Alkimos Beach, located north of Perth, was one of the first towns to adopt a community battery in 2016. Despite the obscure fee structures and bizarre installation, it has saved the township thousands of dollars since. It begs the question, why aren’t we seeing more batteries in our suburbs and why is there backlash for something that slashes power bills by hundreds of dollars every few months?
Mega batteries, similar to the ones at Alkimos Beach, store excess solar power generated by homes within a town to ensure appliances and infrastructure aren’t damaged. If power goes out, or more power is required by a town, a 1MWh battery can power around 1,000 homes for two hours.
The ABC reports that 119 households signed up for the trial in Alkimos Beach, and saved $81,000 over five years, or an average of about $36 per bill. There was also an 85 percent reduction in energy consumption during peak periods. Unfortunately, the monthly fee to utilise the battery, valued at $11 per household, was heavily subsidised and since the trial has ended, but this doesn’t mean the model can’t work on a larger scale.
Synergy and Western Power conducted the trial at Alkimos Beach, with the former running battery trials in larger communities. Synergy believes suburb-based batteries are a solution without the upfront costs of an off grid power system, which costs around $10,000. A communal battery also means a number of homes can utilise it at different times. The ANU’s Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program’s Marnie Shaw says it's a smarter solution than individual batteries confined to one household.
"It's hard to give exact figures, but essentially you need less battery per house if you're sharing, compared to individual household batteries,” she says
"How much less depends on a number of things, so it's hard to say exactly, but it's in the order of 10-50 percent."
Western Australia was the first to benefit from community battery trials, with Ausgrid and Victoria and New South Wales following suit in 2020 and 2021 respectively. The Yarra Energy Foundation, set up by Yarra City Council, is set to install a 250kWh battery in North Fitzroy, which is only just the beginning of the Foundation’s vision.
"We have a goal of 200 community batteries within seven years. I'd say before 2030 there should be thousands of them,” says YEF Commercial Program Manager Chris Wallin.
"The second generation of batteries will include EV charging. Your EV will be connected to a charging point which will be connected to the community battery."
"We're not saying don't have home batteries. We need storage wherever we can put it — all the way from home batteries, community batteries, grid batteries and pumped hydro storage."
In order to meet the emissions reduction targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia must look to increase its energy storage capacity. The 200 battery target set by the YEF is described as a drop in the ocean. The answer may lie with the introduction of a number of Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), which is effectively a network of thousands of individual household batteries.
VPPs only work if homeowners own the solar panels and home batteries on their homes, and it needs to be a profitable exercise for said homeowners. Social Scientist Hedda Ransan-Cooper, who works with the ANU's Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program, says the issue lies in assurances from power companies.
"The industry simply does not understand that trust is going to be the biggest issue. The energy sector is one of the least trusted. People don't like the idea of you coming in and fiddling with what's in their home,” she says.
Those who have signed up for VPP trials are those willing to take the risk. Communal batteries alleviates any potential trust issues residents may have with energy providers, plus it can be moderated by local organisations.
"Local government keeps popping up in the research that we do. It's not universally loved, but the idea is it's more accountable than market bodies and energy generators, who are so distant," says Ransan-Cooper.
"I'm a big fan of neighbourhood batteries. My personal view is they present a serious and much better alternative compared to household batteries."
But communal batteries are not without opposition. Green Analyst Markets Analyst Tristan Edis has some choice words for the power cells.
"It's a load of bullshit. People want to blow a bunch of money on this because they like the idea of socialism. They are tiny tokenistic drops in the ocean.”
Edis concedes that communal batteries as opposed to individual ones may be more efficient, but will never be done to the required scale. He suggested battery rebates should be introduced by the government, akin to the solar scheme adopted by state governments in 2011. Edis claims this would deliver approximately 10,000MW of storage by 2030.
Federal Labor says it will install hundreds of community batteries around the country if successful in the election. In addition, the Victorian and Western Australian governments continue to fund trials for communal batteries in the form of grants.
Image: Western Power