Category Archives: Solar Industry news

Off the grid with solar for twenty years and still going strong

If you really want to understand how solar can change lives, you need to go to a remote area and Barkala Farm out past Coonabarabran is pretty remote for most Australians.

Going bush is a tradition that we all too often neglect and thanks to my in-laws, we headed back to Barkala Farm for a second year, not far from where some of our in laws settled several generations ago. The 9000 acre farm has a long history but for almost 40 years has been owned and developed by a committed and wonderful family who still run it today. Although they run cattle and specialise in horse riding, bush-walks and bird watching they are also famous for their very substantial pottery making facility – and its all run 100% by solar.

The property has kilns, cool rooms, blacksmiths shop, water pumping systems, dorms, cafe and showroom as well as an eclectic mix of eight well appointed but rustic cabins. After bouncing down a 10km dirt track from the highway, it’s like arriving at a small village positioned on the edge of a classic outback creek. I’m sure there’s a coolabah tree there somewhere.

With an extended family group of almost 20 people, our mob arrived with a thunderous cavalcade of 4 wheel drives, trailers, utes, camper-vans and whinging kids, but we quickly settled the oldies and bub’s into our favourite straw-bale/stone/mud brick/slab hut. The more adventurous found the flattest spot they could, pitched their tents and the camp fire was going within an hour. Tucked away at the end of Eagle Valley 5km from the main homestead and surrounded by majestic mountains and gully’s, our only neighbors for the week were cows, wallaby’s, eagles and ants. The property is characteristic of the Pilliga Scrub which at 3000km2, is the largest continuous semi-arid woodland in temperate north-central and the the biggest untouched remnant in NSW. If you haven’t witnessed the Pilliga Scrub you must see it before Santos wrecks it.

Our cabin (actually, it’s more like a really well appointed three bedroom house) has all mod con’s of course; right down to the kettle (in case the fire was out), fridge, prodigious LED lighting, gas stove and hot water. All we had to bring was the coffee grinder and a 400L ice box for the beer (it’s pretty dusty out there). The house runs on 240V fed by an old Trace inverter that has been humming along very nicely since it was installed (bush style; on the floor in a dusty old hut) a few years ago. The mud brick power-house is a hundred meters or so from the cabin and has a big set of gel batteries, a menagerie of regulators and cables neatly dangling all over the place. This is bush craft one-o-one; make it strong, make it repairable, make it simple. No need for glitzy housings or time consuming cable trays here. Having said this, attention has been paid to some important details; underground cabling is heavily protected in conduit and entry points are above flood level. The power-house is lockable to keep out prying kids and cows and the batteries are kept off the cold ground to extend life and performance. This system was installed by immensely practical and informed people and with the skills and materials they had at hand.

Although there is newer 1kW fixed system on the roof, my little bit of joy was the 1kW tracking system just outside. Made up of 20 year old BP 55W panels on a behemoth tracker it’s testament to the fact that well made solar panels can and do survive the harsh realities of life. Originally it powered the home and workshop but as demand grew it was recycled to the guest house like an old truck that just wouldn’t die. Despite the substantial strength of the tracker the motor that ran it died years ago, so it is typically fixed due north. Over a campfire and beer, I admitted to the owner’s son one night that being a hopeless solar tragic, I couldn’t help myself and had been playing with it. Over a day, I reconfigured the drive chain, removed the old motor drive gears and set up a manual tracking system using 100 year old fence wire, some pliers and a couple of kids. Three times a day, the kids and I would head over, unhitch the fence wire locks, adjust it and re-wire it. I don’t know if the 20 year old grease from that chain will ever come out of my hands, but we gleefully watched the amps and volts rise each time we made our adjustments.

As is our way, we also had our camper-van with us which has its own 150W array and gives us a portable power source for lights around the campfire, music and run’s its own fridge. As you can see from the photo gallery, we also had solar powered lights on our tent and solar powered torches for the kids. It’s really not that hard to use solar pretty widely.

Back at the main house, I bailed up Johannes who is the 20 something year old son of the tireless owner Maria. Between them, they manage the entire property, staff, vehicles, cattle, shop, buildings and when Maria has a spare second, she’ll whip up a few astounding pots on a wheel, bake you some wood fired scones or sit with you for a long and meaningful chat about the world. Their energy and joy is breathtaking. Although he looks like a strapping you German lad, Johannes’ long blonde ponytail and beard give way to a classic bush lingo as soon as his mouth opens; with a classic Australian bush drawl and a rollee hanging from the corner of his mouth, he is a born and bred bush kid, grown up.

“Do you look after all the fences alone?” I asked. “Yep”. “How long is your fence line?” I asked. “……..awhh;  spose it’s about 120k’s or so. It’s awright”. Only an Australian bush man could suggest that maintaining a 120km fence line alone, perpetually is “just fine”.

I also checked in on the main solar system which was upgraded to 40kW a couple of years ago. Last time I visited, Johannes was still getting the settings tweaked and had some challenges under certain combinations of high loads when the generator took too long to kick in and sync up, causing cycling (on and off and on and off) as the intermittent load came and went and battery voltage rapidly rose and fell. With the sly grin of bushman who had beat the devil Johannes told me “I finally got it right after fiddling with the settings over the last year or so and she purrs like a kitten now”.  This is a classic example of the practical persistence and intuition that is so important in the bush and why few city folks are going to make a successful switch to real Off Grid living anytime soon. If you know how fix a flat tire with a tree limb, can pump out a septic without spewing and can weld metal using a car battery and some fence wire, you might have a chance; otherwise, it’s only going to work with a maintenance contract.

Our time at Pilliga this year consisted of laying in hammocks under tree’s, bush walking, chopping wood, whittling, cooking, eating, cycling, constantly taking the mickey out of everyone and connecting with our family instead of our iPhones. The best bit for me was heading to the billabong which was allegedly  “loaded with Yabbies” while the kids investigated the surrounds. Watching finch’s catch bugs as the sun set while we sipped ice cold beer, not needing to speak, and holding on to bits of string with meat tied to the end is about as good as life gets, I reckon. Of course, it would have been better if we had known that Yabbies were vegetarians and caught a few but hey, Johannes’ polite laughter at our city slicker ignorance and the promise of a catch next year made it all worthwhile

Solar technology to take quantum leap with latest Enphase product unveiling

I have been to a lot of product launches over the last twenty years.

A very small number were truly game changers that left me reeling, but this week I was lucky enough to hear about one that totally fits the game changer description.

US based micro inverter manufacturer Enphase have announced a new suite of products and services which together, take us another step towards really revolutionising distributed generation; they call it the Enphase Energy Management System.

US based Enphase Energy has once again shown us what tech-leadership looks like, pushing solar technology into new territory with the announcement of three game changing new products at SPI, Las Vegas. Together, these product innovations are set to change the way solar is generated, stored and managed around the world. The Enphase Energy Management System intelligently integrates the critical technologies needed to solve solar energy challenges at scale: smart grid intelligence, communications, big data analytics and storage. The Energy Management System offers Enphase’s Fifth-Generation, smart-grid ready Enphase microinverter, plug-and-play storage, advanced control capabilities and load management.

In a nutshell, Enphase has announced that they are extending their product and service offering into a “scalable distributed networked architecture”. Using their products, the aim is to enhance ROI (optimised micro generation), simple design and installation (plug and play), decrease O&M costs (big data), increase reliability (via redundancy), improve safety (lower voltage) and to provide utility solutions (control and data). Big call – but their new system has all these elements.

First cab off the rank is a tremendously exciting AC Battery.

Enphase has applied the same winning formula that has earned it dominance in the micro inverter space; make it small, make it modular and make it flexible. Fittingly, their AC battery is based on a 1.2kWh capacity hi end Lithium Ion Phosphate battery but of course, the Battery Management System and inverter are totally integrated. Plug and Play AC storage.

Whilst 1.2kWh might seem small at first, this offers immense flexibility. Want to start small and just shave your peak demand? No problem, just install a small, single integrated unit. Want to expand as time passes? No problem; just add more packs together and parallel them together. Want a rack mount commercial solution, that’s easy to swap out or update over time? Got it Covered.

The mind boggles at where this can go in time too; off grid systems, camper vans and pretty much anywhere else you want power (I’ve already asked whether I can get one to fit in my Zero electric bike so it’s a rolling power station).

Logically, the crucial advantages of redundancy and highly granular data collection that are achieved through micro inverters apply equally to the AC Battery too.  The more I thought about this, the cooler the idea seemed – individual AC solar panels working synchronously with individual AC Batteries such that they all are operating at their individual optimum. Naturally, the Enphase data logging and management systems (Enlighten and Envoy) work with the AC Battery and the recently launched Installer Toolkit App makes commissioning fast and simple.

As I was listening to the briefing, I thought it would be awesome if there was the ability to control the energy from the solar and battery in a more sophisticated way.

And they blew me away again; announcing their Gen 5 S-Series Microinverter.

Forget everything you know about inverters, or micro inverters for that matter. This little puppy is more powerful, more efficient and more reliable but the big story is the new smarts. In a world-first, the Gen 5 product has become a smart-grid-ready, bi-directional control system. It allows dynamic power control including Volt/Var, Ride through, Frequency/Watts and bi-directional flow features; essential tool for utilities in many markets – like Australia. It allows simple and global software updates so it’s future proof. And in concert with Enlighten and Envoy it allows load control in the home.

As their Press Release so eloquently describes “The Enphase system intelligently integrates the critical technologies needed to solve solar energy challenges at scale: smart grid intelligence, communications, big data analytics and storage. The energy management system offers the next-generation, smart-grid ready Enphase micro inverter, plug-and-play storage, advanced control capabilities and load management.”

The more I listen to what Enphase are doing the more I start to realise I have to stop thinking about them as a product company. Founder Raghu Belur comes from a data background and it shows; this company is like a Google or Apple in the renewable energy space. Belur explained that their core platform, the driver behind everything they do, is data and it shows because Enphase Enlighten processes more than 600GB of data each day – more data than Twitter.

This flips thinking on its head. Being so data focused they see problems and solutions differently.

Solving utility challenges is about control, adaptability, billing and truly smart grids. Having such granular data and control on the generation side is mind blowing. In fact, it’s now clear that Enphase sees more data on what the grid is doing than the utilities in some parts of the world. Extending “the olive branch of control” to utilities is a clever manoeuvre and should logically help overcome the fear that has led to so many barriers. Enphase is one of the most valuable friends a progressive utility could have.

Equally, optimising energy output from solar panels is about data. Find the individual sweet spot, max it, get more yield and dynamically adjust it as the system changes over time. On batteries it’s the same issue; the ability to control individual BMS optimises cell life. Allowing individual batteries to be called upon in different ways, added to or subtracted as required. The core to making this all work well is data.

Paul Nahi, Enphase CEO described it like this, “Enphase is taking a fundamentally different approach to energy management. The solar industry is dominated by static, isolated systems that do not integrate, communicate, scale or adapt quickly to changes in power generation. Our energy management system is designed to accelerate mass penetration of solar globally and make mainstream access to clean, affordable energy a reality.”

Enphase outsources manufacturing to Flextronics (who manufacture for Apple) but has their own staff embedded, their own production lines and real time access to manufacturing data. Likewise for their AC Battery, Enphase has worked with ELIIY Power, a Japanese battery manufacturer backed by Daiwa House as the chemistry provider.

By the time I had finished listening to the launch briefing two things were clear to me. One is that if you can generate, store, monitor and control on a micro level, who wouldn’t want that? The second is that Enphase really are saying and doing things very differently. Many solar manufacturers claim to be industry leaders, but to me, this is what tech leadership is.

You can read the official Enphase Energy Press Release on the AC Battery here and the Energy Management System here. 

The Enphase Energy Management System, including the Enphase AC Battery, will be available in limited quantities through authorised distribution channels in 2016, or through their Australian beta partner, Metro Solar, in the second half of 2015.

Australia’s disruptive energy revolution defined

I spend a lot of time trying to succinctly describe what is going on with energy, to people in all walks of life.

The reality is, the issues are complex and people on both sides of the argument tend to simplify the issues down into bite sized chunks so we can get our heads around it. This week however, I read an article written by RenewEconomy’s Giles Parkinson which to me, was the single most concise and profound article I’ve read in a long time which summarizes just whats going on. (You rock, Giles, well done)

It highlights several crucial issues which are really at the core of the RET debate.

Firstly, is shows that the bulk of overcapacity in the market has not come from renewables and hence, blaming renewables for the current oversupply is a crock.

Secondly, it demonstrates with great data and references from the utilities that their assets are alreadygetting stranded. The energy revolution is in full swing and by calling for the winding down of the RET they are effectively asking for market intervention – whilst using that same argument against the RET.

Next time you are meeting with a politician, or talking to a friend or neighbour about whats going on and having trouble simplifying the story, point them to this one and Giles Parkinson’s profound prose.

With Giles’ permission I have republished his story below in case you didn’t see it.

One of the main arguments proffered by the owners of Australia’s fossil fuel generation fleet against the renewable energy target has been the massive over-capacity on the country’s main National Electricity Market.

Last year, AGL Energy estimated this overcapacity to be around 9,000MW. The arguments put forward in the submissions to the RET Review have said putting more renewables into the market is counter-productive. Not only will it reduce wholesale electricity prices – and therefore revenues for the coal and gas incumbents – but it is likely to force existing plant earlier than might have been planned.

But whose fault is this overcapacity? The implication for the submissions is that it is the fault of the RET.

But check out this graphic presented by EnergyAustralia retail chief Adrian Merrick at a recent energy conference hosted by UBS. It shows the how much capacity has been added in the last five years.

Wind energy accounts for a little more than a quarter, and there has been a small amount of hydro. Around 70 per cent of increased capacity has come from coal, combined cycle gas plants and peaking gas plants.

energy-australia-new-capacity

Why did they do that? Pretty much for the same reason that the networks asked permission – and were granted – to build $45 billion of new and upgraded poles and wires: they assumed that demand would continue to rise, as it had done for the previous century.

But they ignored the warning signs on energy efficiency and the imminent rise of solar PV.

As the red line shows, demand peaked five years ago and has been falling dramatically ever since.
The generators made the wrong call, and now they want the rollout of renewables stopped – or at least slowed down dramatically – to protect those investments.
This is the point that must be made clear. It is the only reason that generators have for wanting the RET stopped or diluted.

EnergyAustralia, for instance, built some of that capacity. It has already taken a $94 million write down on thevalue of its Tallawarra baseload gas plant in NSW, built in 2009. Other gas and brown coal generatorshave also been written down. Origin Energy has had to convert its newly built Darling Downs generator into a peaking plant, rather than a base load operator.This is the third major myth around the renewable energy target that has been blown in the past week.

Other reasons proffered by the government and its urges to repeal the RET have also been dismissed, even by the federal government’s own hand-picked consultant. These include the contention that the renewable energy target cannot be met, an argument proffered by the major generators who are trying not to sign contracts with wind and solar farms. ACIL Allen – along with global energy supply giants such as General Electric and Vestas – says it can.

The RET also lowers prices for consumers, even if Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to insist otherwise. The ACIL Allen report admitted to that as well.

The original story “Who’s responsible for over-capacity? Not renewables” first appeared on RenewEconomy. Reprinted with permission.