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Clean army: Britain’s installers prepare for storage wars

Clean army: Britain’s installers prepare for storage wars

What is thought to be the UK's first Tesla Powerwall, installed at a private home in Cardiff, Wales. Image: Solar Plants.

Ironically, the week in July last year that it became apparent solar feed-in tariffs (FiTs) in the UK were about to be targeted for a fundamental overhaul, Solar Media held its first round table on residential energy storage. Attended by manufacturers, installers, distributors and trade associations, everyone in the room was clear that batteries are no longer just the theoretical next step to making solar a mainstream technology. They are happening now.

The costs are falling quickly and the average man on the street is finally waking up to its potential - largely thanks to the high profile efforts of Tesla in launching Powerwall last year. They’re not quite yet at the sweet spot in price to revolutionise solar’s value proposition post-FiT, but 750,000-plus homes with solar already will see it as a viable option. Early adopters will definitely exist, wanting to be among the first to have them and independence from the Big Six utilities that dominate Britain's energy landscape is an attractive lifestyle and environmental choice for consumers that the success of greener energy providers like Ecotricity and Good Energy is already evidence of. And ever lower prices, synergy with the rapidly electrifying vehicle industry and clever ways of using storage, like connecting up dozens of customer-sited systems into one bigger grid resource look like altering the landscape even more significantly in future.

Unfortunately the FiT review forced the hands of many, especially smaller installers, who have been forced out of business already. Others are now seeing that energy storage, particularly when added to an existing PV system, could be a way for solar and its related industries to both diversify their offerings to survive and to really offer up a progressive, smart product that looks only more likely to take centre stage as smart meters give us a better window into energy use on the nationwide network than ever before. David Hunt of Hyperion Executive Search, a specialist recruitment company, recently asked “How many solar jobs in Britain will be saved by energy storage?’ in a guest blog for Energy Storage News and our UK site Solar Power Portal.

Clean army: Britain’s installers prepare for storage wars

Solar installers are quickly learning about complementary technologies including energy storage. Image: Rexel.

Getting it right and hitting the ground running

While none of us at last year’s round table could have foreseen what was to follow with the FiT review - indeed, I have to say that one or two that I won’t name here were dangerously flippant in their attitude - everyone in the room was already preparing for storage to really change the way we look at solar (and energy in general), before we knew solar FiTs would be decimated. Perhaps also we are lucky that the government, so far in words if not deeds at least, appears to acknowledge the benefits that storage could confer and the potential to add flexibility and help decarbonise our energy use without breaking the bank.

The other takeaway that really stood out from that round table was that not only does the industry need to move fast, it needs to move responsibly and with confidence in its own expertise. UK industry stalwarts like Martin Cotterell (formerly of Sundog Energy, now with Tesla) and Renewable Energy Association advisor Ray Noble have been saying that it is critical that we get both the sales pitch and the technical discussions with householders right.

Solar PV happened quickly and caught many by surprise, but this time around the industry is proactively seeking to establish its codes of best practise and a common language for the market as early on as possible. As Cotterell explained previously in an Energy Storage News guest blog last year and a recent video interview, installers have to understand the capabilities of their storage systems and explain them as clearly and honestly as possible to end customers. It is not enough to let customers think that because it is a battery it will always be reliable backup in the event of a power cut, for example, which won’t be the case if the storage system hasn’t been set up to do that in the first place!

It looks as though manufacturers and distributors realised this very early on and this year we are seeing many different forms of training in energy storage installation for residential and small commercial level popping up all over the country.

Clean army: Britain’s installers prepare for storage wars

SMA presents its current range to installers yesterday at the Rexel Innovation Centre, BRE, Watford.

Training days

Just taking a quick look at what’s available, names as diverse and well known as inverter makers SMA, Fronius and SolaX, domestic storage manufacturer and energy management specialist Wattstor, distributors like Krannich, Waxman, PV Kits Direct and Wind & Sun have all been offering or will offer dedicated training events in battery storage installation this year.

Some are holding them at their own dedicated training facilities, like Waxman and Krannich, while others like Wattstor are hitting the road to go and meet installers around the country.

It’s worth noting that, as you might expect, some of the training sessions are manufacturer specific - for example Wattstor is training people to use its own storage systems, while distributor Solfex is offering training for working with Samsung SDI battery-based systems. Inverter maker SMA and power optimiser and inverter company SolarEdge are among those offering product-specific training and education days.

Energy Storage News briefly attended the launch of distributor Rexel’s Innovation Centre at the BRE buildings in Watford yesterday afternoon. Installers were assembled to hear about SMA’s storage-ready inverters inlcuding the Sunny Boy Storage and the attentive crowd of about 50 installers filled out the room.

Installers were eager to ask about battery cycling and depth of discharge, the advantages of lithium ion over lead acid and vice versa and whether web connectivity is really essential to the system’s running (not essential, but recommended apparently).

At the moment in the UK, part of the trick - and the difficulty - is to match the right products, in the right sizing, in the right configuration. This can change greatly from project to project, from the type of battery used, to the functionality of the inverter. In the case of the inverter manufacturers, there will be certain compatibility questions over what battery types it can use, whether it can feed into the grid as well as draw out (bi-directional).

Some of these questions won’t even matter for most customers yet, but will become more important as regulations around what batteries can do once connected to the grid start to catch up with the clever stuff batteries can do, for example, how smart metering could change the way we price electricity at different times of day might one day impact your desire to solar load shift. At the moment, it probably won’t.

Going forward, more standardised approaches will become important. As the industry scales up, as Tesla and rival battery and storage system makers like Panasonic, LG Chem or Samsung SDI reach many more gigawatts of stationary storage manufacturing capacity, it will get cheaper and cheaper to think about some kind of off-the-shelf solutions.

In the meantime however, carefully configuring the kit required will make an enormous impact on the cost and functionality of a system - how many appliances do you want to run from it, how long do you want it to run for without grid power, how much of your own solar can you use with it? In the absence of remuneration by FiT, it has to be a question of making savings on energy bills and grid consumption by clever design and efficient installation, as well as giving customers a truly desirable, futuristic and environmentally-friendly addition to their household or business.

Solar Media will be hosting the Energy Storage Summit and ES100 events at Twickenham Rugby Stadium at the end of April.