Wanted: Supermarkets to check out flexible demand

Cool (forgive the pun) new project aims to harness retail store refrigerators and smooth Australia’s transition to a renewable energy future.

By: Andrew Webster

Your local supermarket could soon contribute to a cool (there it is again) project aimed at helping Australia’s renewable energy transition.

If successful, the Unlocking Flexible Demand in the Commercial Refrigeration Sector project will help speed integration of renewable energy into electricity networks.

It would also change the way supermarkets operate their refrigerators. By allowing remote operators to control energy use, supermarkets could reap financial benefits and potentially pass them on to customers.

In simple terms, the flexible demand system will switch refrigerators on when renewable energy is plentiful, and off when energy demand exceeds supply.

That will help match electricity demand to available supply and maintain network stability.

ARENA has announced $3.7 million funding to Enel X to demonstrate flexible demand can work in the commercial and industrial refrigeration sector.

Enel X has already signed up a tier-one grocery chain to a 20-store pilot project. In total, it is seeking 440 supermarkets and 13 refrigerated warehouses across the National Electricity Market (NEM) to take part.

Participating supermarkets and warehouses will receive financial benefits through an innovative retailer tariff from Enel X’s virtual power plant (VPP).

Why refrigeration?

Renewable electricity sources are more variable than traditional fossil-fuel generators. One way to deal with variable supply is to control electricity demand to match.

Enel X with ARENA funding has previously conducted trials demonstrating that business users of electricity can respond in this way. But large-scale refrigeration operations are particularly attractive for flexible demand systems.

Pie Chart: Enel X 2019 demand response trial participants by industry
Enel X in 2019 aggregated 30 MW of electricity bill savings across its mix of residential and commercial energy users

Commercial refrigerators can quickly turn off and on, so they can respond to energy demands.

They also have what is called high thermal mass.

That means commercial refrigerators use a lot of electricity to cool down. It makes them an ideal tool for using up energy when supply is high.

But once cold they are slow to warm. They can turn off for lengthy periods and still maintain safe temperatures while the VPP prioritises energy demand elsewhere. And the combined effect of many individual refrigerators connected to the VPP could be substantial.

Around 500 MW of refrigeration-based flexible demand is potentially available across Australia’s supermarkets, grocery stores, beverage shops and warehouses.

On a much smaller scale, if you have ever listened to your kitchen fridge working … who hasn’t? … you will know that it switches on and off depending on the temperature inside. Now imagine, if as well as primarily responding to the thermostat, it also responds to the need of the network. It’s the same principle.

Demonstrating and proving the technology?

ARENA CEO Darren Miller said the project can pave the way for further investment in flexible demand.

“Our electricity grid is changing, and a more variable supply requires more flexible demand,” Mr Miller said.

“Commercial refrigeration can unlock this opportunity at a material scale,” he said.

“We want to see projects like this demonstrate the benefits of flexible demand to all users via a more efficient grid.

“By demonstrating and proving the technology, we’re hoping to see increased uptake as electricity users look to it as an attractive option.”

Jeff Renaud, Managing Director of Enel X APAC, said: “The energy market needs new ways to balance renewables and businesses need new ways to reduce energy costs.”

“With ARENA’s support, we will prove that small-scale refrigeration systems, when plugged into a virtual power plant, can make a large-scale contribution to the renewable energy transition.”

ARENA has previously supported Shell Energy Australia with a $9.1 million grant to trial flexible demand solutions across shopping centres, supermarkets and distribution centres.

The Unlocking Flexible Demand in the Commercial Refrigeration Sector project is due to be completed in 2027.


Andrew Webster