SolarKing – Groundhog day with Energy Storage; Conference wrap up

Last week’s Energy Storage Conference in Sydney paints a vivid picture of where the Australian solar and energy industries are headed.

Five years or so ago this same venue hosted a solar conference of roughly the same size. Whilst storage solutions were present, in 2010 it was a solar show and a typical solar system was priced at around $ 10,000-$ 15,000.

At this week’s show, I didn’t stop to look at a single solar panel.

Instead I looked at energy storage packages or related gear – for around the same price as the solar systems were, last time I visited. The economics aren’t quite the same, but the appetite and the promise are very, very similar.

There were no huge surprises for me in the price or total integrity of packages I saw but the choices are increasing, the prices are reducing and the expertise is logarithmically exploding. This is what will drive the next major shift to smart solar and it has pretty much arrived.

There were some great speakers, useful free workshops and even a debate where I predictably found a way to leverage my Zero electric bike into the conversation. At the last moment, I was mildly encouraged to use it as a “touch test” of “the future of fully decentralised energy” which was the topic of debate. I think it took me one second to be convinced and before I knew it the bike was at the stage too.

I offer my congratulations to the opposing team who successfully entertained the voting audience and made a better case than our team. Although a debate seems like an odd event at a conference it is inevitably hugely fun, features some salient points and summarises the entire point of the conference.

I was also excited to see a great range of electric street and race cars on show along with the fast charging and smart charging solutions that are going to be part of our future. We spoke alongside two great presenters on the topic of EV to Grid integration and there are common themes in this segment too. Rapid growth expectations, challenges and technological evolution.

Now to be clear, along with almost everyone I met, I agree that there is a staggering amount of work to do to bring storage to the masses no matter what form or shape it’s in.  We are at the beginning of a wave of new products, markets and challenges and it won’t be easy. The market isn’t quite ready with cost effective storage for the mass market yet but we are ready for early adopters and the rate of price reduction and technological evolution is already breathtaking.

Everybody I meet tries to drill down to some pretty straight forward questions on the opportunity. “Which products are the best?”, “what do I need to know?” and “how do I understand the economics?” We tried to step solar companies through these challenges and summarise what we had learned so far in our hour long Workshop presentation on Wednesday.

There isn’t a simple answer but here is a summary of what we think you need to consider:

  1. Tip 1; Just Do It.

We are in phase one of the new energy market. Storage is starting to work in Australia psychologically, technologically and the economics do stack up in a small but growing number of sub markets. Early adopters will do it by the thousands, just like the early solar adopters.

Australia has one of the biggest and newest ranges of technology for storage, as evidenced by the exhibition space this week. Several top names weren’t there and there are even more in the works, so rapid product evolution is guaranteed.

So, it can be done and done well, but it takes persistence and expertise to specify, integrate and make it gracefully functional. Pick your application, match the products and start your batteries.

  1. Tip 2: True integration is essential.

When I talk to people who are installing storage systems they consistently tell me that the solar part is easy, good storage packages are appearing but the biggest trick is programming and commissioning the system. The smarter they are, the more complex this becomes.

Inevitably, early buyers need and want to leverage the combination of generation, storage and tariff structures as much as possible. The means data and monitoring is essential, remote diagnostics and adjustment highly preferable.   It naturally spills into the house – or business – because controlled loads optimise everything else.

True integration is therefore hugely preferable and in my mind and its expansion is inevitable. If you get this wrong you’ll either end up with a redundant system that can’t be leveraged or bugs that are time consuming to iron out. At worst, you end up with batteries that are prematurely aged by poor usage patterns.

There are some outstanding pieces of the communications and control integration puzzle out there right now, but unless I’ve missed it, no one seems to have to whole kit and caboodle just yet for the right price. My humble home is working prototype of what’s possible and its getting smarter all the time but for today,  to have happy consumers and reliable systems requires a fairly hands on approach.

So, I think you need to be careful to choose products that integrate and will adapt really well and you really need to understand the communications and integration features.

Tip 3: Chemistry, shmemistry.

Battery chemistry is the input to a set of life and performance characteristics. It’s really hard for scientists to work out, cloaked in mystery and formulas and rapidly evolving.

However, in every case it is the electronics and control systems that bind the performance together and theoretically assure the life, assuming the design and application is done correctly. So, my view is that all things being equal, different chemistries arguably matter less than great control systems.  I think the obsession with chemistry is healthy but the focus should equally be ion electronics and control systems.  Oops, I nearly said integration again.

Our storage market is and will be made up of a growing range of chemistries. Personally I still believe vehicle design will drive the most rapid commoditisation if Lithium products and they will dominate, but I still see great markets for lead, flow and salt based products too.

Amongst others I also see a burgeoning niche for hot water storage too. Diverters are almost right and have a very low entry cost, so in many niche’s this makes good financial sense and is relatively easy.

So, don’t get hung up on chemistry, but do recognise that choosing the right for one for the right application, with the right electronics and control systems is not something to be taken lightly, if you want good long term customer relationships.

Tip 4: Google the term exploding battery

Luckily for us, the world is full is experimenters and reckless fools who’ll try stuff with batteries. A quick Google search will reveal the ugly potential of almost all storage batteries if used incorrectly.

Australia is not immune to accidents and my worst fear is that someone will be badly hurt or serious damage will occur should a system fail catastrophically. I am confident that the majority of people in industry are highly competent, diligent people who will avoid unnecessary risks and take energy systems seriously. It is after all, merely an extension of what many are already doing in other ways.

However, as an industry we need to remain highly vigilant and educate the market rapidly about getting this right or we could end up with a mess on our hands.

So, go for it, but take risks seriously watch your mates back and refresh your training.

Tip 5; The new world starts now

Within a year or so battery sales could well be a part of 5-10% of all new solar system sales. The retrofit, commercial demand and other markets will be there too along with other sub segments.

In a few short years several forecasts (including our own) are suggesting that 20% or more of new sales could include storage and of course, there are those 1.5Million existing customers…

Behind all of this, we can in all probability expect to see some radial and potentially irrational tariff structure changes. Innovation will gather apace in this area and the energy markets will be dragged kicking and screaming into tomorrow.

This means in a short time many systems may need to retrospectively adapt system behaviour, even if it seems unlikely or is an unknown today. In an ideal world this adaption can help networks, help consumers and leverage more value and returns. We know this can be done because some product leaders are already doing it and all it will take in Australia is the willingness of utility players to really innovate on a large scale and we will be away.

In fact it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the granular data and control provided by the best products could help solve one of the networks biggest problems – a lack of dynamic granular, data. If enough smart solar goes in networks won’t have to invest in hardware directly but rather, they can piggyback off ours.

So, the barriers and changes will be entertaining but ultimately leveraging smart solar and energy is going to make more sense than blocking it. What makes this statement plausible?

That’s easy. I’m listening to the customer.

Conclusions

Last week’s Energy Storage Conference was a Canary in the energy storage coalmine.

I met people with all sorts of angles and products and ideas who are gearing up, learning from each other and piecing the puzzle together very quickly.

Correct chemistry selection keeps a system “humming” but packaging and application selection is crucial for successful customer relationships. Within a year, the options will be even bigger and the prices even lower.

Communications, load control and data management are going to make energy systems “sing” – whether it’s through reducing or shifting loads, selling into spot markets or proving cost effective remote upgrades.  Within the next year, this equipment is going to get staggeringly powerful and far cheaper.

Get ready for smart solar and storage.

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