As one of the sunniest countries in the world, Australia is ideally placed to include rooftop solar power as a major part of its clean energy mix
Australia is a global leader in residential rooftop solar, and the commercial and industrial sectors are starting to catch up
Australia is currently using less than 5% of its potential capacity for rooftop solar
Planet Ark Power made headlines in October 2020 with the unveiling of a unique project with homewares retailer IKEA to transform its iconic ‘big blue boxes’ into renewable energy power stations. The first store in line, in Adelaide, will be fitted with large-scale rooftop solar, batteries and Planet Ark Power’s unique technology platform, eleXsys, to not only power the store but also feed excess clean energy into the electricity grid.
This project reflects decades of innovation and collaborative efforts by the company. It’s also the perfect example of the potential of Planet Ark Power’s technology to help create ‘energy resilient cities’ – a term used to describe a vision of the future where cities generate sufficient clean energy at the source of demand and become less dependent on electricity sources from outside the city. We spoke to Planet Ark Power’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jonathan Ruddick, to understand how Planet Ark Power is transforming the economics of large-scale solar power to speed up the decarbonisation of our electricity grids.
Planet Ark Power is an Australian renewable energy company that provides solar-powered energy systems to businesses, schools and other organisations. Its services and products are innovative both technologically and in terms of its business model. This enables organisations with large rooftops to benefit from solar power by strategically storing, using and exporting electricity into the grid.
Amongst Planet Ark Power’s innovations is eleXsys, an artificial-intelligence-based device that harmonises electricity grids and allows organisations to get the most out of their solar installations.
When Jonathan Ruddick first started at Planet Ark Power in 2015, he predominately worked in business operations, building the sales and operational side of the business. Now he oversees the commercial growth and strategic direction of Planet Ark Power. He also played an integral role in building Planet Ark Power’s partnership with IKEA.
Planet Ark Power believes applying technological innovation with new business thinking can transform the economics of large-scale solar power in Australia. Its vision is of a world where cities are made up of a network of energy self-sufficient businesses and organisations, or ‘microgrids’. Connected to the electricity grid, but also operating independently of it through solar energy generation, these microgrids would effectively act as urban clean energy power stations. Creating and distributing energy at the source of demand, grid-connected microgrids would be able to supply their surrounding communities with clean electricity at times of peak demand and emergencies such as blackouts.
Best of all, it’s a win-win for all involved, providing new revenue streams, cheaper, clean energy for the client, as well as important environmental and social benefits.
eleXsys gives us the opportunity to turn a large industrial building into an urban power plant – Bevan Holcombe, Chief Executive Officer, Planet Ark Power
Jonathan says to understand the importance of eleXsys and its potential, first you have to understand the problem. “The problem – and this goes for all grids around the world – is that they were designed to send power one way,” he said. “It's like a one-way road that wasn't designed to have traffic sent back the other way.”
Traditional electricity grids send energy from a centralised generator into a consumer hub (in Australia, this energy is predominantly powered by fossil fuels). With rooftop solar systems, the solar power is harnessed and, if it is not used or stored on-site, it can be fed into the adjacent electricity network to be used by neighbouring consumers. However, when large amounts of solar energy are fed into the grid, it can sometimes destabilise it and potentially cause power outages and equipment damage.
To protect the grid, energy networks are frequently capping the amount of energy rooftop solar systems can export into the grid. This means we are increasingly generating power on rooftops without being able to fully benefit from it. As Jonathan puts it: “Even if you install a large solar system, you are likely, given the amount of solar we now have on networks, to be stopped by the network operator from exporting any surplus energy into the grid. So, you can't make any money from it. You've got a stranded asset; a solar system sitting there that you can't get any return from. And so that [has] stopped people from installing larger systems”.
Jonathan says Australia is experiencing these problems before the rest of the world because we are world-leaders in rooftop solar. “About 20 years ago, we started to see a real uptake in solar on rooftops in the residential space. In fact, in both Queensland and South Australia, we've got arguably the highest penetrations of rooftop solar in the world.”
Bevan Holcombe, Planet Ark Power’s founder, spent 35 years with one of Australia's largest energy utilities, and the last decade of his career witnessing the effects large amounts of rooftop solar was beginning to have on electricity networks. As he couldn't find a solution to the problem of grid instability, when he retired, he decided he would invent one. And this is how the business started.
One of the innovations he developed is eleXsys®, a device that harmonises electricity grids whilst enabling more clean energy from rooftops to be distributed across networks. The technology allows clean energy from rooftop solar to be efficiently and safely fed into the grid, without being capped by energy networks. Additionally, it can be programmed to charge batteries and trade electricity directly with the Australian energy market, thus adding further benefits to an already winning economic rationale.
Planet Ark Power’s story is one of technological innovation, new business rationale and collaboration. When asked which stakeholders need to work together to make their vision of a 100 per cent renewable electricity powered grid happen, Jonathan says the IKEA eleXsys Microgrid project is a microcosm of that: “You've got the South Australian government putting funds toward it and providing regulatory support; you've got Epic Energy who's the investor; and then you've got commerce and industry represented by IKEA, who's the customer but also has the targets around renewable energy and carbon reduction. Finally, you've got Planet Ark Power as the technology provider and enabling the commercialisation of a game changing clean-tech solution to one of the most challenging limitations to transitioning to a clean energy future.”
“The initial funding provided by the South Australian government was critical to getting the IKEA eleXsys Microgrid off the ground. But for future projects, we won't need ongoing governmental support,” Jonathan says. “The fact that we have governmental support to prove the concept of a commercial scale, grid-connected microgrid, and they're saying this is something they see as a solution, is priceless.”
As CEO and CSO at IKEA Australia and New Zealand, Jan Gardberg, says: “It’s only by co-creating and working together with clean energy producers, innovators, the business community, the consumers, and of course government and service partners [that] can we create a new ecosystem that increases the availability and demand for clean energy.”
IKEA is a great example of the economic and environmental benefits eleXsys can provide. All of the nine Australian IKEA stores already have solar panels on their roofs. However, without battery storage, the panels only cover approximately 20 per cent of the stores’ electricity needs. Combining eleXsys with advanced batteries will enable the IKEA Adelaide store to scale its solar installation so that the site is powered by 100 per cent clean energy, as well as sending excess energy into the grid.
The eleXsys microgrid at IKEA Adelaide will also achieve important environmental savings, with a reduction in CO2 emissions of approximately 810 tonnes per year. Over the lifespan of the solar panels this could equate to preventing around 16,000 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
According to the Australian Photovoltaic Institute, commercial and industrial zones in Australia have the potential to host 26 gigawatts of rooftop solar. That's roughly the equivalent of 21,500 versions of the IKEA Adelaide solar installation. It's not difficult to see how large-scale commercial rooftop solar could have a significant contribution to reaching net zero emissions in Australia and abroad.
Despite having the highest uptake of solar power in the world, Australia currently uses less than five per cent of its potential capacity for rooftop solar – a mere ‘scratch in the surface’ of the country’s potential, according to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Jonathan wants everyone to see the potential in rooftop solar to provide clean energy at a lower cost to businesses and the planet. “In Australia, if you installed solar on all of the available rooftops, that would be enough to power the whole country,” he says. “Our vision is to create the utilities of the future, where we're generating all the energy we need. And we can do this with existing infrastructure, which are the large and underutilised commercial rooftops across the metropolitan and regional communities of Australia.”