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Virtual Power Plants: Running renewable energy in the cloud

They’re the power plants of the future. They have the ability to run energy in the cloud, just not the kind you find in the sky (although the sun has a lot to do with it).

A Virtual Power Plant (VPP) supplies renewable energy on demand by using innovative web-based technology, to remotely link and manage homes with solar and battery storage.

They’re designed to support and feed power back into the grid during peak times, to relieve the load and keep the network stable.

It isn’t a new concept but the technology behind it, and the role VPPs will play in powering our energy future, is.

 

How do virtual power plants work?

A VPP gets its power from a pool of distributed energy resources (DERs) spread across the network, usually solar panels and batteries connected to homes or businesses that generate and store energy from the sun. So a VPP is where a portfolio of DERs from multiple customers (known as aggregated DER) become available to provide services to the energy market when required.

Using smart cloud-based technology, a VPP can behave similar to a single traditional generator. As this kind of network is virtual, the system can quickly monitor, control and balance electricity demand, supply and storage in response to changing household needs.

Why all the fuss about virtual power plants?

Distributed energy resources have come a long way in a very short time. The installed capacity of rooftop solar panels across our network now exceeds 1.1GW – that’s around three times the size of the largest power station in the South West Interconnected System (SWIS).

This kind of solar uptake is set to continue and with other DERs in the energy mix, it presents both opportunities and challenges for future-proofing the grid.

VPPs are one way we can integrate the grid with renewables, maximise grid efficiency and make energy more affordable for customers.

Drone photo of a residential area showing solar panels on the rooftops

What does the current virtual power plant landscape look like in WA?

As part of the State Government’s delivery of the DER roadmap, Project Symphony was announced in December 2021 and is an exciting and innovative project that has also received support from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) as part of ARENA's Advancing Renewables Program.

In partnership with Synergy and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the project will orchestrate customer Distributed Energy Resources (DER) like rooftop solar, battery energy storage and other major appliances, like air conditioning and pool pumps as a Virtual Power Plant (VPP).

The VPP will aggregate and optimise DER, providing value to the customer, the network and energy markets, unlocking greater economic and environmental benefits for customers and the wider community.

Unlocking all these benefits together will provide the greatest value to customers. As such, Project Symphony encompasses the end-to-end transactions that will enable a value chain for customer DER assets to participate in the Wholesale Electricity Market (WEM).

There are now 13 community-scale batteries across the grid with most of them being PowerBanks in partnership with Synergy. This is a small step towards the introduction of VPPs in WA but one that’s helping improve power quality and provide benefits for local communities by managing peak loads.  They also enable homes and businesses to integrate more rooftop solar and incorporate new technologies onto the grid. And with another 50MW of additional distribution storage planned, we are moving further towards VPPs being an important part of our energy future. 

The peer to peer energy sharing trials in White Gum Valley and Fremantle are other examples of  VPP being rolled out within a new residential development. But the innovation of a VPP means that the benefits of aggregated DER are taken beyond a peer to peer community by providing services to the energy market.

So, what are we to make of all this innovation?

Through Project Symphony, we’re able to learn more about the network impact of a VPP and their potential for delaying or removing the need for costly network expansions. This includes looking at how distributed energy resources can:

• be integrated more efficiently into the grid and help lower system costs for customers;
• help free up network capacity to include more renewables onto the grid, such as solar farms and wind farms; and
• support the future adoption of VPPs in WA.

It also provides a valuable testing ground for us to explore the opportunities of advanced metering to monitor and manage assets. Advanced meters provide network and metering information to Western Power which could potentially help manage any shortfalls in solar generation.

While VPPs are still in its early stages here in WA, the future does look bright.

The emergence of more VPPs in WA will support system stability and diminish the need for other methods of managing DER such as emergency solar management, announced by Energy Policy WA in December 2021.

As Nicola Wright, our Head of Change and Innovation puts it, “One of the things we’re seeing is the price of DER coming down significantly as technology matures (and becomes mainstream), so it becomes cheaper to manufacture and is more accessible.

“The GTEng project is a pretty good case study of how we’re quickly evolving and what we’re doing to transition to that new energy future.”

VPPs are only part of the solution, but one thing’s for sure, the potential is here to shape a cleaner energy future for WA.

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