Western Australia launches $35 million ‘symphony’ of residential renewable assets


The result of a partnership between state-owned Western Power and retailer Synergy, together with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and Energy Policy WA, the two year Project Symphony trial aims to learn how the state, which has particularly high rooftop solar penetrations, can optimally manage to growing amount of distributed energy in its grid.

It will do so by aggregating a fleet of residential renewable energy assets into a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) which will be coordinated with network capacity to help grid stability while also providing returns for participants.

The pilot will involve around 500 customers with over 900 distributed energy resources (DERs) such as rooftop solar, battery storage and major appliances like air conditioners and electric hot water systems. It is expected to run until June 2023.

State-owned retailer Synergy has begun recruiting eligible customers in Southern River and its neighbouring Piara Waters and Harrisdale suburbs, which have been chosen to host the trial because rooftop solar penetrations in the districts are close to 50%.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has pitched in $8.6 million for Project Symphony, with AEMO contributing $7.6 million, and Western Australia’s McGowan government fronting $19.3 million. The “pre-commercial” pilot will unfold in two stages, the later of which will see “additional DER assets… brought online through the involvement of third-party aggregators,” the government’s statement somewhat opaquely said. 

It added that the funding for Project Symphony “will go towards the development, integration and testing of software systems that manage energy distribution, market operation and market aggregation. Together, these will underpin the effective monitoring and coordination of a high volume of mostly customer DER assets.”

The launch of the trial comes just a day after the state became the second in Australia to give network operators the capacity to remotely switch off residential solar systems as an emergency grid stability mechanism.

From February of next year, all new and upgraded solar PV systems with an inverter capacity of 5kW or less will need to have the capacity to be remotely turned down or off in emergency situations, which the government said would be a measure of  “last resort” for when electricity demand reaches critically low levels and affects the stability of the South West Interconnected System, Western Australia’s main island grid. 

Faced with an already high and rapidly growing fleet of distributed resources, the Western Australian government is clearly looking for ways to manage its assets so they don’t need to be curtailed – with VPP aggregation possibly part of this solution. 

Virtual Power Plants

Virtual Power Plants, or VPPs, are essentially software platforms that connect the capacity of distributed home batteries  and join their forces so they have enough power to meaningfully engage in lucrative spot and services markets. Through a VPP, a home battery goes from being a solar shifting device to an electron trading platform that can generate a profit for its owners.

As seems to be the focus of the West Australian government though, VPPs also help balance electricity supply and demand by storing excess energy and adjusting how much energy is being used in real time.

“Without appropriate coordination of DER, network operators may be required to curtail DER output to manage constraints. Project Symphony aims to address these issues and highlight the benefits that orchestration can provide to consumers and the energy system,” ARENA CEO Darren Miller said.

“Virtual Power Plants could be the future for electricity in WA,” WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston added.

“We currently have power stations, at the edge of our networks, with lots of wires carrying high voltages hundreds of kilometres. But in the future, houses will become the power station through their rooftop solar,” the minister said.

Project Symphony will build on previous trials run by Western Power and Synergy. It will also build on knowledge gathered from eastern Australian states, where VPP programs are already fairly well established, especially in South Australia. The West Australian government has previously said it intends adapt this know-how for “local conditions.”

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