‘We won’t sell solar in the South West’: changes in WA force installers into impossible position
It may seem innocuous, but a new mandate for Western Australian properties to install a main switch circuit breaker with any new or updated solar system is proving ruinous for both installation companies and households in the region, they claim.
Effectively the new rule means regional and rural households in the South West Interconnected System (SWIS) can no longer use, for instance, induction cooktops while running air conditioning without tripping their grid connection, let alone even consider charging an electric vehicle (EV).
The problem here is not the solar systems, but properties’ electrical supply allocation, issued by the region’s sole network operator Western Power Corporation, owned by the state government.
Why solar companies have been wrapped into this strange bind is that the property’s allocation limit only becomes visible when major “notifiable” electrical work, like installing a rooftop PV system, is completed.
“It’s crucifying the solar industry,” one installer tells pv magazine Australia. He, along with a number of other regional installers pv magazine Australia has spoken to, did not want to be identified for fear of deteriorating their already strained relationship with Western Power.
The installers believe they are far from the only ones adversely impacted by Western Power’s ‘Basic Embedded Generator Connection Technical Requirements’ which became mandatory in February this year.
“I don’t think the industry realised the implications [of the rule changes] until after it became mandatory,” Malcolm Scott, the Technical Services Officer for the Western Australia chapter of NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association, tells pv magazine Australia.
NECA has already been hearing from vexed members, and Scott expects the issue will only grow as the circuit breakers begin to impact more households. “People in those areas aren’t going to put up with it,” he says, adding the changes could become something of a “political minefield” for the government.
As it stands, Ian Holland from Sunwise Energy Australia – one of the largest in the South West region, says the changes have wiped out between 20% to 30% of his market.
On the household side, a customer of one of the installers, who we’ll call Bryce, can no longer put on their electric oven while the aircon is running without their circuit breaker disconnecting them from the grid. Until the situation is rectified, the customer is refusing to pay Bryce, leaving him on the hook.
This particular rule change is a measure to bring the amount of electricity households draw back into line with regional networks capacities. “Load creep and generation needs to be effectively managed to ensure the stability of the network and provision of a reliable energy supply for all users,” Western Power tells pv magazine Australia.
The problem for the solar installers is that while such measures may be necessary, today they primarily impact households and businesses installing renewable systems – the exact technology needed to realise Australia’s decarbonisation.
Whether or not it was intentional, the rule’s effect “will drive people away from solar,” Scott notes.
‘Why shouldn’t country residents be allowed to have air conditioning?’
The standard electrical supply allocation for households in Perth and major towns in Western Australia is 63 amps. The standard, however, drops by almost half, to 32 amps, for regional and rural households.*
Western Power says this allocation is “substantially more than the actual maximum demand used for most homes.” A claim one installer, who we’ll call Todd, described as “laughable.”
Malcom Scott and installers Ian Holland and Bryce all agree 32 amp is simply not enough to run a house today.
Todd calculates a household with an electric oven, an electric hot water system, a water pump and air conditioner would have a maximum draw of 65 amps. “To suggest that a ‘normal’ house has a maximum demand of less than 32 amps is simply not true. Why shouldn’t country residents be allowed to have air conditioning?”
Why the issue is showing up now
Western Power’s electrical supply allocation for regional and rural households hasn’t changed (which may also be part of the problem), but until now their electrical systems have been set up in a way which allows them to draw considerably more power than their official allocation.
In other words, while the allocation has long been 32 amps, few households have run into problems because their main switch didn’t actually limit maximum demand.
But as regional network capacities have stagnated, the amount of power households are draw has changed drastically.
In the regions, the rollout of the same electricity intensive appliances is more problematic than in the city. “Unfortunately, the infrastructure is not there to support it,” Scott says, noting the capacity of regional transformers is simply too small for modern – and electrifying – households. “It’s almost discrimination against country people,” he adds.
Unfair as this is, Western Power is also in a rather unenviable position. It is responsible for integrating the new two-way flows of energy from solar systems into a network not designed for it and which covers vast distances. “Nowhere else in Australia do they have such long lengths on line with so few customers,” Scott says.
This increase in the electricity properties draw, it seems, is becoming insurmountable for Western Power, and it has now enacted a measure to force households to stick to the official allocation.
Installers Holland and Bryce can see the logic here and agree regional households have likely been exceeding their electricity allotment – but note Western Power would have long known this. “If they don’t, then what are they doing?” Bryce says.
“They’ve known for long enough and they should have imposed these restrictions on these properties prior to now, prior to the people doing applications for solar,” he adds.
This is really the heart of the issue for the installers: households and their businesses are being punished for installing technology which decreases a household’s demand on the grid.
“Why are they allowing people who aren’t putting solar on to get away with it?” Bryce said.
“You’ve either got to make it a hard and fast rule across every property or give leeway to those putting batteries in to have a higher draw because they’re protecting the network,” Bryce says.
Since the installers see the rule changes as a deterrent for solar customers, they believe it will open the door to “unscrupulous operators” who won’t warn customers about the circuit breakers and instead leave them to find out when their power trips.
“Most retailers aren’t telling customers about this,” Todd says. For the last few months, he has spent countless hours explaining the implications. “I’m getting people looking at me flabbergasted,” he says. He’s had multiple customers pull the pin on installing big systems, sometimes in the order of $60,000. “It’s an absolute killer for us.”
Not telling customers their power will constantly trip following a solar installation is not something Holland, nor Todd nor Bryce, feel is ethical business practice though.
“We can’t ethically sell them this product because of the arrangement put in place by the network provider,” Holland says. Formerly, farming properties on two-phase 16 amp (Western Power later increased the amperage to 20) connection made up 20 – 30% of Sunwise’s market. Now, when Holland hears a property has this type of connection, he halts the quoting process, so as not to waste their time and his.
If it isn’t customers being left in the dark, Bryce thinks the alternative could see companies get curly with Western Power’s rules. “People work out ways of getting around it,” he says. “That’s what it’s going to create.”
“There’s no way around this, legally.”
‘Spend more money on more stuff to achieve less CO2 reductions’
This isn’t strictly true – there is a legal solution and it is for properties to officially increase their supply allocation through Western Power. That, or to go off grid. Both of these options would likely set customers back by tens of thousands of dollars.
“Nothing is going to be cheap,” Bryce said. “You’re talking about an $1800 application fee [for a Western Power supply increase] for a start. Then the next phase is another application costing $5,000, and then after that it’s going to be whatever the recommendations are.” He estimates his customer who currently can’t run two major appliances concurrently might be on the hook for as much as $250,000.
The other option, going off grid to install a renewables could be attractive to some properties, but Todd – who specialises in off grid systems – says for many this is a suboptimal solution. To get a property completely off grid requires about triple the equipment compared to supplying the majority of a household’s demand through behind the meter solar and batteries while remaining connected to the grid.
As Holland put it: “Customers are spending more money on more stuff to achieve less CO2 reductions.”
The changing shape of regional networks
While that might be true for households, the picture looks different from Western Power’s end. The corporation is at the global forefront of rolling out what’s known as standalone power systems, off grid systems which typically comprise of solar PV panels coupled with a battery and, where necessary, a back-up diesel generator.
Western Power has had great successes with the systems, which are proving more reliable for customers and help decarbonise their network.
It’s worth mentioning this because it highlights where Western Power finds itself: acutely aware that highly dispersed networks like theirs will radically change shape in the next decades of the clean energy transition.
Instead of running long lengths of power lines, which are vulnerable to the elements and expensive to lay, renewable technologies make it possible to create smaller decentralised systems which are cheaper, more reliable and better for the environment.
The fact is, however, these transformations take time. NECA’s Malcom Scott believes Western Power probably do have a long-term plan in mind, but for the problems facing its grid now, there’s no quick fix.
He believes Western Power is going to have to upgrade its network, “but that’s not a quick solution either.”
“If people go off grid, that will alleviate the problem, to a degree.”
‘Time to walk away’
Installer Bryce, who has been working in the industry for 17 years, said he’s heard a number of his peers considering walking away from solar for regional customers.
When asked how many local businesses have been impacted by the recent changes, he said: “show me a solar company that sells in regional WA that isn’t.”
“The last 12 months have been the hardest in industry ever,” he says. “It’s getting time to walk away.”
* Depending upon customer’s supply arrangements they may have either 32 amp for single phase or 16 amp per phase for three phase connections. Two 16 amp connections was also the norm for two phase properties, but this was recently increased to 20 amps by Western Power.