Networks and retailers fight for solar + storage market, and energy future

The fight for supremacy in Australia’s electricity market is shifting away from wholesale markets and retail tariff wars to inside the home – and the two biggest forces of the Australian energy market are now lining up for a massive turf war over who gets to deal with the customer.

The growing adoption of rooftop solar, the massive interest in battery storage and the accelerating push towards a decentralised energy system is shifting the focus of the electricity market to “behind the meter” products like solar, storage and smart software.

This, in turn, is reshaping the industry and its business models. These technologies are reducing the need for network costs and reducing the need for centralised generation, and lowering prices. But as one revenue model declines, others are emerging.

What was once an exclusive club of network providers, centralised generators and bill providers has been bust open as millions of new connections, and the incumbents are fighting over who should be able to offer those services to the consumers – be they households, business, or communities. And new players are also trying to get into the market.

The issue is complicated by the fact that no one is too sure what the business model of the future will actually look like, apart from the fact that it will be vastly different from the oligopoly that dominated the past and the present.

Two recent announcements from the network side of things will cause disquiet, particularly among the “gentailers” – the combined retailers and coal- and gas-fired generators.

The first was a recent study by Ausnet that pointed out that the benefits of solar + storage are about equal to both consumers (who save money) and the networks (who avoid network upgrades).

The second, revealed in RenewEconomy on Wednesday, was the announcement by South Australian Power Networks that it will offer big discounts to consumers on rooftop solar and battery storage from Tesla and Samsung, in a trial that it expects to prove that it can save millions on grid upgrades through these technologies, and reduce bills for consumers.

Suddenly, after fighting the introduction of solar + storage for years by playing with tariffs, the networks are seeing the value in the technology, and a deep relationship with the customer. And they are vowing to change.

Basil Scarsella, a former head of the South Australia grid operator and now CEO of UK Power Networks, one of the big network operators in England, told the ENA2016 conference in Adelaide today that this is all part of a transition from network operators to “full service system providers.”

Scarsella said the industry was, in many ways, going back to its past, where it developed through smaller discrete grids and as regional electricity companies. But instead of providing power through coal, it will be supplied mostly by renewables.

“The question for us as network operators, is how to protect our revenue going forward … We need to provide a service to customers and communities in a way we have never done before.”

That, he says, means providing services “behind the meter”. He pointed to the way his company offered such services to Heathrow Airport. He saw no reason why this could not be replicated across the market.

Paul Italiano, now the head of NSW transmission operator Transgrid, and until last month the head of WA utility Western Power, echoed those thoughts.

He pointed to the opportunity of new business models such as micro grids, including nearly self-sufficient communities where the network installs solar and battery storage, and maintains a small connection, as the lowest cost, local solution. It’s cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable, Italiano notes.

“The challenge for integrating renewables is not a matter of finding solutions to … their variability, because there are plenty of solutions,” Italiano says. The challenge, he says, is finding something that fits into a regulatory regime that didn’t contemplate such developments.

That’s why the networks are keen to get in behind the metre, and the big gentailers – such as Origin Energy, AGL Energy and EnergyAustralia – and many smaller players are keen to keep them out. It promises to be one of the biggest and most significant regulatory battles of the past few years.

There is a lot at stake. The big three gentailers have traditionally made money out of packaging up bills (retailing), and from profits from their coal- and gas-fired generators.

But if the networks get to talk to the customer and offer their own services, and technologies such as local generation and battery storage clip the profits from the wholesale generation business, the gen-tailer business model is at risk. If the networks can’t price this service properly, then consumers will find other alternatives and leave the grid.

The gentailers have responded by creating “new energy” divisions and offering solar and storage to their customers, and increasing their interest in owning these assets. And they are leading the fight at the regulatory level about keeping network providers – at least the “regulated” side of the business – away from customers.

Both businesses are at risk in an energy market that shifts largely to local generation. And while the retailers are rapidly expanding their solar and storage options, and linking with providers of smart technology services, they are also seeking to protect their huge investments in large generation.

The gentailers are making strong submissions to an Energy Regulator review of “ring fencing”, and arguing that the regulated part of the network business should not be allowed in the market.

“The regulated networks can’t be allowed to have an unfair advantage when dealing with customers,” AGL managing director Andrew Vesey said recently. “Not much regulation comes from regulated businesses.”

The gentailers have some support from consumer groups, who don’t trust the networks to do the right thing, given the huge rise in network spending over the last few years, which has caused electricity prices to soar and opened the door to these new technologies, and their monopoly power, which might make it difficult for smaller players.

Networks have also been accused of framing tariff and other rule changes that have reduced incentives for installing solar and other technologies, and have been accused of putting their own revenue interests first.

As Merryn York, the CEO of Queensland transmission network Powerlink, told ENA2016, “one of the big challenges we have is our history.”

York pointed to the huge burst in spending that followed a series of big outages in Queensland more than a decade ago, when the response was simply to spend more on a bigger, rather than smarter, grid.

This has been a complaint of consumers and the solar industry for years. But it seems, now, that the network operators see their future in meeting customer needs. Or at least that is what they are saying.

“We need to make a cultural change to think differently,” York said.We have got to focus on the customer. The regulated part of our network will reduce over time and there will be more distributed generation in households. As assets age we will be looking for alternatives. The regulated part of the network will be smaller, and the contestable, deregulated side will be focused on renewables.”

Indeed, some networks, such as SAPN, have suggested that the gentailers – as currently presented – have no future in a decentralised energy world. They say networks will always be needed to provide connections, even at a local micro-grid level. The ability to do that and save on network costs, and reduce generation costs, is a big threat to the generators and retailers.

Paul Adams, the head of Victorian network operator Jemena, echoed those remarks: “The current model of a retailer and a network – that is not going to be the model in 5-10 years time,” he told the ENA2016 conference. He pointed d to the likes of Google entering the energy services market.

And in contrast to the claim of AGL’s Vesey about the lack of innovation by regulated businesses, Transgrid’s Italiano says retailers in other industries are rarely architects of new products and in the electricity industry they are retailers only, and not managers or operators of assets.

“If you offer the community cheaper power, more reliable power and cleaner power, they will beat the door down wanting it,” he said.

“We are at a fantastic juncture in the world. The need for electricity is greater than it has been. It is up to us as an industry to gather all these technologies together and listen to the consumers. If we do that, we won’t have to worry about (regulated) revenue.”

That is an ominous warning for the retailers and gentailers, and York acknowledged there is “friction” in the industry, as both move towards a decentralised system and away from past models.

The networks are confident they will prosper, even in a changed world, because connections will be needed – to transport vast amounts of mostly renewable electricity along the transmission lines, and even in micro-grids, where the electricity is produced locally and shared within a community, be it a town, suburb or region.

The future of “gentailers” is likely to be more problematic, unless they can form alliances with the networks and become service providers too. In the new world, there is less need for large centralised generation, and probably fewer profits to be made. And on the retailing side, they need to do more than package up bills and act as a hedge.

That’s why retailers are increasingly focused on the solar + storage market, and moving into metering, and electric vehicles. But any push to change the model is hindered by the fact that they are making so much money in generation.

The Author

Hi, my name is Georgia and I am an editor and content creator working at Australian Solar Quotes. I have a passion for sustainable and ethical living. I want to inform and educate others on sustainable practices like using renewable energy. I invite you to join the conversation by commenting below with your thoughts.