Three-hour Workshop/Meeting with Bjorn Sturmberg on Tuesday, September 6th

As noted above, we initiated this workshop following the recommendation of the SCC group that advised us on our Grant Application.  Bjorn is a Physicist whose PhD was focused on Solar Panel technology and he played a major role in the success of the Stucco Student Housing Cooperative’s installation of an AER-approved embedded solar collection and storage network.  He was an ideal person for us to learn from since this has been the kind of network we have been thinking of.

There are 40 tenants in the Stucco Co-op.  Perhaps the most outstanding figures arising from this experience are as follows: the design and planning for the network took about 3-4 months and the installation 8 days; dealing with the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) took 9 months and cost $130K in pro bono legal fees.  The network of solar panels and battery storage feed a parent meter connected to the grid.  This meter connects to individual meters for each unit so that the Co-op is the seller of electricity to the 40 consumers.

In addition to the technical questions of the types of panels, batteries and meters and their configuration the design phase had to address the important issue of pricing covering such things as differences in time of use and the different rates for local (system) provision versus grid provision.  All of these things involved tricky decisions which the eventual beneficiaries (the occupants) needed to engage with if they were to support the shift to the network.

It would be easy to conclude that these technical, economic and social issues would be the really difficult ones to overcome before there would be sufficient support to make the transition.  Indeed, later in the discussion, Bjorn affirmed very strongly that if we do proceed to an embedded network we MUST keep control and ownership of the meters.  But, the Stucco experience demonstrated that the really difficult issues are the bureaucratic and legal ones that arise in dealing with the AER.

It appears that the primary emphases of the AER when dealing with small to medium-sized network applications are to ensure competition between providers and power for consumers.  It seems that minimising the cost to consumers via a cooperative provider is of no account to the AER.  Thus, when it dealt with Stucco it demanded exhaustive contract provisions in granting the license for Stucco to sell electricity and in the service commitments to its consumers the 40 student occupants.

It is instructive to learn that the relative costs of this whole process from go to woe were $95K for the design, provision and installation of the technical system including building modification costs (including fire-proofing the battery installation) so that the Co-op covered the full cost of connection to the grid. This compared with $130K for the legal services required to deal with the AER.  This extreme difference would have torpedoed the project were it not for the provision of pro bono legal work by former tenants of the Co-op.

Despite this tale of struggle, the outcomes since the commencement of the embedded network show that the Co-op as a whole is paying 90% less for its electricity and the student consumers are paying 50% less, the difference covering the amortisation of the $95K capital cost of connecting to the grid.

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