remain in issues such as grid stability and network protection. New energy policies and regulations that allow for changes in how energy is supplied and traded will also be needed.

“Overcoming these challenges will allow the energy market (including renewables) to be revolutionized to give customers and businesses a sustainable electricity supply that is flexible and reliable,” concludes Slattery.

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