A bulk-buy campaign led by Suncrowd has attracted thousands of people at roadshows in regional towns in New South Wales, Australia, in the last few months, and translated into what its organisers believe might already be the largest coordinated community energy project in the country.
So far, five community groups working with the program have attracted 3,500 people to events in Newcastle, Wollongong, the Blue Mountains, Shoalhaven, Goulburn and the Southern Highlands, delivering a projected 700kW of solar and 1.5MWh of battery storage. Another 500 people turned up at a second meeting in Wollongong on Tuesday night and similar numbers are expected in the Blue Mountains this week.
Suncrowd’s Chris Cooper says the response has been so strong that it shows that people are clearly ready for the next stage of the energy transition – by adding affordable energy storage and smart energy software to their solar system. It may even signal the start of the early "mass market" uptake of the technology.
Suncrowd describes itself as a social enterprise "creating a movement of Australian households who want to take the power back into their own hands."
It says its community bulk buy program, which makes solar and batteries easy, accessible and at lower prices – overcomes the complexity and lack of trust that can dog such transactions.
"People want it delivered in a transparent, engaging and easy to understand format," Cooper says, "and the community sector has a key role in facilitating this if we’re to increase uptake of important new energy technologies."
Incumbent utilities should be worried. Firstly, they have long assumed that the uptake of battery storage would be a slow burn, and wouldn’t take off – apart from a few early adopters – until the "economics make sense." When the economics do make sense, the big retailers assume that most consumers will go to a recognised name.
But Suncrowd’s Chris Cooper says many consumers aren’t waiting for the numbers to add up, or for the big names to get their act together. In New South Wales, this is being driven by frustration with renewable energy policy and the fact that the “60 cent-ers”, the 140,000 households on the solar bonus scheme, are about to lose their premium tariffs.
Community energy programs are also gaining traction. The "Repower" program that funds solar installations on local businesses has now raised nearly $500,000 for more than 300kW of rooftop solar, including a $140,000 fund raising that was met in less than 48 hours his week.
In Byron Bay, the community-owned renewable energy retailer Enova is also gaining traction, attracting more than 1,000 customers in its first few months of operation.
And there is growing interest in programs and technology that encourages households to share their solar output with other consumers, particularly those who do not have access to solar. This is despite fierce resistance from fossil fuel incumbents and barriers erected by regulators.
Even more worrying for utilities is that the economics of battery storage are close, very close. Bruce Mountain, from advisory firm CME, says the effective halving of costs in the second version of the Tesla Powerwall has made solar and storage cheaper than grid-supplied electricity in places like South Australia.
In fact, Mountain says the combination of solar and storage is now 25 per cent cheaper than the best retail offer in that state.
Cooper says that is not quite the case in NSW. Yet. "We are totally open about that – when you are just looking at bill savings, it is now making pure economic sense in certain household situations but not all.
"But what makes it still a rational decision," he says, "is that many people are motivated by other ‘intrinsic' values – including energy independence, their support for clean energy, and their dislike of incumbent utilities."
Suncrowd’s July campaign in Newcastle in partnership with Climate Action Newcastle was Australia’s first bulk-buy for energy storage, and had almost 200 participants adopting 250kW of solar and 660kWh of storage.
Cooper says the whole program has underlined some key highlights:
· People want batteries: Some 75 per cent of participants have opted for battery storage
· People want smart energy software: Some 70 per cent of eligible customers have opted to add Reposit Power to their battery system
· People want Australian made: Some 80 per cent of customers have paid a premium for Australian made and Adelaide based Tindo Solar panels over a Chinese module (the normal ratio of solar modules in Australia is 80% Chinese made, although many consumers are under the impression that they are buying Australian).
Cooper also notes that the release of the Tesla Powerwall 2 has eliminated interest in the LG 10kWh battery, and is neck-and-neck with the LG Chem 6.5kWh as the most popular storage offering.
Suncrowd has also developed some tools of its own, such as an online calculator, which assists households determine energy independence and bill savings. Since June, their programs have generated $50,000 income for community non-profit partners who assist in delivering the programs across NSW.
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