By Dario De Bortoli

The Solar Cities programme is a major Australian government initiative aimed at implementing innovative products and technologies to engage consumers and encourage them to better manage their long term energy use.

The Adelaide Solar City consortium led by Origin includes BP Solar, ANZ Bank, Delfin/Lend Lease, Big Switch Projects and the South Australian local Councils of Salisbury, Playford, Tea Tree Gully and Adelaide City.

The geographic area covers approximately 100,000 homes in northern Adelaide. The programme covers the period 2007-2013.

  • The expected benefits of the programme are:
  • Consumers will receive incentives and other benefits for better managing their energy use
  • Utilities will obtain a better understanding of the cost to service peak electricity demand and investment in infrastructure
  • Industry will be able to test new sustainable energy options
  • Government will have access to better information on which to base future energy and greenhouse policy.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
The programme also places significant emphasis on engaging the Adelaide Solar City community. This includes the use of media (i.e. television, radio and press advertising) and consortium representation at local community events. In addition, there is strong council involvement in increasing awareness of the programme within their geographic areas. Furthermore, a local participating family has been recruited to act as ambassadors for the programme. These “Solar Citizens” have become a focal point for ongoing media involvement.

The community engagement approach is based on the premise that long term behavioural change is best achieved by encouraging consumers to modify their behaviour voluntarily instead of enforcing it on them.

PRICING TRIAL
A key component of the programme is to trial new time-of-use (TOU) and critical peak pricing (CPP) products with 5,000 participants, with the aim of shifting electricity consumption from peak to off-peak periods and reducing overall demand. All participants will have remotely read interval meters installed.

Two TOU prices have been developed. This includes an all year price where the peak and off-peak components are applicable throughout the year and a seasonal price where consumers are charged different peak rates during the summer and non-summer periods. The off-peak rate remains the same throughout the year.

Two CPP options will also be available in the pricing trial. CPP has a differential pricing structure that targets critical peak periods with an increased rate for a set number of hours that can only occur for a certain number of days per year. The rest of the time is a flat energy rate.

The energy rate during the critical peak period is far more expensive than the flat rate to reflect the increased cost of energy, sending a price signal to consumers about the cost of their consumption at that point in time.

The two CPP options will apply from 2 pm to 8 pm on 10 days during the peak season (i.e. 1 December to 31 March). A minimum 24 hours notice will be provided to consumers of a critical peak day. Consumers will be alerted via a number of communication options including in-home displays, internet, mobile (SMS) and phone messaging.

METERING AND COMMUNICATIONS PLATFORM
The implementation of a flexible metering and communications platform that caters for both meter data requirements as well as interactive communication with trial participants was considered a key requirement of the pricing trial.

On this basis, expressions of interest were sought from a number of suppliers to provide an end-to-end technology solution, including sourcing and installation of meters and inhome displays, the communication links connecting them, and a data management system to send and receive data, collect it and provide reports.

Conceptually, the view is that the electricity meter can be positioned as a data storage and communications hub for the home. This includes the functionality to interface with gas and water meters, on-site generation and home automation devices.

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Figure 1 – Metering and communications platform

The components of the preferred technology solution are shown in Figure 1.

The mobile (GPRS) communication network was selected because of its capacity to handle the anticipated data requirements.

An in-home display provides an interactive communication channel between the utility and the consumer, including the provision of timely usage data to enable consumers to better manage energy consumption. It is also a means for the consumer to communicate with the utility. For example, the inhome display could be used for product and billing enquiries.

The Adelaide Solar City development also includes the provision of internet access for all 5,000 pricing trial participants. The information to be provided on Origin’s website includes electricity usage and carbon emissions data in 30 minute intervals. It is expected that the site will be well patronised as the information provided is customer specific. It is planned to increase site content in late 2008 by including information similar to that provided on the in-home display (see below).

The status of the platform build of the internet site is completed. The core component of the data management system (DMS) is in testing phase and connectivity between the DMS and the meters has been tested. Connection from the DMS to the in-home display and the Zigbee transmitter/ receiver is under development.The platform build is expected to be completed by mid-2008.

IN-HOME DISPLAY DEVELOPMENT
Existing in-home displays are primarily designed to provide energy only information, such as electricity usage, CPP pricing alert and greenhouse gas emissions. Customer awareness of the benefits of in-home displays from a number of Australian pricing trials has been inconclusive, indicating that at present consumers perceive the device to be of limited value and hence unlikely to maintain ongoing consumer engagement.

Origin’s concept is that the inclusion of varied content and applications that are of generic value to the consumer will facilitate ongoing interest in the in-home display. Existing in-home display content is of value predominantly during the CPP season and of limited value for the remainder of the year. With this in mind, the aim is to transform the unit from an energy only device into a two-way home appliance providing content and features that are of value to the consumer throughout the year.

The product development consists of a portable, colour touch screen device which includes energy information (such as electricity consumption) as well as the following content and applications (Table 1):

  • General information services (e.g. weather reports)
  • Adelaide Solar City and community information
  • Advertising of Solar City products
  • Interactive two way communication with the consumer
  • Capability to include content on gas, water and on site generation
  • Functionality to connect to home automation (e.g appliance control) devices.
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Table 1 – Prototype in-home display features

It is expected that the in-home display will be available to consumers in mid-2008.

The in-home display has been developed with the capability to include gas and water content. The inclusion of water content such as daily consumption will assist in increasing consumer awareness and an understanding of usage patterns will alert the user to potential water leaks.

Potential additional content includes news and sports reports, lottery results, the horoscope and on this day.

Origin undertook market research on the in-home display with a number of focus groups comprising residents of the Adelaide Solar City geographic area. Overall, there was a very high level of support for the proposed content (the weather information in particular) to be shown on the devices. The evidence from the qualitative research also indicated that there would be a high level of interest and take-up of the units. The in-home display was seen to be addressing a pre-existing need to help people monitor their energy consumption and as a means of managing the household’s budget.

CONCLUSION
The requirements of the Adelaide Solar City programme has led to the development of a number of innovative pricing, metering, communication and in-home display initiatives aimed at engaging consumers and encouraging them to better manage their long term energy use.

Throughout the life of the programme, valuable information will be collected from each Solar City. Successful strategies that are sustainable in the longer term can be replicated in other cities around Australia. The data and information collected will help feed in to future Australian Government energy greenhouse policies.