There is enormous latent opportunity for electricity to be generated from solar systems atop the vast roof space of Australia’s commercial and industrial zones but so far only property owners who use a lot of energy are investing. No business manager would back a shift to solar only to be told their surplus energy would be blocked by the local network as it guards against voltage irregularities.
But Brisbane-based renewable energy technology company
Planet Ark Power is operating a dynamic voltage management solution that allows
full solar export – and enables lower-priced power purchase agreements as no
solar energy is wasted.
“To radically increase the amount of renewables the grid can
handle you need to fix the voltage problem, and that voltage problem is
starting to pop up all over the place,” Planet Ark Power executive director
Richard Romanowski tells EcoGeneration.
“We fix the voltage problem from behind the meter, at no cost to the grid.”
Planet Ark’s “clean energy as a service” business model operates
a 340kW solar system with 300kWh of storage at a Toyota dealership in Ipswich which
the client says has been “cash flow positive from day one”.
What works in Queensland should be good anywhere else in the
world, of course, and the Planet Ark Power technology has been nominated as one
of three in the Intelligent Grids, Platforms & Cyber Security category at
the Startup Energy Transition (SET) Awards, held in Germany in April. The awards
are facilitated by the German Energy-Agency in cooperation with the World
Energy Council. This year 450 applications were received from 80 countries.
What’s in the box
An extra gadget in a PV system that makes sure exported
energy doesn’t pushed up voltage in the grid will be a boon for networks – who
get to offset capital and operating expenditure – and will enable a market for very
large virtual power plants operated by sites where storage is installed.
One scenario, Romanowski says, is an owner who wants to
monetise, say, the 15% of generation from a 50kW system that is surplus to load
at times of peak generation. “We can put up our magic black box and export that
energy into the grid safely,” just like the owner of a residential system
already can, he says.
The second opportunity is for owners of small solar systems
on giant rooves to add as many panels as can be fitted up top and turn
themselves into mini power plants – and garner a new stream of revenue. “We can
move the solar farm from way out in Woop Woop onto your roof,” he says.
Add battery storage and the system owner evolves to an even
higher level of sophistication regarding their energy use.
That’s the potential prize for commercial and industrial
energy users with big roofspace and low loads, if only the rules around exports
were loosened. “The key thing is fixing the voltage,” he says, so it stays
within a range which avoids brownouts or dangerous surges.
Stay within limits
The Planet Ark Power technology is a dynamic voltage
management system that operates behind the meter and injects leading and
lagging VAR to keep voltage within the statutory limits.
“It harmonises the grid in that area of the grid, so you can
export,” Romanowski says. “Through its artificial intelligence and the way it
manages electrons, it keeps the voltage within the limit.”
The technology is a miniature, affordable adaptation of the
type of static compensated, or STATCOM, devices long-used in high-voltage areas
of the grid, he says.
Planet Ark Power is working on a proposal to use the
technology to enable a Queensland school with a huge roof to upsize its
existing solar system to 1.5MW so it can turn its $20,000-a-month energy bill
into a $30,000-a-month income stream, he says. “Just like any power station we
will, on their behalf, sell to the grid.”
Planet Ark Power sparked to life in 2017, the progeny of a
partnership between Australian not-for-profit organisation Planet Ark
Environmental Foundation and GoZero Energy.
The company is concentrating its efforts in south-east
Queensland, where it is working with Energex on testing the impacts an existing
project at a Toyota dealership and planned projects.
“We’ve been working fantastically with [Energex]. They’re
helping us get more of our sites installed; they’ve assigned a project team to
work with us. You can’t just install sites willy-nilly; you have to work very
closely with the grid operator.”
The benefits of success go both ways, if the technology can calm voltage irregularities and network costs are kept to a minimum.
Very huge, very complicated
Romanowski has been chugging away at efforts to reverse
ill-will to Earth for “half his life” as a clean technology angel investor. The
Planet Ark Power solution has been six years in the making so far – “a very
huge, complicated project … we’ve got 35 staff, 25 electrical engineers, seven
PhDs, relationships with two universities … that’s why Berlin is talking to
An early business was Papyrus Australia, which turns banana
trunks into paper and listed on the ASX in 2006. It wasn’t easy. Shares floated
at 20 cents and reached 90c by mid-2007. Today, you can pick them up for 1c.
A venture that turns sunlight into money should do better
than that and Planet Ark Power is looking to invite external investors later in
the year. The €10,000 prize offered in Germany would also ease things, so
Installations will be run as services agreements, Romanowski
says, because “someone who runs a business doesn’t want to run a power plant”. He
expects a 3MW project planned for Adelaide should be able to export the
equivalent of 500 residential solar systems.
The company will probably make “a couple of hundred” of its
black boxes this year as it moves into commercialisation.
“I’m already sold out for two years. At this point of time
we have enough on our plate to do our projects. In the future, yes, but not