The joint micro-grid (solar/battery) project undertaken by CQUniversity and Planet Ark Power aims to reduce demand on the public power system through renewable energy use, enabling Planet Ark Power to provide lower costs and services to customers. Major research into improving battery storage and life, and making batteries more affordable, also constitutes an important part of the project, as does improve export options, particularly in the case of large business enterprises.
Planet Ark Power and Griffith University
CQUniversity and Planet Ark's research into micro-grids will allow future consumers to reduce their dependence on the fossil-fuel-powered grid and, in the process, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut their energy costs.
Professor Peter Wolfs
CQUniversity's and Planet Ark Power's micro-grid (solar/battery) project aims at significantly improving accessibility to and affordability of renewable energy for corporate and domestic customers.
Over the past five years, both organisations have made impressive headway towards reaching that goal which, in addition, simultaneously delivers invaluable environmental benefits.
Microgrids – small-scale power systems that serve local consumers with local generation – are an emerging technology designed to support renewable energy and allow consumers with solar system microgrids to reduce their dependence on the fossil-fuel-powered grid. In the process, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and costs are cut.
In addition, the means to export excess solar power to the national grid is a major focus of CQUniversity's and Planet Ark's combined research.
"Currently, solar energy generated by commercial enterprises which don't trade on weekends mostly goes unused and generally, such businesses, for technical reasons, aren't able to export this excess to the grid," explains Project Chief Investigator Professor Peter Wolfs.
"For example, if a business with a large commercial array was to export a lot of energy, the higher voltages generated could be not only a problem for the business but also an issue for its neighbours.
"A major focus of our current research is managing exports to safely manage these voltages. Batteries are one technology that can assist."
Prof Wolfs points out that the joint research goal wasn't to reinvent batteries and solar cells, both of which have been around for a long time, but to derive the maximum value and efficiency from existing systems.
"In recent years, solar has become extremely affordable. Battery prices are coming down, but they still remain expensive, and their lifetimes are limited."
Prof Wolfs explains that battery optimisation relies largely on accurate energy forecasting. "Our work focuses on forecasting daily loads and solar generation and then carefully optimising both the size and the use of batteries to get the best economic benefit.
"Impressive results include the development of some very good power electronic equipment for matching batteries to the grid and to solar cells. That really has been an important product for Planet Ark Power, as is our battery forecasting and management system, which we've just finalised.
"What we've achieved to date is already having a significant impact on the quality of the energy solution Planet Ark Power produces."
Planet Ark Power Chief Technology Officer Dr Bevan Holcombe identifies community scale generation as one of renewable energy's more important expanding markets.
"Small communities might include a remote township or an urban collective of homeowners who want to collaborate in securing a better energy future," he says.
"So in order to control and manage their resources for the best price and environmental outcomes, these micro-grids need well-designed controls.
"And while the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy aren't disputed, considerably improved technology is needed to make it widely available and more affordable.
"To this end, CQUnivesity helps us with software development and also some of the hardware for this micro-grid project."
Dr Holcombe points out that it would take several years to develop both software and hardware to the extent where a community could run completely off renewable energy without connection to the grid or any other fossil fuel-generating source.
"So, Planet Ark Power is always looking to improve battery control and management, and as prices come down, the scope of this increases as more and more clients become involved.
"Work is also continuing on improving battery management for solar-powered houses, in addition to another research project on remote power supplies for individuals and local communities.
"Yes, we have lots of solar panels and batteries are coming along nicely, but we don't yet have the management software and technology for the most efficient, future renewable energy source.
"The current Australian grid took over 100 years to develop, and we've probably been working on the renewable grid for only 10 to 15 years, so we've still got a long way to go."
Prof Wolfs describes renewable energy's future as exciting and unstoppable. "Planet Ark Power anticipates moving from 20 per cent solar energy storage to beyond 50 per cent within the next few years, and it further anticipates the next big market, that of companies currently running a 500 kW system, for example, progressing to systems 10 to 100 times more powerful," he says.
"They've already carried out export trials along such lines, and they're most heartened by the corporate and scientific support they've received."
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