The arrival of the Powerwall Tesla battery storage unit in Australia will herald the biggest challenge to Australia’s electricity industry for decades.
Tesla announced on Thursday that it is fast-tracking the roll-out of its battery storage product. Australia will be its first market for the 7kWh household units. The first deliveries had not been expected until well into 2017.
The Tesla Powerwall is not the first or even the cheapest battery storage maker to enter the Australian market but it is the most ubiquitous brand.
It threatens to do to incumbent business models what Uber is doing to the taxi industry, and Facebook, Twitter and Amazon did to traditional publishing.
Tesla is targeting the Australian market first because it is ripe for change. It has high electricity prices, excellent sun, lots of rooftop solar (more than 4,400MW on more than 1.4m homes). Its tariff structure should make it attractive for households and businesses to store their solar output in a box for use in the evening, rather than giving it away for next to nothing to the grid.
There are a range of predictions on how quickly battery storage will be adopted in Australia. Some suggest that the combination of a solar array and battery storage is already cheaper than grid power in some areas, others suggest it will be another five years before the combination is cheap enough to become a mass market.
But the promised benefits to consumers could be undermined because of a major turf war between the incumbent utilities whose business models are being threatened by the new technology, and because regulators are so slow to act.
Australia’s network operators and electricity retailers say they can see battery storage coming, yet they seem unprepared for the speed of the transition. To protect their outdated business models they are erecting barriers, changing tariff structures by jacking up fixed prices, and in some cases even banning storage and electrical vehicles from the grid.
Another barrier is the emerging turf war between network operators (the companies who run the poles and wires) and the electricity retailers (the companies who send you the bill) over who can deal with customers.
Last week, the head of AGL’s new energy division, Marc England, argued that network operators that deliver the electrons from far-away power stations should be ring-fenced from the new decentralised market. He told the Disruption And The Energy Industry conference in Sydney that network operators should only own assets that consumers could not touch (such as lines and transformers). That means hands off assets like rooftop solar and battery storage.
South Australia Power Networks boss Ron Stobbe said last year that the energy transition could be terminal for the so-called “gentailers”, the energy giants that operate both big generation fleets and package up the bills to their clients.
Stobbe suggested the push to battery storage and the move to micro-grids could make centralised generation virtually redundant, an observation repeated by the head of the UK national grid earlier this week.
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