27 May 2015

You really can go off-grid

These start-ups are about to do to the energy sector what Uber did to the taxi industry.

AGL's Marc England thinks home batteries will be used initially by early adopters. (photo)

For renewable energy nerds, Elon Musk's much anticipated May 1 announcement that his company, Tesla, would soon be selling "home batteries" – that is, technology capable of storing solar energy – generated the kind of euphoria reminiscent of Steve Jobs unveiling one of his devices.

Tesla hasn't invented "home batteries" any more than Apple invented MP3 players or tablet computers. In fact, anyone with $20,000 odd and a bit of technical nous has been able to use technology capable of storing solar energy for years. But that's thus far resulted in a tiny customer base almost exclusively made up of those in remote locations or with a passionate commitment to the environment.

What the Tesla has done with the Powerwall – and what the likes of Bosch, GE, Samsung and others are in the process of doing – is release a well designed, user-friendly and relatively affordable battery ($3790 to $4473 plus installation costs) with mass appeal.

But at least one Australian company is determined to steal Tesla's sunlight. Inhouse Energy is an offshoot of ATI Australia, a company that's spent the past two decades building and maintaining communications networks. "We timed our launch to coincide with Tesla's announcement," says inHouse director Peter Choquenot​.

"Tesla's website states the Powerwall isn't even available in the US yet, let alone Australia. Our solar energy storage system, which uses similar lithium-ion battery technology, is available for sale now," he said. "Prices start at $4625 and the installation cost will be around $2500. Which means for well under $10,000 individuals can reduce their reliance on the grid by what we estimate will be up to 75 per cent, maintain power to their business or home in the event of a blackout, and do their bit for the environment by making use of the sun's energy rather than electricity supplied by a coal-burning power station."

"We've got a staff of 25 and we're certainly a small organisation," Choquenot said. "But our parent company, ATI Australia, has been providing advanced technology, including solar battery systems, to Australian consumers for years and we're familiar with local regulations and conditions. Plus, we have the flexibility to build customised products. Some other home battery suppliers have so far advertised only one solar power storage system. That may be smart from a mass-production perspective but it's going to confine the product's appeal to a specific type of customer. We offer four different models tailored to the size and energy requirements of a business or residence. And thanks to ATI Australia, we've also got an existing support network in place – if anything goes wrong we can dispatch one of the vehicles from our fleet to sort things out anywhere and at anytime."

John Grimes, CEO of the Australian Solar Council, believes consumers will "run not walk" towards home battery providers. "The power companies have treated their customers badly and I see real anger towards them across the Australian community," he says. "I'd predict that even with the significant upfront outlay, people will be keen to buy the solar energy storage systems local businesses such as InHouse Energy, Solar 360 and Alpha ESS are offering in order to have greater control over their energy future."

However, in what's good news for the environment if not for those hoping to see Big Power get its comeuppance, it appears the standard battle between innovative entrants and turf-guarding established players may not take play out.

"I don't think energy retailers need to see us as a threat," says Choquenot. "In fact, having their customers using stored solar energy will address two of their biggest headaches by smoothing out demand levels and reducing grid maintenance expenses. We'd welcome the opportunity to work with them."

An EnergyAustralia spokesperson told Small Business, "Battery storage clearly has potential. We are doing trials of the technology and, when viable, it will be another service we will look to offer customers," while AGL broadcast it was getting into the home battery game the same day Musk unveiled the Powerwall (consumers can register their interest online but no details are available about when the product will be on the market or what it will cost).

"AGL expects home batteries to be limited to early adopters in the short term," says Marc England, AGL's Executive General Manager New Energy. "It's still tough to make a convincing economic case for buying and installing a home battery, though as part of a package of services including solar and grid energy it may be a more attractive proposition to consumers.

"Solar energy storage is in its early stages and I'd predict consumers are going to want to have the reassurance of dealing with a large, long-established company, such as AGL; one that will guarantee the quality of their product and be around to deal with issues, should any emerge later on."

The good news is that whether it's delivered by new or old, foreign or domestic businesses, residents of this sunburnt land, long accustomed to paying some of the highest electricity prices in the world, will soon have the option of powering their businesses and homes with cheap, reliable stored renewable energy.