Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 1)


The support the Australian Solar Institute (ASI) provides to solar research in Australia has meant it’s now possible for three new CSIRO solar research projects to go ahead. What are they, I hear you say? Glad you asked. In this three-part post I’ll share the project descriptions from the ASI website, followed by my own explaination.

Project 1: Solar energy management system for utilities

ASI contribution: $225,715
Total project value: $570,430
Partners: Ergon Energy, GWA Group
Summary: CSIRO will develop, prototype and evaluate a world-first ‘firm’ solar system using a solar energy management controller to monitor air-conditioning operation and utility network requests to reduce load on the electrical network, and when requests are made, remove conventional electricity load and introduce solar (supported by gas back-up) to power the air-conditioner. It will be tested in three residential buildings.

Solar air-conditioners could help everyone in times of grid stress.

Solar@CSIRO explains: For what might be just a few hours every year, the electricity grid that feeds your household gets pushed to its limit. These ‘peaking events’ usually occur during super-hot sunny days when everyone turns on their air-conditioners all at once, creating a huge demand for power.

But there’s only a finite supply of electricity, and there’s only so much carrying capacity in the power lines and transformers connecting consumers to those suppliers. This means that during peaking events there’s the risk of problems such as blackouts. Operators have to keep an extra-close eye on the network for signs of equipment failure or overloads at these times.

‘Peaking events’ usually occur during super-hot sunny days, creating a huge demand for power – and the risk of blackouts.

Traditionally, the way to prevent problems is to make sure enough power stations are built and ready to go when needed – that is, to have enough ‘peaking capacity’ installed – and to upgrade and oversize power lines (and other electrical network infrastructure) until you have enough network capacity to cover even the hottest summer days. The issue with both of these solutions is that they’re expensive – and considering that peak loads often occur for only a few hours per year, the cost of having all of that equipment just sitting there idle for the rest of the time is enormous.

But what if you could attack the problem in other ways – by lowering the demand, instead of increasing the supply? That’s what CSIRO is exploring in this project. Specifically, we’re looking at whether it’s possible to set up a system where, during those peaking events, electrical air-conditioning load can be reliably swapped over to another energy source (like solar energy) while keeping occupants comfortable.

Enter solar air-conditioning, a technology that’s being worked on here at CSIRO Energy Technology.  It’s able to take heat generated by the sun and use it to provide space cooling, space heating and hot water. The amount of energy this could save is huge – a conventional medium-sized (6 kW) air conditioner at full load, for example, uses the same amount of power as 12 large flat-screen TVs or 400 fluorescent light bulbs!

The idea in this project is that solar-driven air conditioners are installed in houses to reduce the amount of electricity needed during hot weather.

The idea in this project is that solar-driven air-conditioners are installed in houses to reduce the amount of electricity needed during hot weather. But chances are, the houses being retrofitted will already have electrical air-conditioners installed – a pretty safe assumption when you consider how many houses have air-conditioning these days (often with more than one unit per house). We think it’s pretty likely that in the future many people won’t remove their existing electrical air-conditioner when they have a solar air-conditioner installed; instead, they’ll keep it but only run it if it’s really needed as a back-up for the solar air-conditioner.

For this reason, we add a ‘smart’ controller that means the utility company can send messages to the household system requesting help at times of grid stress. So, if the grid is feeling the heat (so to speak) it can ask your conventional air-conditioner to completely stop using electricity and swap over to the solar air-conditioner with gas back-up if needed.

We add a ‘smart’ controller so the utility company can request help in times of stress.

This can be helpful to consumers because it can provide comfort and help prevent blackouts, and it’s helpful to the utility because it takes some of the strain off the existing infrastructure when it’s needed most. And because consumers pay for the electricity network through our bills, consumers benefit indirectly, too.

In this project CSIRO and our partners, Ergon Energy and GWA Group, are working to develop, test and deploy this system in three buildings in Queensland – one in Townsville and two on Magnetic Island. We hope that this project will demonstrate the advantages of a system like this, and show the benefits if it were to be used more widely in Australia.

They say the secret to a good relationship is communication. This new project will see what can be achieved when utilities and customer devices have an opportunity to speak with each other.

Comfort. Renewable energy. Helping the grid. It may just turn out to be wins all round.


Thanks to Dan Rowe for contributions to this post.

Part 2Part 3

One Comment on “Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 1)”

  1. billgresham says:

    This is obviously good stuff, but how is it possible that it is only being done now? Shouldn’t have been done and dusted years ago?

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