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Australia heading for a ‘battle royale’ on solar power

By Cole Latimer / The Age / 15 October 2018

Main image: Australia is expected to be the first country in the world to hit a solar peak.CREDIT: PETER RAE

The sharply rising levels of rooftop and grid-level solar power will force difficult discussions as Australia reaches a solar peak, energy chiefs say.

Australia has been installing around 100 megawatts of new solar power every month in 2018 and there are predictions that the country could become the first country in the world where the grid cannot handle the excess level of distributed electricity generated. That would mean the power generated would be wasted as it could not be transported to where it could be used.

“It’s feast or famine with renewables, they’re all turned on or all turned off at the same time,” EnergyAustralia director Mark Collette told Fairfax Media.

“We’ll be one of the first countries in the world to hit that solar peak. We’re going to see it way before anyone else does. We’ll hit a point where there is no point in putting any more solar power into the system without something changing.

“For somewhere like South Australia, I don’t think that it’s far away when they won’t be able to add any more solar because there is nowhere to take it.”

He said this point could be as soon as the early 2020s.

The head of renewable energy generator Meridian Energy, Ed McManus, said even though he is a major supporter of solar power, the rapidly increasing levels of solar installations need to be examined.

“In the next 12 months we’re going to see a battle royale on solar,” Mr McManus told Fairfax Media.

“We’re getting to penetration levels now where some discussions will be had that we haven’t had before.

“In the next 12 months were going to be having a very open discussion on the future of [small-scale solar subsidies]. The other thing we’ll start to see happen is that these local distributors may start to curtail rooftop solar.”

AEMO chief Audrey Zibelman said an average six rooftop solar panels are is installed in Australia every minute, adding the equivalent of a new coal-fired power station every year.

Major changes to the national energy system, like more batteries and wind power, will have to be made to accommodate the excess of solar generation.CREDIT:AAP

According to Green Energy Markets data, in July, rooftop and large-scale solar accounted for around 4 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation.

The Clean Energy Regulator forecasts that around 1600 megawatts of rooftop solar will be installed in 2018, a record-breaking year for installations and 44 per cent up on 2017 installation levels. There are now more than 3 million small scale installations around the nation.

This almost the same level of production as the Liddell power station in the NSW Hunter Valley, and a 200-megawatt increase on the regulator’s own forecasts from earlier in the year.

Another 2765 megawatts of new large-scale solar – the equivalent of two of the now-closed Victorian Hazelwood coal-fired power station – is also under construction.

Mr Collette said this peak, where solar is simply wasted, can be minimised or avoided by investing in more batteries and smarter electricity distribution networks or by shifting the electricity demand periods.

“These costs will have to be thought about and we’ll have to decide if solar is the right technology for here and now,” he said.

Renewable energy campaigner Simon Holmes á Court said the energy market operator has forecast solar to grow right through to 2040.

“This idea of a peak all hinges on the pretext of if we do nothing, but we’re not doing nothing,” Mr Holmes á Court told Fairfax Media.

“I don’t see us sitting still, yes, there is a lot of work to do in the grid but we’re going to do it.”

Morgan Stanley analyst Rob Koh said the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendation to abolish the small-scale renewable energy scheme – the subsidy for rooftop solar – hadn’t been backed by either side of the federal government, showing faith in continued solar installations.

Mr Koh also noted both the South Australian and Victorian state governments have provided further rebates and subsidies for solar installations to help drive down high power prices.

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