Planet Ark Power: Industrial and commercial solar can finally tap the grid for big dollars

Planet Ark Power

Bevan Halcomb talks to staff about their behind-the-meter technology.

All that wonderful open roof space on warehouses and other industrial and commercial buildings… Imagine if you could fill it with solar panels and convince the grid authorities you’ve got a brilliant way to feed the solar energy into the grid – without causing any hiccups.

That’s exactly the breakthrough technology that Planet Ark Power has developed. Having recently won an important international prize, they are ready to roll it out to your commercial property. Add in a new business case model to deal with finance and leasing and what you have here could well be a game changer.

If the electricity grid could take energy both ways, you’d rightly expect to see solar panels covering the vast roof spaces of warehouses and big commercial buildings, just like on houses.

But until now, the grid authorities have rejected large scale solar because of the technical issues of sending large tranches of electricity back into the grid, broadly known as “voltage problems”.

Brisbane based Planet Ark Power has developed a solution to these concerns and they’re ready to roll it out to Australia’s commercial property owners.

According to Planet Ark Power cofounder and executive director Richard Romanowski, the company has spent several years perfecting a technical solution to deal with the voltage problems. The “magic black box” means owners of large roof spaces can for the first time earn income from creating renewable energy and selling it back through the grid.

the way we’ll win the climate change battle is by winning the economic war

Until now, owners of buildings with big solar installations have needed to consume all the power themselves to make best use of it. Now they can share the excess and bolster rental yield for investors.

Richard says this is important because “the way we’ll win the climate change battle is by winning the economic war.”

A game-changing model

The technology scored a huge hit in Berlin, winning a major competition in April this year at the prestigious Start Up Energy Transition Awards.

Richard says the Europeans immediately saw the potential of the technology and were very excited about the opportunities it presented. Now, businesses in Germany, France and California are showing strong interest.

In Australia this is no surprise to existing Planet Ark Power customers including Llewellyn Motors in Ipswich, Queensland, the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre and, imminently, a major supermarket chain and an international furniture retailer, in deals for between $2 million and $5 million worth of rooftop solar.

Not to mention the respect shown by the highly regarded environmental foundation Planet Ark, which has handed the business the ultimate endorsement by allowing it to use its name.

The voltage problem

Romanowski says voltage concerns go back to the nature of the grid itself, designed 100 years ago for one-way traffic, so to speak.

“It’s a bit like a water pipe,” he says, “that allows water to flow mostly in one direction and able to handle just a bit of reverse flow, to a maximum of, say, 15 per cent.”

Once there’s too much electricity coming back into the grid, a voltage problem is triggered – and that can cause serious issues.

Richard says the big increase in renewable energy, such as Australia’s huge uptake of solar panels on residential homes, has started to exacerbate voltage problems so that now even household solar and wind energy is being refused access to the grid in some areas around Australia.

The usual solution – to invest more in poles and wires – is not very palatable because it would only drive up prices.

That’s where Planet Ark Power comes in. The company’s engineers, including co-founder Dr Bevan Holcombe, saw the problem coming almost seven years ago.

It’s simple in execution but complex in development, involving artificial intelligence

With the help of several other engineers, PhDs, two universities and a lot of work, the company now has a behind-the-meter technology that solves the problem. It’s simple in execution but complex in development, involving artificial intelligence that monitors and controls voltage onsite in real time and – just as importantly – can keep voltages regulated within statutory limits at all times. A bit like a valve, Richard says.

This means that excess energy – usually around 30 per cent of the total generated energy – can be fed into the grid, safely.

It also means that the owner of the renewable energy system can be paid for the excess energy instead of wasting it, which is typical of bigger installations.

Add battery storage to the mix and the business case looks even more appealing.

This is where the business case gets a radical shake up

Planet Ark Power has not only solved the voltage issue, it has shifted the business case –  and this is where things get really interesting.

Owners of large roof spaces in industrial, commercial and institutional sectors are likely to find this proposition very exciting.

The company is tackling the old split-incentive problem head on, whereby improvements to the building that benefit the tenant are paid for by the owner.

Planet Ark Power will pay rent to the landlord for access to their roof; it will install the solar system, then sell cheap clean energy to the tenant

In this new model, Planet Ark Power will pay rent to the landlord for access to their roof; it will install the solar system, then sell cheap clean energy to the tenant, at around a 25 per cent discount.

The landlord receives rent for an otherwise unused space, acquires an improved asset, and gains a grateful tenant who is enticed to stay longer thanks to the savings they are making on their energy bills.

Richard says the amount of rent payable to the landlord varies depending on electricity tariffs and other variables. The deal might also involve reinforcing the structural support for the roof to carry big numbers of solar panels, so the company employs building professionals and project managers to deal with the construction angle (but that’s usually a minor factor compared to the benefits of the deal overall).

Third party financiers handle the financial and legal legwork.

In the end, what’s on offer is an opportunity for commercial and industrial property investors to finally capitalise on those vast underutilised acreages of roof top real estate.

Just like everybody else.

Planet Ark Power