Brisbane company Redback Technologies, backed by researchers from the University of Queensland, says it has cracked the formula for the most cost-effective solar storage system on the Australian market. Joshua Robertson discusses latest developments in The Guardian.
Half the price in half the time: solar storage innovation harnesses new energy frontier
If Tesla’s Powerwall is the “Lamborghini” of the solar storage industry, a small Brisbane company backed by University of Queensland researchers says it has hit on the formula to deliver the “Toyota”.
Redback Technologies, which last week inked a commercialisation deal with UQ, claims to have harnessed the power of algorithmic software and efficient design to produce the most cost-effective solar storage system on the Australian market.
Despite relying on a smaller battery than the Powerwall – which is widely expected to be the catalyst for rapid growth of the solar storage market this year – Redback says its “Ouija board” system, available from June, will pay for itself in half the time.
Redback’s founder and managing director, Philip Livingston, said it would take an average 5.6 years to earn back the Ouija’s $9,000 price tag through electricity bill savings, versus 11 years on the Powerwall’s $15,000 to $17,000 installation cost.
Livingston said the company, set up just last year, was less concerned with batteries as the cutting edge of the household solar energy market as it was with tackling its key problem: how can households consume more of the power their solar panels produce?
“We’ve realised that even if batteries were free today, they only count for about 25-30% of an overall system cost, which means you don’t get anywhere near a five-year return on investment,” he said.
Five years was considered the benchmark in 2012, when returns for solar panel owners selling back to power companies were at their high-water mark before state governments drastically cut those rates.
“Fundamentally, the big thing we all need to be talking about as consumers is not batteries or whatever, but self-consumption – that is the itch we have to scratch,” Livingston said.
The average solar-powered house consumed only 25-30% of the power it produced, the rest now fetching scant rates on the wholesale power market, he said.
The Powerwall, with its Lithium battery, would take “self-consumption” to 57%.
The Ouija system would better that at 61% and “about a third less in cost” than the Powerwall, Livingston said.
This was in part because of a different approach to design, he said. Redback’s system components were not separated out and were lighter, he said, meaning they could be installed more quickly and by fewer staff.
“The heaviest unit in the device is the inverter, it’s 40kg; the battery enclosure we bring out next month is 25kg and each battery you place inside it is 20kg and they’re all outdoor-rated,” Livingston said.
“So effectively, a few guys and a small truck can get it installed rather than four guys and a crane, which is what you need for a Powerwall.
“In integrating these systems, what needs to be considered is not just the aesthetic, but that all the other elements add cost when integrating a system.
“While it’s great to have a battery that’s really sexy, at the end of the day, a lot more people buy Toyotas than they do Lamborghinis – or Teslas for that matter.”
Redback also claims to more efficiently exploit its smaller battery by using a cloud-based software platform to control appliances such as “hot water systems, heaters, pool pumps and the like”.
“It’s not being done by a person per se – although they can put schedules in – but by machine learning and that’s where we’re going with this,” Livingston said. “People don’t have to be focused on using expensive hardware solutions for things that can be done with software.”
This reliance on software to boost the efficient use of power is what led Redback to signing its memorandum of understanding with University of Queensland last week. “Who better than a university that specialises in the creation of heuristic algorithms for machine learning?” Livingston said.
“By working with UQ we are getting years and years of experience of analytic calculations, supercomputers they have on site, and we are able to use their faculties and build machine-learning capabilities that allow us to optimise these types of scenarios so we can become even less reliant on batteries over time.”
Learning to drive energy efficiency through software is a “rabbit hole that continues to grow because we are learning how to optimise these scenarios to a greater and greater extent”, Livingston said.
While the hardware is designed in Seattle and manufactured in China, all the intellectual property is generated in Brisbane, where the company has 16 staff and plans to increase its ranks of engineers.
What is holding back the growth of solar power?
Livingston, whose early career included installing solar water systems in the Philippines with the US Peace Corps, said he believed the Australian market for solar storage systems would soon “cut across the ‘chasm’, as they call it, of early adopters into the early majority” in line with the one in five households that now had solar panels.
“It should be quick because the economics are going to get even better than they are now,” he said.
Dean Moss, the chief executive of UniQuest, the University of Queensland commercialisation arm whose past projects include the cervical cancer preventing vaccine Gardasil, said the collaboration with Redback would “convert research discoveries into exciting, innovative new products that create change”.
Paul Meredith, the director of UQ Solar, said the company with its “energy storage innovations [and] entrepreneurial drive” would be tapping into an institution with “a rich history of cutting-edge renewable energy research, particularly in the systems integration space”.