Australia is ramping up for an energy storage boom, but, once again, political apathy and outdated attitudes are limiting a revolutionary transformation of energy supply.

When South Australia’s Hornsdale Power Reserve came online last November, what was then the world’s largest lithium ion battery received both international attention and the expected disinterest from the Coalition.

A joint project between the SA government, Tesla and French company Neoen, the 100MW/129MWh battery largely runs off Neoen’s nearby 309MW wind farm. It has so far exceeded expectations in delivering both cheap, dispatchable backup power and longer-term frequency control, so much so that what will be the next world’s largest battery — the SIMEC Zen Energy 120 MW/140MWh storage facility — is set to be switched on down the road in Port Augusta.

Add to this utility scale batteries contracted across most other states and territories, Port Augusta’s solar thermal plant (AKA molten salt), and a bunch of new pumped hydro projects across the country, including a gold mine in Queensland, and it all paints a rather rosy future for energy storage in Australia.

But the truth is that batteries like Hornsdale could remain the exception rather than the rule, with research indicating Australia wouldn’t actually need new storage in order to hit 50% renewables by 2030, let alone the federal government’s universally panned emissions reductions target of 26-28%.

Professor Andrew Stock of the Climate Council believes the 26% goal will fetter Australia’s capacity to attract new technologies, because “the government’s own modelling shows you only need very little renewables added to 2030 to meet it”.

“What that means is things like more widely deployed solar, technologies that can make the grid smarter, all these things will take a lot longer to roll out had there been higher targets driving more innovation and more investment,” Stock said. “One of the things that is somewhat hidden in the current dialogue around the National Energy Guarantee, particularly on the emissions side, is that it will provide little encouragement for those firms to stay in Australia and continue to build renewables here, because, simply put, the nation won’t need them”.

While there have been some promising recent signs from the federal government on storage, which recently matched a $25 million contribution to two Victorian batteries, they have also historically dismissed and downplayed South Australia’s achievement, with Treasurer Scott Morrison specifically comparing Hornsdale to the “Big Banana”.

This attitude, deliberately or otherwise, misses the point of a technology absolutely primed for a more flexible energy grid. Because while it won’t bring Snowy Hydro’s 2000MWs to the grid, Hornsdale’s tender to deliver 70MW contingency power for up to 10 minutes, and 30MW of load sharing for three to four hours, was all that South Australia needed.

Rather than simply discharge backup wind power (which, as we saw when the Loy Yang power plant tripped in December, the battery can do), Hornsdale offered a more efficient, cost-effective form of managing supply and demand than existing frequency control services.

According to Stock, the real growth Australia can expect to see with or without federal momentum is in household batteries (barring, of course, certain state governments not actively revoking them). These can both work in isolation to take pressure off the grid and store solar power for later, or, alternatively, work together to help create a “virtual power plant”.

And similar to rooftop photovoltaic solar power (PV) systems a decade ago, prices for battery packs are falling (80% decrease since 2010 and expected to halve again by 2025) and usage is starting to kick off (6750 in 2016, compared to 20,000 in 2017).

“So this is a market that is starting, it’s still embryonic, but it’s starting to accelerate,” Stock said. “And that will continue because consumers still see benefits in storing their electricity from PV, and, rather than export it to the grid, store it so they don’t have to buy off the grid at night at inflated prices.”

Other changes include updating an infamously slow-moving regulation to better enable these new power sources, creating free or low-cost solar and batteries to poorer households to tackle “power poverty”, bringing in smarter, energy-efficient appliances that can be managed remotely, and, looking further into the future, electric vehicles acting as mobile batteries to further support the grid.

If we are going to see real change, Australia needs a completely new attitude towards power supply and distribution. That, and a renewable energy target that doesn’t actively hold everything back.

Peter Fray

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