A solar panel. (Image: iStock)

The Plug and Play system will increase the electrical grid’s flexibility to help it run more efficiently. (Image: iStock)

Plug and Play Solar Power: smarter integration of solar energy in hybrid applications

'Plug and play’ (PnP) technology aims to tackle the cost and complexity of integrating solar energy in hybrid systems.

  • 28 January 2014 | Updated 28 April 2014

Integrating solar energy into ‘hybrid’ grids (which use both renewable and conventional energy sources) can be costly and inconvenient - which is why CSIRO is applying a concept called ‘plug and play’ to solar energy and power systems.

CSIRO aims to help integrate more solar energy into grids reliably by developing solar plug and play technology.

This technology will automatically ‘discover’ large solar generators when they are connected and change the way other generators, loads and storage devices are managed.

During the first phase of the project, the team will undertake detailed planning and design of the Plug and Play solar hybrid power system technology. For Phase Two, the team will test and pilot this technology at two sites - one in Australia and one in the US.

Solar integration

Hybrid systems are electrical networks which combine renewable elements, like solar photovoltaics, with more conventional sources such as diesel or gas generation.

Traditionally, these systems have been used in remote area power systems (RAPS) including ‘town size’ solar-diesel and solar-gas systems.

The systems require long distance transport of diesel and gas which can be reduced as more solar energy is integrated.

Remote power systems

Using Australia’s abundant solar energy and reducing our reliance on expensive imported petroleum products can make using solar in remote grids an attractive option.

However, solar integration in hybrid systems can be difficult and is even more of a challenge in remote areas, such as those in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where travel times and costs for workers and equipment are high.

Another consideration for remote power system is that the smaller capacity, means that these grids can be more affected by demand spikes, equipment failure and changes in generation and load.

Hybrid grids often maintain a large amount of ‘spinning reserve’ (generators running but not producing their maximum power) as backup power in case of a fault, or if solar energy generation drops or demand increases.

This spinning reserve capacity is often sized to cope in a scenario where solar generation disappears entirely.

This can have significant impacts for operating expenses and fuel costs especially when the backup equipment remains idle for the vast majority of the time.

Finding the perfect match

CSIRO’s plug and play system will reassess grid control strategies as changes occur on the network and adapt to operate in the most efficient way. The system will increase the electrical grid’s flexibility and intelligence in order to help it run more efficiently.

By bypassing the issues of cost, complexity and inconvenience, this plug and play technology will be beneficial to hybrid system developers, owners and operators, helping to maximise the contribution of solar energy in hybrid power systems.

During the first phase of the project, the team will undertake detailed planning and design of the Plug and Play solar hybrid power system technology.

For Phase Two, the team will test and pilot this technology at two sites – one in Australia and one in the US.

This project has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) [external link].

Find out more about the Energy Flagship, CSIRO’s Demand Side Energy Systems research and Renewable Energy Integration Facility.