The Vale Energy System

About The Vale

The Vale is a 170 Acre farm in the NorthWest of Tasmania. It is located in a river valley in the shadow of Mount Roland.

Various crops are grown on the property along with the running of sheep and cattle. The property also features a large private runway.

We wanted to future-proof the property in terms of electrical energy self-sufficiency by building a large renewable energy system.

Here is what we built…

System Components

  • Three phase grid feed via a 500KVA transformer (configured for up to 200kWp export)
  • 100 Kilowatt Peak (kWp) ground-mounted solar array using 266 x LG 375W panels on Clenergy ground mount systems into 4 x 25kWp Fronius Symo AC Inverters
  • An additional 100kWp solar array (for a total of 200kWp) is currently under construction
  • Provision for future on-site generator
  • 144 kW / 180 KVA Victron Energy Inverter/Charger array (12 x Victron Quattro 48/15000)
  • 280 kWh of Flow Battery energy storage (28 x 10kWh Redflow ZBM2 zinc-bromide energy storage modules)
  • Victron Cerbo GX system controller interfaced to 3 x Redflow Battery Management System units
  • Underground sub-main distribution system servicing multiple houses, farm buildings and an aircraft hangar across the entire farm
  • Underground site-wide single-mode optical fibre network serving site-wide indoor and outdoor WiFi access points and networked access control and building management systems

A shout-out to DMS Energy in Spreyton, Tasmania. I designed the system with them, and they built it all extremely well. The installation looks great and it works brilliantly.

Here is a gallery of images from the energy system

Flow Batteries

The system stores surplus energy in Redflow Zinc-Bromide flow batteries. These are a product that I have had a lot to do with over a long period (including as an investor in the company and as the the architect of the Redflow Battery Management System).

These batteries have a lot of advantages, compared to using Lithium batteries, for stationary energy storage applications such as this one.

You can read more about them on the Redflow site and also in various other blog posts here.

System Performance and Future Plans

Tasmania is interesting as a solar power deployment area, because it has the distinction (due to being a long way south!) of being the best place in Australia for solar production in summer, and the worst place in the country for solar production in winter!

This was a key driver for the decision to deploy a relatively large solar array, with the aim of obtaining adequate overall performance in the winter months.

The large solar array is also a renewable transport fuel station!

We already run one Tesla Model S sedan, a Polaris ‘Ranger’ electric ATV, and an electric aircraft on the property.

Our plan is to progressively eliminate the use of diesel on the property entirely, by running electric 4WD vehicles, electric tractors, and electric excavators as they become available on the Australian market. The beauty of the large on-site solar array is that all of these vehicles can be charging directly from on-site solar generation when they are not being driven.

During this winter, we’ve observed that we typically manage to half-fill the battery array, and that it then lasts about half the night before grid energy is required.

That’s why we are now in the midst of doubling the size of the solar array. Once we have done so, we will have a system that (even in mid winter) can supply all of the on-site energy demands of the property on most days, without drawing any grid energy at all.

Of course, in summer, we’ll be exporting plenty of energy (and being paid to do so). Even with the relatively small feed-in tariff offered in Tasmania, the system generates a reasonable commercial return on the solar array investment in non-winter months.

Here are some (summer time) screen shots from the on-site control system and from the outstanding Victron VRM site data logging portal.

On the image from the on-site Cerbo GX controller, you can see a point in time where the solar array was producing more than 90W, the battery array was mostly full and starting to roll back its charging rate, and plenty of that solar energy was also being exported to the grid.

The ‘System Overview’ and ‘Consumption’ charts show the outcome of all that sunshine…with the battery ending the day pretty much full, the site ran all night on ‘time shifted sunshine’ and started the following day half full, ready to be filled up once more.

We exported plenty of green energy to our neighbours and we used practically no inward grid energy at all.

Once we have doubled up the solar array size, we are looking forward to achieving a similar outcome on most winter days, not just during summer, along with exporting even more surplus green energy into the grid.

Once we have transitioned all the on-site vehicles to electric, our total export energy will diminish somewhat, but it will be more than offset by a $0.00 diesel fuel bill (and by zero CO2 and Diesel particulate emission from our on-site activities).

On-site Energy Efficiency

One thing that matters a great deal is to do the best you can in terms of energy consumption, not just energy generation and storage. To state the obvious: The less energy you need to use, the longer your battery lasts overnight.

All the houses on the farm are heated/cooled using heat pumps.

This is the most efficient way to do it, by far. It is often poorly understood just how much more efficient a heat pump is, compared to any other way to cool or heat something.

That’s simply because a heap pump doesn’t create the heat – rather, it moves heat energy in the outside environment into the house (or vice versa, to cool it). Typical values for the Coefficient of Performance (COP) – the ‘multiplier effect’ between kilowatts to run a heat pump and kilowatts of heat energy that can be moved – are of the order of 3-4 times. That literally means that 3-4 times as many kilowatts of heating or cooling are created than the number of kilowatts of energy put into the device to do it. By contrast, heating using an electrical ‘element’ has a COP of 1, meaning there is literally no multiplier effect at all.

Because we’re in Tasmania, and it does get cold in winter, we have put in a wonderful indulgence in the form of a Spa pool. These obviously need a fair bit of energy to keep the pool water hot, and we have done two things to minimise that energy draw.

First, we have used a Spa heat pump to do the hot water heating, which accesses that fantastic multiplier effect mentioned above. It means we are heating the water by just moving heat energy out of the surrounding air and into that water.

Second, we have installed an optional monitoring and control device so we can access the Spa and remotely control it. We can turn the heating off when we are leaving home, and we can then remotely turn the heating back on when we are heading back, so it is nice and hot when we arrive.

We have a third heat pump at our home, the one that heats our hot water. We are using a Sanden Heat Pump based hot water system that (also) performs really well.

On-site Energy Monitoring and Control

The key to optimising energy usage is to be able to actually measure it.

The Victron Energy Cerbo GX at the heart of the energy system monitors all aspects of our renewable power plant in detail (and uploads them for easy review to the no-extra-cost Victron Energy VRM portal). This gives us fantastic (and super detailed) visibility into energy generation, storage, and consumption on site.

However, we have a lot of separate buildings on the farm, and the key to understanding and optimising energy draw is to get deeper insight into which buildings are using energy and when.

To that end, we have installed many Carlo Gavazzi EM24 ethernet interfaced energy meters all around the site-wide underground power network. At each delivery point into a building, there is an ethernet-attached meter installed, so that energy usage can be narrowed down to each of these buildings with ease.

I am currently working on the design of an appropriate monitoring system that will draw this data in and use it to provide me with detailed analytics of where our energy is going on a per-building basis (and when!).

In terms of control we have deployed KNX based sensor and control devices in a variety of places around the property, and we plan to deploy much more of it. Over time, we’ll be able to dynamically control and optimise energy consumption in a variety of useful ways.

KNX is a whole separate story, but – in brief – its an extremely good way to implement building automation using a 30+ year old standardised protocol with full backwards compatibility for older devices and with support from over 500 hardware manufacturers. It allows for the successful deployment of totally ‘mix and match’ multi-vendor collection of the best devices for each desired building automation monitoring or control task.

We are continuing to learn as we go.

With the upcoming enhancements in site monitoring and control, we expect to deepen our understanding of where energy is being used, to (in turn) allow us to further optimise that usage, using techniques as simple as moving various high energy demands to run ‘under the solar curve’ wherever possible. These are the times when on-site energy usage is essentially ‘free’ (avoiding the ‘energy round trip’ via the battery, and leaving more battery capacity for energy demands that cannot be time-shifted overnight)

Summary

Overall, this system is performing extremely well, and we are extremely pleased with it.

When we have added even more solar, it will do even better.

The #1 tip – even in Tasmania – is clear: Just Add More Solar ūüôā

The other big tip is to move your transport energy usage to electric.

The more electric vehicles we can deploy here over time (farm machinery as well as conventional cars), the better.

We’ll charge them (in the main) directly ‘under the solar curve’ and achieve a huge win-win in terms of both energy usage and carbon intensity.

As we keep learning and keep improving the monitoring and control systems… it will only get better from here.

Life, the universe, and Redflow

Today Redflow announced the appointment of John Lindsay as a non-executive director of Redflow Limited. John has deep skills and experience around technology and technology related business matters. He is, to use a favourite phase (for us both), ‘smart and gets things done’.

Its worth appreciating that John has specific expertise and experience in precisely the realms that Redflow needs. I sent John over to Brisbane when I originally invested in Redflow, to help me assess the technical merit of the technology. He, like me, has been a shareholder in Redflow ever since.

In addition to being a great businessman, John is also a technology geek at heart (as am I). He has been an active member of the electric vehicle and renewable energy community for many years. His daily driver is electric (as is mine) Рof course. He knows which end of a soldering iron is the hot end.

His idea of a fun weekend hobby is (literally – and recently) to have set up a D.I.Y. solar and battery offgrid system in his own garage to charge up his electric car from renewable energy because… he can (and because he knows how to).

His appointment frees me up to transition my own head space in the Redflow context totally into the technology around making our battery work in the real world. Doing that stuff is what I really love about being involved with Redflow. I love helping to make this amazing technology sing and dance smoothly for real people, solving real problems.

It was just the same at ¬†Internode – the company I spent more than two decades running. The ideal situation is to do things in business because you’re passionate about it.¬†In the words of Simon Sinek: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

I care about Redflow because I believe that Redflow’s technology can genuinely help to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy as a replacement to burning things to make electricity. Its really that simple.

The technical lever I designed, to help Redflow to move this particular part of the world, is the Redflow Battery Management System (BMS). I am very proud of the great work done by the technical team at Redflow who have taken many good ideas and turned them into great code – and who continue to do that on an ongoing basis.

So… while there can be a natural tendency, when looking at this sort of transition, to wonder whether my leaving the board (given how influential I’ve been at board level in the last few years) is because something ‘bad’ is happening, or because I don’t like it any more, or because I don’t feel confident about things at Redflow, the reality is precisely the opposite.

My being happy to step back from board level involvement over the next few months is the best possible compliment that I can give to the current board, lead by Brett Johnson (and now including John) and to the current executive (now ably lead by Tim Harris).  

I’ve put my money where my mouth is, to a very large extent, with Redflow. I am its largest single investor – and I have also put my money down as a customer, too, in my home and in my¬†office.

At this point, I’m happy to note that we are seeing great new batteries turning up from our new factory. We are on the verge of refreshing our training processes to show our integrators – and their customers – how far the BMS and our integration technology has come at this point (and just how easy it all is, now, to make the pieces work). We are looking forward to the integration industry installing more of our batteries into real world situations around the world again – at last.

We do this with confidence and we do this with eagerness.

I am proud to be a shareholder in Redflow and I look forward to the next chapter of this story.

How State Governments can save money and drive the battery revolution

There is a great opportunity for Australian¬†state governments to offer home battery storage incentives to consumers and to funding this incentive by repurposing existing, committed government expenditure. The mechanism I’m talking about is a voluntary trade-in offer, built around the residual payment stream for existing (and often very¬†generous) solar Feed-In Tariffs (FITs).

These solar Feed-In Tariffs have already achieved their goal of kickstarting solar panel adoption in Australia. Indeed Australia is now among the world leaders in its per capita deployment of PV solar panels.

From a public policy point of view, continuing to pay solar Feed-In Tariffs well beyond the point where the underlying consumer investment in their solar installation has been fully paid off represents a substantial forward liability that does not deliver improved public good outcomes. However, state governments are clearly sensitive to the political risk of simply cancelling these long-running tariff schemes, some of which hold liabilities to as far as 2028.

However, Governments have an attractive way out of that problem, which serves both a public policy and industry development agenda while removing these long term liabilities from the public purse.

This involves inviting consumers to voluntarily trade in the residual life of their FIT in exchange for funding to buy a home battery energy storage system. This would have the dual benefit of eliminating a long-term forward liability for governments while kickstarting a home energy storage industry in Australia.

The remaining forward liability for a given customer can be readily estimated based on past subsidy payment patterns for that customer.

Past subsidy payment patterns are also likely to underestimate the remaining forward liability from the FIT schemes to governments. Each time a consumer reduces their home energy usage during daytime hours (through buying new and more energy-efficient appliances, installing automatic energy optimising control systems, and also through government-funded incentives such as this LED lighting replacement scheme), their future FIT payments from the government are set to rise still further in the future.

Accordingly, it seems likely that governments can likely save money overall by offering such a voluntary trade-in, even if the trade-in offer funds the entire capital cost of a home battery energy system. That up-front payment now could well be below the net present value of the (rising) forward liability of the FIT payments to the customer concerned.

Over the past year, Australia has emerged as a global battery proving ground because of its widespread deployment of PV solar panels and high electricity costs. Home batteries based on Lithium battery chemistries have been launched here by companies including Tesla, Enphase and Panasonic.

Redflow, an Australian company of which I‚Äôm Executive Chairman and a major investor, has recently¬†launched its ZCell home battery, which is based on Redflow‚Äôs unique ZBM2 flow battery. This is a different kind of battery entirely. We believe it is far better suited to the long term demands and the daily ‘deep cycling’ required to store¬†daytime excess solar energy¬†generation and to let you¬†use it to power your home at night.

The solar FIT buyout concept note here has been widely discussed in the Australian renewables sector and is reportedly under consideration by the Queensland Government. It has the virtue of re-using funds previously committed to kickstarting the PV solar panel sector to encourage the new home energy storage sector ‚Äď with associated jobs and business growth.

Its important to appreciate that in many areas, the solar installation industry is now starting to saturate Рwith installers starting to struggle to find new growth areas in what has become a highly competitive pricing realm. The big opportunity for renewal in this industry is (now) the installation of battery energy storage systems in the same homes that have previously installed solar Рbut the high cost of battery systems at this early stage of the battery industry cycle is getting in the way. This voluntary FIT trade-in scheme could be just the growth catalyst the industry needs.

Just as with solar PV incentives, it will prove politically popular with citizens who increasingly regard home energy storage as a way to increase their energy independence and reduce electricity costs.

Widespread energy storage will also benefit far-sighted electricity companies by reducing demand during peak power periods and providing them with the possibility of buying home-stored energy as a ‚Äėvirtual‚Äô on-demand power source rather than relying on fossil-fuelled driven peaking gas generators.

At a national level, widespread energy storage, both at the consumer and the grid level, will help Australia achieve its international carbon reduction commitments by time-shifting renewable energy so it can be used 24/7, not just when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining.

Swapping solar Feed-In Tariffs for home battery installations is not just a win-win: It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Why batteries will not cause mass defection from the grid

There’s a popular belief that the looming presence of batteries in people’s homes will lead to the widespread defection of those customers from the power grid.

In this view, living the dream means grid-independence where you harvest your own energy, one-finger salute the power companies and, when grid power fails for others in the street, your battery keeps the party going at your house.

While cutting the power cord sounds good in theory, in practice consumers gain many more advantages from staying connected to the grid.

Continue reading

New Net, New Grid – FiRe 2015

In October this year I had the pleasure of having an in depth conversation about how the new energy grid and the new Internet grid is starting to evolve Рand about the interesting similarities and overlaps that are evolving between the two.

A key thrust of the conversation related to the way that scalable energy storage is the transformative physical component driving changes in how the energy grids of the world will work in the future.

That conversation was undertaken between myself and Larry Smarr.

Larry was the perfect partner for this conversation. He is someone I have had the pleasure to have known in various contexts for some years now, and (as you will see in the video), we share some similar views on the topics concerned. I had a great time riffing with him on these topics.

The video of this conversation is available for your viewing pleasure here.

It is a 15 minute video that was excerpted from a half hour session at the Future In Review conference held in Park City, Utah in October 2015.

The Future In Review conference is pretty amazing – I’ve been a part of it for many years. This year I was (of course) wearing my Redflow hat loudly and proudly at the event ūüôā

 

 

RMIT Talking Technology podcast

I had a nice chat with Garry Barker for an RMIT University Podcast series called “Talking Technology”. ¬†We talked (yes, again ūüôā )¬†about my favourite hot-button items – startups, innovation and investment cycles and electric cars.

The release date for the podcast is 14 August 2014, and here it is:

https://itunes.apple.com/au/itunes-u/talking-technology/id463655283