While renewable energy solutions are gaining traction in Australia, only homeowners have been able to access the benefits of in-home solar power and battery systems. More people living in rental accommodation will soon have access to cheaper, renewable energy as part of an Australian-first microgrid project led by energy solutions company Ovida.

Offering renters in multi-tenanted sites with green energy solutions has always been associated with high costs and complex installation and operation.

However, Ovida is seeking to prove that occupants of commercial and residential multi-tenanted sites can easily access and benefit from solar power and battery storage through a community microgrid.

According to Ovida Community Energy Hubs Project Manager, Elissa-Jane Bowden, this could be made possible by trialling a flexible microgrid solution that would remove the barriers, such as high upfront costs, lengthy payback periods and difficulty surrounding solar installation approvals from property owners.

On 19 December 2019, the Victorian Minister for Energy, Lily D’Ambrosio, launched the first site of Ovida’s $2.3 million Community Energy Hubs project – a 52-resident community housing apartment building in Preston with a solar and battery storage system, making solar energy available to all residents.

The initiative is supported by a $980,000 grant from the Victorian Government’s Microgrid Demonstration Initiative and includes project partners Allume Energy, Australian Energy Foundation, Housing Choices Australia, RMIT University and Jemena.

“Ovida established a Consortium Partnership with Allume Energy, who designed the Australian-first SolShare technology that monitors each apartment’s energy demand and distributes the electrical energy,” Ms Bowden said.

Ovida Executive General Manager, Chris Judd, said the initiative uses smart technology to bring renewable energy to people who were not able to access it in the past such as renters and low income earners.

“It will drive down their electricity bills by providing solar power that is cheaper than their grid electricity costs,” Mr Judd said.

“Ovida installs, operates and maintains the solar panels, batteries and energy distribution technology free of charge. Residents and tenants have the opportunity to opt in to the initiative and will continue to have choice over their electricity retailer.

“This is an exciting milestone as it is the first time this microgrid technology has been used to allow one solar and battery installation on an apartment building to be shared with all apartments.”

The ins and outs of the microgrid

Victorian Minister for Energy, the Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio, inspects the community energy hub equipment, with Gippsland/RACV Solar System Designer, Brendan Laidlaw, and Chief Executive Officer, Andy McCarthy. The SolShare technology, designed and manufactured by Melbourne-based Allume Energy, monitors all the apartments’ energy demands and distributes the electrical energy to the apartments or the batteries to store it for use later.

Solar panels on the rooftop of the Preston apartment building convert the energy from sunlight, with solar inverters converting the electrical energy into the type of power required for homes and the electricity grid.

These inverters then send the power to Allume Energy’s SolShare technology.

The SolShare technology shares electricity between residents by distributing power on an on-demand basis to maximise on-site solar usage.

SolShare directs solar energy to the apartments in relation to how large their load is at any given time.

“This optimised sharing means that the on-site solar usage is 30-35 per cent higher than an individual system, limiting the amount of solar that is not used,” Ms Bowden said.

“The SolShare is the most efficient system to maximise the use of energygenerated at any given time. It achieves this by supplying energy to where it is needed most, instead of sending it back to the grid.”

The installed system is 73kW solar and 46kWh of battery storage, designed to produce 83MW per year or an average of 227kWh per day.

“The building, prior to the installation, had an average daytime energy demand of 599kWh per day, so the system will provide on average 39 per cent of the building’s energy needs,” Ms Bowden said.

“We are assessing the performance of the system currently and our results show a slightly higher amount of displaced grid energy, but our results are preliminary at this stage.”

As the microgrid is a supplementary source of energy, all apartments remain connected to the electricity grid to ensure they have a constant electricity supply.

They receive electricity from the electricity grid when there is a high demand on the on-site solar and battery storage system, or when the sun is not shining. Any excess energy is sent back to the grid and compensated for accordingly.

Residents pay a low fixed rate for the solar energy they use, which is about a third of the cost of their grid electricity rate. It’s expected that residents will save approximately $150 per year on electricity bills, or about 15 per cent.

“Our early results are positive and show the residents have higher savings than estimated, but the results are still preliminary,” Ms Bowden said.

There are no upfront costs for residents, who are free to opt in or out of the system as they choose.

Overcoming a variety of challenges

According to Ms Bowden, the project’s challenges included technical and equipment challenges for relatively untested enabling technologies, design challenges with the limited space available for the microgrid equipment, a legal and regulatory landscape that had not anticipated such a solution, and the complexity of developing and testing a technical solution that satisfies the interests of multiple parties.

While challenges such as these could easily derail a project, Ms Bowden said that the various parties working on the project worked tirelessly to overcome problems and achieve a successful result.

“The technical and design challenges of the project were very well managed by Gippsland Solar, who were successful in the competitive tendering process for installation because they presented an innovative, efficient and cost-effective design that resolved several site challenges,” Ms Bowden said.

Throughout the 12-week installation period, Ovida, Allume and Gippsland Solar, which was acquired by RACV in December 2019, collaborated extensively to ensure the installation went as smoothly as possible and the impact on the residents was minimised.

However, there were still plenty of installation challenges that the Gippsland Solar/RACV team encountered, such as installing 1.5km of overhead cabling and working within the 3m by 4m solar equipment cage.

Another key challenge was engaging with the building’s residents to participate in the microgrid system.

“Residents can choose to participate in the program, so we needed to meet with all the tenants in person to explain the project to them and how it could help them reduce their energy bills,” Ms Bowden said.

The more residents that participate in the system, the more energy savings they receive and the more effectively the system operates.

“We needed to explain the new technology in five different languages, including Auslan, and communicate creatively with BBQ group information events, one-on-one meetings, video, posters and letters.

Thankfully Housing Choices Australia, who owns the building, and our partner Australian Energy Foundation, helped us work closely with the residents so they were supportive of the project and engaged in the process.”

Where to from here?

Ms Bowden said that as a demonstration project, the key objective is to identify the barriers to developing a scalable commercial microgrid, so that it can be sustainably replicated across Australia.

“But as the first step, we are testing and optimising the technology, influencing, where possible, regulatory policy to support this type of new energy model, understanding the property owner response to the product and participation rates, as well as assessing the demand response capabilities of the system to support peak demand periods in the network,” Ms Bowden said.

Information learnt from the project will be shared with government, key stakeholders and the industry broadly, to in turn support the journey of the energy industry to provide more choice and flexibility to customers in their energy options.

As the energy industry looks to the future, residential solar and battery systems are likely to play a more prominent role.

“The high take-up of residential solar looks set to continue with the bulk of solar being deployed currently in residential systems of 2-5kWh,” Ms Bowden said.

“This has been driven by the reducing cost of solar over the last five years, and it appears battery storage costs will follow that journey, with more efficient and cheaper batteries, potentially supported by government subsidies like the STC program that has been successful in supporting solar penetration in Australia.”

The value of a battery in a residential context is that it maximises the benefit of solar generated by storing it during the day, and providing it the evening when the majority of energy is used in a home.

As the cost of storage comes down, a rapid uptake of that technology is likely to be seen.

“We are starting to see the incorporation of solar and battery systems into new home builds, with developers looking to make their homes more efficient and more attractive to buyers,” Ms Bowden said.

“In addition, energy retailers are offering subsidies or discounted solar and battery storage packages to provide a cheaper system to the resident, with the resident being able to utilise the battery storage for their own use, as well as participate in market programs that drive additional revenue streams through a Virtual Power Plant program.”

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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