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Canberra start-up Solcast's bid to answer energy question

Unless you're flying over Canberra, it's hard to guess how many solar panels sit on the city's rooftops.

ACT-based atmospheric scientist and entrepreneur Nick Engerer has solved a harder problem yet: How to calculate the energy they'll generate together as weather changes.

Dr Engerer, a lecturer at the ANU and a co-founder of Canberra start-up Solcast, has found a way for energy companies to learn how much solar energy is available in the network. 

Solcast uses images from a weather satellite that monitors Australia, and employs different technologies and modelling to calculate the level of solar radiation at the earth's surface. 

It then looks at where clouds are expected to move to forecast changes in radiation, combining these with information about an area's solar panel numbers to calculate how much solar energy will be available. 

A significant amount of energy is produced through solar, affecting the total demand in the country's electricity markets.

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"This is a really cool way of doing this," Dr Engerer said. 

"To my knowledge, I'm not aware of anyone else doing this."

The technology could help energy companies manage electricity supply shortfalls better in situations like the extreme heat the ACT sweltered through last week, he said.

No rotational load shedding affected Canberrans, however as temperatures were forecast to reach 41 degrees fears of supply shortfalls prompted ACT emergency services to join climate change and sustainability minister Shane Rattenbury in calling for people to lower power usage in homes and businesses.

The Australian Energy Market Operator warned of the potential high demand across the NSW network because of the heat and the ACT government told Canberrans this could lead to minor blackouts across the capital.

Dr Engerer said distribution networks didn't know how much solar generation was on their networks.

"How are we supposed to operate a 21st century network without that information, or knowing it's going to change?"

Forecasting solar generation would also give the market confidence in the renewable energy source, he said.

Dr Engerer, with his company co-founder James Luffman, has released the technology as Australia remains embroiled in a debate about the the sustainability of wind power after a storm plunged South Australia into blackouts in September.

The Turnbull government seized on the blackouts, saying it was a function of the state's unsustainably high quotient of wind generation that had failed to keep working in the conditions, and questioned state renewable targets.

A subsequent report by AEMO concluded the overall mix of energy sources such as wind and solar had added to the complexity and therefore potentially, the vulnerability of the supply during extreme conditions.

"Australia is facing a challenge, particularly in South Australia, that really haven't been faced elsewhere in the world," Dr Engerer said. 

"The rest of the world is looking to us to see what we're going to do."

A 2015 Energy Supply Association of Australia report found Australia had the highest rate of household solar panel installation in the world.

The ACT last year had 10,304 generators under the small and medium feed-in tariff scheme, and another 7,406 from retailer-supported schemes, allowing a total of 63,725 Megawatt hours of electricity production.