Feature

This practice went all but off grid with solar and batteries. Here’s why


Doug Hendrie


15/07/2020 3:59:55 PM

Independence from the power grid can make financial sense – and provide a form of insurance – according to practice owners.

Solar panels
Solar has made financial sense for businesses and homes for at least a decade, with many systems now able to pay themselves off in under two years.

Every time the power went out, James Bishop calculated the cost. 
 
With the computers down and lights out, the four GPs at Mr Bishop’s medical centre in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs could not see any patients.
 
That posed a risk to patients who needed urgent treatment, and to the cold chain, with thousands of dollars of vaccines potentially damaged if the fridge’s backup power supply failed.
 
After the power returned, hours were lost as practice staff restarted computers, checked for data loss, and rescheduled appointments.
 
During one particularly long power outage, Mr Bishop had to dig around and find candles so GPs could continue to see urgent patients.
 
Around five years ago, he’d had enough.
 
Mr Bishop went back through his files and found the power had cut out up to five times a year. The cost, he estimated, was around $10,000 a year. 
 
‘The bottom line is that business is hard enough without having power fluctuations. Every business buys insurance to offset the risk of disruption. Batteries give us insurance for our electricity supply, which insurance policies fail to cover or cover poorly,’ he told newsGP.
 
‘Even more concerning for us was the impact on patients who came to see us on those days. If the power went out, it could delay getting the pathology, radiology or other medical results or reports for someone who needed urgent medical treatment.
 
‘That sort of impact can’t be measured financially. For all medical centres or hospitals, keeping the power on can be a matter of life or death.
 
‘Most of our consultations had to be deferred. It impacts the ability to pay staff, pay rent and other things. The return on investment of avoiding power outages was quite clear to see.’
 
Mr Bishop discussed the situation with his wife and practice co-owner, GP Dr Emmy Pai, and they decided it was time to become independent of the grid as much as possible.  
 
In 2017, they had a 20-kilowatt-hour zinc-bromine battery system installed in their practice, and linked it to the 5.3-kilowatt solar array on their roof.
 
The battery stores enough power to keep the practice going for several days if the grid is down. They has also saved significantly on the energy bill.
 
Going off grid has traditionally been associated with rural farmhouses with very high-grid connection costs, not urban medical centres.  
 
But Mr Bishop said the plunging cost of solar and batteries means it now makes financial sense to run Longevity Medical Centre off the solar on the roof and store excess energy in his battery array, or draw off-peak power from the grid if needed. He regards it as a form of insurance.
 
‘Batteries enable me to sleep without having to worry about the power going out tonight or tomorrow,’ he said.
 
Solar has made financial sense for businesses and homes for at least a decade, with many systems now able to pay themselves off in under two years. But battery technology has long been considered too expensive for all but early adopters.
 
Mr Bishop said that, for businesses in particular, battery technology has now dropped in cost enough for it to make sense.
 
‘In my opinion, it’s foolish not to consider batteries in our industry, or any other such as chemists where you can have substantial business losses when you have to close for a period of time with losses, as well as vaccines and other medications in fridges,’ he said.  
 
newsGP has reported at least $26 million in vaccines were lost to cold chain breaches last year.
 
‘We’ve got solar at home and at work, but there’s no way I could see a return on investment on a battery at home,’ Mr Bishop said. ‘At work, the return is clear to cost and to see.
 
‘Solar is even simpler – that pays for itself very quickly. Our payback was under 18 months and it has now paid for itself 10 times over. Any business operating during the day is crazy not to have a solar system.
 
‘I was an early adopter of batteries, so I paid possibly a lot more than you would now. But it has still paid for itself.’ 
 
While Mr Bishop had installed zinc-bromine batteries, he recommends the field-testing research on lithium batteries done by the Battery Test Centre in Canberra.
 
Adam Smith, the senior project manager at seven20electrical, installed Mr Bishop’s system – the first he had done at a medical centre.
 
‘With thousands of dollars of vaccines in the fridge, it’s a no-brainer in that regard,’ Mr Smith told newsGP.
 
‘You have to weigh up the price against a normal uninterruptible power supply, but batteries make you blackout-proof. You can run business as usual in the event of a grid failure.  
 
‘We’re on the threshold now in taking the next step in battery technology. It’s similar to LED lighting. When that first started to make a hit, it was really expensive. But as more and more manufacturers got on board, the price got driven down. Now everyone is using it and you can’t go anywhere without seeing LEDs.
 
‘It will be a similar analogy for batteries.’
 
Dr Rob Hosking, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Practice Technology and Management (REC-PTM), told newsGP battery technology is now showing a good return on investment for some practices.
 
‘The biggest advantage is the reduction in business interruptions from blackouts and brownouts,’ he said. ‘We’re so reliant on electronics and you can keep your whole building going with these big batteries.
 
‘If you owned your own building, it would be a great investment in the value of the building. With solar on the roof and a batter, it’s better for resale.’
 
Dr Hosking said every practice owner should do their own cost–benefit analysis to see if it is suitable.
 
‘If you’re in the premises for a long time, you’re very likely to recoup the expense – and fairly quickly these days with the free energy from the sun,’ he said.
 
‘You can also purchase off-peak power to charge the battery overnight and use it during peak times, so you’re effectively using off peak-power in peak times.
 
‘There are lots of new technologies becoming cheaper and cheaper. It can be good to replace old technology with newer options, rather than just what the electrician suggests because they’re familiar with it.’
 
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