This week, ACT Labor proposed a network of large batteries in the territory that will have a total capacity of 250 megawatts. That's two-thirds larger than the world's current largest battery, which is in South Australia, and may well be amongst the top 50 by the time it's completed.
While little is known yet about the plans beyond the headline, the capacity and the budget spend ($100 million over five years), the general concept is commendable.
The ability to store electricity, such as in batteries, is increasingly critical for us to continue the transition to a zero-emissions future. By supporting battery storage, an investment like this will continue the territory's international leadership on clean energy, following in the footsteps of the very successful and influential wind and solar reverse auctions.
The proposal is to distribute the batteries across the ACT. This is an excellent move, because it will showcase the versatility of batteries to provide services in a diversity of settings.
Some of the batteries may be used to optimise the generation from solar farms and rooftop solar systems. Others can help manage the vital next steps in the electrification of transport (62 per cent of ACT emissions) and the transition off gas (22 per cent). Electrifying transport will clearly increase the electricity load, with vehicle and bus charging creating quite intense spikes in demand that can be efficiently managed by batteries.
Adopting new technologies is always about more than just financial or engineering numbers. Our research at the ANU has found that people are highly invested in how batteries will affect their local energy supply. Communities, in particular, want to know how they can make the energy system more equitable and trustworthy. People also care about the life cycle of batteries and how they can best reduce their carbon emissions.
Our recommendation is therefore that the government engage territorians in a transparent and honest process of participatory policy-making, such as citizens' panels. We should be empowered to help shape how we make technology work for us.
The scale of this election commitment is significant. It will create positive impacts far beyond the ACT and the five-year delivery period.
The battery network will likely drive down electricity prices, by buying low and selling high. This will particularly benefit ACT and NSW consumers, but will extend into other states. The environmental benefits will also be felt by all, as the proposed network will support a greater deployment of renewables by charging when renewable generation is high, and discharging when it is low.
The batteries will also make a pronounced contribution to improved energy security by reacting to major disturbances, such as storms, in a split second. This will be particularly welcomed by the NSW grid, which is facing challenges in managing its old and retiring coal generators. The initiative thereby further sidelines the unjustified calls for a new gas generator.
In the longer term, such governmental support is a powerful driver of the storage learning curve. As we've seen with the reverse auctions for wind and solar, opportunities for learning exist right through the energy sector, from manufacturers and supply chains through construction companies to asset owners, operators and financiers. Making the ACT the centre of these learnings is a smart strategy for the local knowledge economy.
An especially important part of the learning process is for new technologies to prove their reliability in the live grid. The outstanding performance of the South Australian and Victorian batteries over last summer's storms have, for example, really increased the grid operators' confidence in their abilities under stressed conditions.
So, while there is considerable work between an election pitch and procurement, a commitment to investing in batteries is a welcome sign of the ACT's continued international leadership in clean energy.
- Bjorn Sturmberg is a research leader in the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program at the ANU, which has received funding from the ACT Government Renewable Energy Innovation Fund.