Property Australia

Property and the solar tipping point

Karen Jamal Karen Jamal May 11, 2021

Balancing net zero announcements with technical realities poses a big challenge for most property companies, says Stantec’s Mark Price. But working together could deliver even bigger benefits.

“Our energy network’s largest generator of renewable energy sits on the top of buildings – and it is getting larger every day,” Price, Stantec’s associate director and energy transition lead, says.

Many of Australia’s property leaders have ambitious net zero emissions targets and are making large-scale investments in renewable energy generation and battery storage.

Australia has the highest uptake of solar in the world. At the end of last year, a massive 2.66 million rooftops were decked out with solar power systems. Renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines now generates more than 21 per cent of Australia’s total electricity.

But the Australian Energy Market Commission has warned that the grid will be unable to cope with the forecasted penetration of renewables.

Price, an energy specialist who works alongside carbon accountants and sustainability consultants on complex buildings and utilities projects, says “net zero commitments and infrastructure realities are not always aligned”.

Australia’s energy grid, designed to handle large volumes of power from a handful of centralised power stations, has struggled to maintain reliability when managing inputs from thousands of distributed renewable energy sources.

“Network operators don’t have control or visibility of where most of this renewable energy is coming from, which is why we will end up with stability issues and blackouts without a smarter solution,” Price explains. “The energy grid is like a bucket of water. Energy generators pour water in and consumers take water out. If too much water goes in, the bucket overflows. That’s when we have blackouts.”

Price says the network authorities have the “right of refusal” when a property developer approaches them with a proposal for a renewable energy system. “Operators can say they are unable to take the size of the system proposed –we expect to see this happen more and more.”

Virtual power plants can stabilise the grid. Tesla, for example, built the world’s largest virtual power plant in South Australia. This cloud-based network of 50,000 solar and Tesla Powerwall home battery systems acts as a single power plant.

“The property industry can do this too by orchestrating and aggregating our energy resources. The key is to make sure we have remote visibility and control of our distributed renewables and batteries so when we so dispatch energy to the grid, we do so at the right time.”

Aggregating capacity can also elevate a distributed energy network’s trading or selling power on the electricity market.

“Switching on and off solar in harmony, depending on the network’s needs, is becoming a revenue generating opportunity,” Price says. Although switching off solar could have implications for net zero targets, he adds.

The alternative of “grid defection”, where property companies take their portfolios off the network altogether, is an unwelcome possibility. “We need the grid. It is an invaluable resource in terms of stability, low cost and access. If large consumers, like property owners, defect then we’ll see an erosion in access and an increase in costs.”

Price offers a clear call to action to the property industry.

“Start planning now. Design with aggregation in mind and start looking at how you can centrally control your assets. While the challenges ahead are great, there will be financial benefits for building owners that house Australia’s biggest energy generators on their roofs.”

With more 20 years of renewable energy experience, Stantec’s team has worked on some of the world’s most demanding wind, solar and energy storage projects in the world. Find out more about how Stantec can help with your next project.