Interview: Tracking loads, allocating solar power, optimising payoffs with Allume Energy

Share

pv magazine Australia: Allume Energy has recently partnered with Mirvac to meet the challenge of providing solar to non-freestanding residential buildings and businesses. What is it that attracts clients from big residential companies like Mirvac to the independent block of units to Allume’s SolShare technology? 

Cameron Knox: For starters, the scope of SolShare is really flexible, we typically do a minimum of six units, and we can scale up with relative ease. Each SolShare box can service 15 apartments and boxes can be easily daisy-chained together. Solshare provides that flexibility. 

The flexibility that SolShare provides, being behind-the-meter and connecting to individual units, provides a great sense of opportunity rather than obligation, this is an important shift in mindset. However, the real reason naysayers are becoming less common in any given apartment complex is because of the clear financial benefit of solar, especially in Australia. 

Although, not imposing an obligation on people to sign up and having to be a part of a shared system actually makes it more attractive to most people, and more likely to sign up anyway. 

SolShare provides savings to user’s electricity bills by prioritising the use of solar at the peak demand periods, when power is most expensive, instead of exporting that power to the grid. How does the technology perform this prioritisation? 

We are constantly metering the power consumption of each participant in the shared solar system, and by feeding that information back to our control mechanism the power can be sent proportionally to those units. If you’re consuming more power, you’ll have more solar for that moment in time. 

In the residential example, take the Mirvac model, in which Mirvac is including the solar system in the building costs upfront, everyone draws power from the solar system for free and each unit receives an equal amount of solar energy. But, as far as SolShare technology is concerned, that does not mean each unit will receive an equal portion. Everyone receives an equal allocation and they receive this allocation at the time when they will save the most money. 

If you and I are neighbours in an apartment building and I leave on holiday for the first two weeks of the month, the SolShare system would recognise that I’m not using much power and therefore I would not benefit much from my solar allocation. My solar allocation will be held back, and more may be sent to other users within the system. When I return and begin to use my power, SolShare will recognise this and start to send through my solar allocation. 

Typically, in the residential model, everyone gets the same amount of solar over a common period, but it gets sent to them when they’re going to save the most money. That’s what we mean when we talk about optimising benefit – maximising savings. In a shared system the benefit is not simply the savings of sharing the capital investment, but also the benefit of receiving power at a time tailored to your usage.  

With limited space for the rooftop solar array, particularly in apartment buildings how important is it to maximise the output of the solar array?

Because prices in solar are dropping so rapidly it is very important to know where to find the quality, and there is reliable quality out there producing an increasing amount of power per square metre. We are finding the efficiency of panels is, for lack of a better phrase, going through the roof. All the big panel providers from Phono Solar to SunPower and others, are producing high quality panels. 

Beyond the module, is there any balance-of-system (BoS) providers that you prefer?

The real focus is on the inverters because if anything breaks in a solar system it is typically the inverter. We use the top-brand inverters, like SMA, Fronius, and SolarEdges inverters – which seem to be the most reliable. However, ultimately the solar provider that we supply our technology to makes the decision about which technology they use. 

If the provider is not using technology we agree with, we will let them know. But typically the solar industry and the partners we choose, for example Bunjil Energy, who are our partner for the Mirvac project, agree that quality is paramount because these systems need to last for the lifetime of the roof, 25 years, so it is a no-brainer to spend a bit more money to get the best quality. Moreover, the quality brands will provide a return on your investment pretty quickly by not having to go back for maintenance or switch panels and inverters. 

We recommend the top brands in solar, because even with the top brands you are not compromising financial return for quality. 

If you’re talking about optimising solar power consumption, surely battery storage ones into play. How big a role do you see battery storage playing in the near future? 

For us, battery storage is one of the big upcoming developments, which has been a brewing technology for a long time and is slowly becoming more and more cost-effective. We are especially interested in battery development and innovation because, for example, a typical apartment building under four-stories can be powered entirely, day and night, through just solar. For this reason, the introduction of cost-effective batteries is going to be a real game-changer for us. 

We have a project with batteries already, just to prove that our technology works with batteries and can optimise their charging capacities in the same way as we optimise solar usage. Batteries are a really important technology on the horizon and getting closer each day. 

What batteries are you testing with SolShare? 

LG Chem is what we are using on our first installation. We are communicating to the inverter so that we can charge and discharge the battery in order to best optimise the system. This is a way to best enable the long-term relevance of our product. But all the major brands are of real interest at the moment. 

There is a lot going on and it is hard to tell who the winner is going to be, but the cost is going to meet the point where it will be financially viable very soon and Australia will be one of the first places where that will really show, we are seeing that in South Australia already. 

And as you are working on both the supply and demand side, what role do you see for demand-side management?

Demand-response devices are really interesting. For us to not solely control where the solar energy goes, but how the building uses its energy and when. An example would be the Zen Thermostat, an Australian built smart-thermostat which can control your air-conditioning unit as well as performing tasks such as pre-cooling to make sure that your energy curve is fitting, to the best of its ability, the solar-generation curve, or what the grid requires at that point in time. These are exciting developments and we are looking to implement a project with them as well. 

The Smart Sharing capability of SolShare requires the leveraging of “the diversity of usage patterns of different customers”, does this exclude living arrangements that might hold to more homogenous usage patterns, retirement homes for example?

Even without a distinct amount of usage diversity in a system there is still an enormous benefit for users. One of the key benefits being that energy is cheaper because the capital expenditure is being shared. But if everyone is using exactly the same power the benefits are curtailed, however this is uncommon. Even in a retirement home for example, everyone is not switching on the kettle at exactly the same time. Even small spikes in load are what our SolShare technology is especially good at managing and responding to. It is very rare that there is a perfectly comparable usage curve across multiple units, and as the number of units increases those chances reduce more and more.  

Allume Energy was a beneficiary of a Victorian government grant, does the government need to play a larger role in funding solar and other renewable energies?  

The Victorian Government has been transformational for us. They have really supported solar in a big way, not just us, but the industry in general. That has been a real catalyst for the industry. We are at the stage now where government support is a great help but not required because the cost of panels is so low, and electricity prices being the way they are, solar really is standing on its own two feet as a compelling product. So I don’t think we would see the industry slow even if the government became suddenly indifferent to solar because the industry has now built enough momentum that it can’t be stopped. 

However, having said that, when it comes to new technologies, such as SolShare and batteries, and other especially innovative ways of getting solar to people who previously lacked access to it, government support is the easiest way to accelerate those innovations, get them in the spotlight and enable customer-access. The ability to take that punt and be an early adopter for a new innovation is really valuable. 

For us government support has been fantastic, and we hope for continued support. The major grant we received last year was really exciting for us, a major inflection point, and I hope the other state governments follow suit in supporting solar in general. Thankfully at the state government level it does seem to be moving that way, at the federal level it is a little bit of a different story. For the level we are at, the small-scale rooftop distributed energy, it tends to be the state government who really get involved. 

What are some of the challenges faced by startups in the solar industry? 

Being a hardware startup in a regulated industry where you have a lot of critical infrastructure and safety concerns, for good reason, to connect to and abide by, can make it very difficult to develop a new product. It takes time and it takes money and when things take time it becomes more difficult to gather money from investors. I think that is a common challenge facing a lot of energy companies, the nature of the industry means that there are a lot of incumbents to navigate through and making sure one is comfortable within the parameters of the market before one can really launch into it. 

From what we’ve experienced, the biggest challenge then is access to capital and support to get you through these stages in which one is jumping through hoops, getting safety approval, developing the product, testing and so on. These hurdles make it a long road to market and scale, requiring investors that really believe in the journey, and in Australia where the pool of capital for startups is quite small this can prove challenging. 

We’ve been lucky enough for some of our partners come on as investors, including Mirvac, to really help us solve that problem. 

What does the future hold for Allume Energy? 

Interstate is obviously really important for us, we are looking to scale out here in Australia. But we have also partnered with a U.S. solar company called Sunrun, who are looking to commercialise our technology in the United States. Because our technology is behind-the-meter it has far fewer regulatory constraints than other aspects of solar, meaning it can scale quite easily. This is allowing us to get into markets like America, and the agreement with Sunrun is very exciting. 

However, we don’t just see the United States as the end-market for us, we see solar as a global solution to a global problem and we are not limiting ourselves in any fashion. We are in the early stages of conversations in other international markets, in 24-months time these conversations hopefully materialise but Australia is certainly a central focus for us today. We want to make sure we serve customers well here and we can deliver on the projects we have. 

Interview by Blake Matich