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Solar system size limits: How much does your local network allow? [UPDATED]

by James Martin II on November 28, 2017

in Useful solar tools and resources,Solar system sizes,5kW,ACT,NSW,NT,QLD,SA,TAS,VIC,WA

What’s the upper limit to the amount of solar panel capacity that you can put on your roof? This is actually a multi-layered question that involves your roof area, your energy saving goals and any applicable restrictions imposed by your local electricity network company. This article touches on all these factors, but focuses mainly on the issue of how the ‘grid operator’ in an area handles systems over a certain size.

Some quick notes about solar system sizing

Up to 5 kilowatts (kW) is standard these days

If you’re considering solar (or a solar system expansion) for your home, you’ll want to know what the best size system for your circumstances would be. We’ve written extensively on this topic (resources below), but as a rule of thumb a 5kW solar system is both affordable and suitable for most households. A system of this size will generally produce plenty of energy – usually with enough ‘surplus’ solar energy to charge up a battery bank if you choose to install one at a later date.

Even without batteries, any solar energy that you do not ‘self-consume‘ directly within your home will earn you solar feed-in credits on your electricity bill, so it’s not a big problem to have a system that is generating more energy than you need.

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The times we would generally recommend going smaller than 5kW would be when you’ve got insufficient, unshaded roof space available or where your budget doesn’t allow going for a larger system. Additionally, if you know that the energy consumption levels for your home are extraordinarily low, a smaller system (2kW or 3kW) might be more appropriate than 5kW.

[Note that the table in this article has been updated on 28 November 2017. The article was originally published without the table in September 2017. We will continue to update the table as further information becomes available to us.]

5kW+ also appropriate for many households

Although 5kW is the most popular system size going in around Australia at the moment, there are plenty of systems that go above this limit as well. By all means, if you have enough electricity demand and the budget for a 5kW+ solar system for your home, you should.

Resources for selecting the right solar (and battery) system size:

Why are there limits on grid-connected system sizes?

If your home is connected to the power grid, then whether you realise it or not there is a ‘network company’ servicing your home. More accurately, the grid company is known as the ‘distribution network service provider’ (DNSP). DNSPs are by their nature monopolies, as they own & operate the physical infrastructure (‘poles & wires’) that delivers electricity to your home.

Things can sometimes get a bit confusing when it comes to this topic: In some regions of Australia (e.g. regional Queensland & Western Australia) , the network company is also the company that sells you electricity (aka your electricity retailer) but in most cases it’s not (e.g. NSW, Victoria, and southeast Queensland).

How electricity is transported. (Image via AEMO. Click to enlarge.)

The electricity grid as we know it was designed to work unidirectionally – electricity is generated at large, centralised generators (which are more often than not coal plants), sent long distances over transmission lines before being stepped down to distribution lines and finally delivered to your home or business.

The original architects of our electricity infrastructure did not intend for electricity to move in the other direction. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible for electricity to flow backwards, it can potentially be tricky for the networks to manage on a technological level – especially when there are a lot of distributed systems all feeding back to the grid in the same area.

This is the main reason why networks put limits on system sizes, at least until such a time as the grid gets a lot ‘smarter’ and better at handling bidirectional electricity flow.

What are the size limits?

As a general rule (and as per the new AS/NSZ 4777 standard) most networks will allow system sizes as per the below:

  • Single phase connection (most homes): Up to 5 kilowatts (5kW, or sometimes listed as 5kVA)
  • Three-phase connection (some homes and many businesses): Up to 30kW (30kVA)

In essence, most networks will have some kind of ‘pre-approval’ scheme by which your connection will be automatically approved as long as it meets certain requirements – including system size/capacity – which may differ from network to network.

Ultimately, the size limits prescribed by networks may not necessarily be set in stone. It may be possible to get a larger system approved for your home, although there will almost inevitably end up being more red tape and longer wait times involved – not to mention possible extra fees.

Another important implication of size limitations is solar feed-in tariff eligibility. Systems over a certain size may be approved for installation, but not for exporting energy to the grid – which means no solar feed-in tariff benefit. This in turn means that the household in question should do everything they can to ‘self-consume‘ as much solar energy as possible to ensure that none of it is wasted. Sometimes, the feed-in tariff limit is set by your electricity retailer – not the network.

Rules may vary – Ask questions

However, the exact implementation of these rules differs from network to network, and from area to area within certain networks. There are a few important ways that the rules can differ, prompting a range of questions to be asked. You can either ring up your local network company, your electricity retailer or just have a chat with some installers about your options.

The questions to ask include:

  • Does the limit apply only to solar inverter capacity, or also battery inverter capacity?
    • Modern, grid-connected solar systems automatically ‘export’ surplus solar energy into the grid, but battery systems with their own dedicated inverter are not strictly designed to do so. Some networks therefore do not count any battery inverter capacity towards the maximum size limit – but most of them do.
  • Will you be required to install ‘export limiting’ / ‘export control’ technology on your system? How about ‘solar smoothing’?
    • The problems that networks have with grid-connected systems have to do with solar going into the grid and disrupting electricity quality in the local network. One solution for this is to require ‘export limiting’ functionality, which prevents your system from putting solar into the grid over a certain threshold (e.g. 3kW limit for a 5kW system) – or in some cases, preventing export altogether. This sort of control is possible with some inverters or with a bit of third-party equipment specifically designed for this purpose. (You may also hear it referred to as ‘grid protection’.)
    • In some networks (the most notable example being Horizon in WA), it is also necessary to install a ‘solar smoothing‘ device – essentially a small battery bank that prevents sudden peaks and troughs in solar system output due to passing clouds. These sudden spikes and dips can wreak havoc on the ‘thin’, spindly grids common in sparsely populated regional areas; a smoothing device helps make them more manageable.
  • Is the limit a ‘hard’ limit – or are there ways around it?
    • In many cases the network may allow you to install a larger system than their standard rules would ordinarily dictate – provided it meets certain additional criteria. This criteria may involve export limiting or even that you pay for upgrades/changes to the physical network infrastructure in your area.

Solar system capacity limitations & requirements by state & network [Preliminary results]

We’ve been in touch with all of Australia’s distribution network operators in an attempt to work out what the rules are from one network to another. The results – which are pending verification by each of the network’s communications teams – are included in the table below.

As a general rule, 5kW tends to be the upper system size limit for single-phase connections, but some networks allow up to 10kW. There are lots of variations to this theme, however. Some networks will allow larger sizes than those outlined below, pending specific approval from the network. Some networks count battery inverter capacity towards your total allowable inverter capacity, while at least one network (ActewAGL) does not class battery storage as ‘generation’ and therefore does not. Some networks currently set the limits in terms of kilowatts (kW), while others use kilo-volt-amperes (kVA) – usually based on the inverter capacity, but sometimes on the peak solar array capacity. It’s complicated!

Important note:

Please note that the data in this table is intended to be a rough guide based on readily available materials on the web. We are in touch with each of the networks to verify these limits, along with other requirements and considerations and will highlight each as ‘verified’ in green once we have received confirmation. In the meantime, please consult with your solar installer, electricity retailer, or network company itself to verify this information for yourself. 

State or Territory Network Description References
ACT ActewAGL Single phase: 5kW maximum
3-phase: Up to 30kWLarger systems require additional technical study before approval can be granted.If the site has single phase supply, the maximum size system that can be installed is 5KW, for 3-phase supply it is up to 30KW. 30KW and over systems will require network technical study before the system can be approved.The 5kW limit applies to the AC output of the inverter only. ActewAGL considers energy storage systems, such as battery banks, not to be a source of generation and therefore the 5kW limit does not apply to these systems.Customers who wish to install larger than 5kW on single phase supply must install an export limiting device (either via inverter or additional devices) to ensure that output from the system never exceeds this limit. In such cases, details must be provided to ActewAGL Distribution prior to installation.The 5W limit applies to inverter only. If you plan to install 5kW inverter with 7kW worth of panels at the address with single phase supply, this system will be approved.
Solar connections
NSW
Ausgrid Small-scale systems limited to 10kW (inverter capacity)

Installations greater than 10kw but less than 30kw are classed as large scale generation and requires submission of an additional embedded generator connection application. A formal generator connection agreement may be required depending on the size of the generating system.

Connection requirements
Essential An application for solar connection will automaticall be approved if the system is ≤3kW Rural or ≤5kW urban, and application meets all other requirements.

At times export limitation may be required because of network constraints.

Inverter capacity limits include battery inverter (if separate from solar inverter).

Connection to network information pack
Endeavour Single phase: Up to 5kW
3-phase: Up to 30kW
Installing a new solar generator at your house
QLD
Energex Single phase: Up to 5kVA inverter capacity. 3-phase: up to 15kVA inverter capacity.

IES systems above 5kVA per phase that intend to export power to the grid will be subject to a technical assessment.

Connection standard for solar systems up to 30kVA
Ergon Single-phase: Up to 10kVA inverter capacity, but only 5kVA allowed for export. Systems with equal to or less than 3.5kVA inverter capacity will receive automatic approval.
3-phase: Up to 30kVA inverter capacity, but only 15kVA allowed for export.Higher export limits on both single and 3-phase connections are possible, but will generally require making an application with their retailer to upgrade service to dual phase or 3-phase.
Connection standard for micro energy generation units
NT (Darwin) PowerWater For ‘class 1’ small-scale systems –

Single phase: Up to 5kVA
3-phase: Up to 7kVA inverter capacity.

Note that solar the solar feed-in program through PowerWater is the only remaining ‘gross metered’ scheme left in Australia; solar system owners are rewarded for each unit of solar energy that they send into the grid.

Solar PV systems
SA SA Power Networks Single phase: Up to 5kW (from 1 Dec 2017)
3-phase: Up to 30kW (from 1 Dec 2017)Battery inverter capacity is counted towards total allowable capacity.
Embedded generation
TAS Tas Networks Single phase: Systems over 10kW must have export limiting technology
3-phase: Systems over 30kW must have export limiting technologyBattery inverter capacity is counted towards total allowable capacity.Note from Tas Networks: TasNetworks will review the 10 kVA (1-phase) and 30 kVA (3-phase)  limits with a view to align with the new (lowered) AS4777 limits early in 2018.
Connecting micro generation systems
VIC
United Energy Single phase: 10kW system size limit
3-phase: 30kW system size limitThese limits are for ‘basic’ connections. Larger systems may be permitted but will require additional technical study before approval can be granted.Battery inverter capacity is counted towards total allowable capacity.
Solar Energy
Citipower / Powercor Single phase: Up to 5kW system size limit (by inverter)
3-phase: Up to 30kW system size limit (by inverter – 10kW per phase)Depending on the transformer size and existing inverter connections an inverter smaller than 5kW may be required.For three phase transformers, assessment of larger inverter systems can be undertaken; fees may apply.
Solar and other generation
Jemena Single phase: Up to 10kVA (by inverter)
3-phase: Up to 30kVA (by inverter – 10kW per phase)Battery inverter capacity is counted towards total allowable capacity.
Embedded generation – preliminary enquiry
Ausnet Single phase: Up to 5kW system size limit (by inverter)
3-phase: Up to 15kW system size by limitAusnet has an online assessment tool to help customers and installers determine the ‘pre-approval’ limits in their specific area.
Solar capacity pre-approval
WA
Western Power Single phase: Up to 10kW system size limit (by inverter)
3-phase: Up to 30kW system size limit (by inverter)Western Power has an online assessment tool to help customers and installers determine the ‘pre-approval’ limits in their specific area.
Solar, batteries & electric vehicles
Horizon System size limits vary dramatically depending on capacity on the local network. Additional grid protection technology (such as ‘solar smoothing’ and export limiting) may be required for systems in excess of the stated size limits.

Please refer to feed-in tariff eligibility calculator via link to the right.

Eligiblity to install solar and buyback schemes

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© 2017 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

James Martin II

James Martin II

Communications Manager at Solar Choice
James has been Solar Choice's primary writer & researcher since 2010. He lives in Newcastle in a house with a weird solar system.
James Martin II

{ 14 comments }

David Do November 28, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Hi James
By system size does that mean the size of the inverter or the total capacity of the panels?
My question is can I get a 5kw inverter with 6kw of panels after Dec 1st?
Thanks

Solar Choice Staff November 29, 2017 at 8:41 am

Hi David,

Some networks are clear about whether the limit refers to inverter or panel array capacity, while others are not. We’re aiming to get all of this clarified & confirmed as soon as possible, but in the meantime encourage you to contact your retailer.

Which state are you in?

David Do November 29, 2017 at 1:05 pm

I am in SA
Thanks for the reply

Solar Choice Staff November 29, 2017 at 1:47 pm

SA is the most vague and cryptic about these matters that I’ve yet run into. My current understanding is that from 1 December 2017 there’s a straight-up 5kW (or kVA?) limit on all systems in homes with a single phase connection, and that this includes battery inverter capacity – even if you’ve got export limiting functionality in place. I’ll let you know if this understanding gets any clearer.

David Do November 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

Well lets hope the sensible interpretation is made and only the inverter be limited to 5kw
On our roof we have 6kw of panels but due to half of them facing West South West I have no hope of reaching the 5kw of theoretical output

Michael Slattery November 2, 2017 at 2:40 pm

re single phase or three phase

I have a 10.8kw PV Solar system (40 panels x 270 watt)

the Fronius inverter or the Smart Meter limits my export to 4.6kw per hour. My export for the year is likely to be about 9,967 kwh for 12 months @ 11.3cents.

The system could export more electricity but it is often partly idle because the limit of 4.6kw effectively reduces demand on the panels.

If I could utilise 3 phases with a max of 4.6kwh to the grid, my system would produce a lot more export credits, maybe average say 8kwh ? Maybe I could add more panels.

Is a 3 phase power board expensive ?

Might there be ‘unexpected consequences’ in a move to 3 phase power ?

Michael

Solar Choice Staff November 29, 2017 at 9:14 am

Hi Michael,

The main barrier to upgrading to 3-phase power is the cost – you will definitely need to upgrade your meter board & connection, and to pay to do so. Whether this is worth it to you depends on how much it costs you (I don’t have a ballpark figure on this), and whether your retailer is happy to pay you for all of the energy you export (some of them put a cut-off at 5kW, regardless of your system size). You can also shop around for retailers, of course – some of them may allow larger system sizes than others.

Best of luck!

Michael Slattery November 2, 2017 at 2:24 pm

re Feed In to the Grid and GST.

Hi,
Should the retailer calculate the amount to be charged, then deduct the feed in amount to come up with a net figure and then calculate GST ?

eg.
Amount for electricity & service fee .. say $250
less Feed in Tariff earned ……. say $ 50-
Balance ……. $200
plus GST 20
Total Amount to Pay ……… $220

this method is better for the customer.

Solar Choice Staff November 29, 2017 at 9:09 am

Hi Michael,

Our understanding is that is indeed how retailers calculate feed-in tariff benefits and GST. If you’re not a GST-registered entity (as households aren’t), then you don’t pay GST on your feed-in credits. Basically, you subtract the credits from your the pre-GST bill total and then apply GST. We encourage you to double-check this with your retailer, however.

Joachim Staats September 28, 2017 at 2:37 am

I have had rooftop solar since 2008 and am now considering home battery. When I saw the term ‘export limiting’ in the article I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of this before. Some 1.7 million households now have rooftop solar and home batteries are a logical extension. Could ‘export limiting’ really come into play?

Solar Choice Staff September 28, 2017 at 6:35 am

Hi Joachim,

Unfortunately, yes that is currently what the networks are proposing and in most cases implementing, especially for larger systems. It has to do with managing power quality on the grid – as mentioned in the article, the grid was not set up to be bi-directional. We’re hoping that in the grid of the future all solar system owners will have the unfettered ability to export all the energy they want, though!

ian garradd September 25, 2017 at 9:10 am

I tend to go along witht eh advice from the ATA and others- that with the new FITs, the bigger the system the better. – regardless of the amount of self- consumption.
also,
if you have an electric hot water system, then that is an excellent storage device to maximise onsite consumption- as long as the HWS is switched over to day raite- and disconnect the off- peak meter.

Andrew Coffey September 22, 2017 at 2:18 pm

5 kW should be considered a minimum these days. Many solar installers will suggest that 5 kW is the maximum size, but this is simply not true.

Solar Choice Staff September 25, 2017 at 3:35 pm

Hi Andrew,

By ‘maximum’, I’m more trying to hone in on what networks will allow without extra approvals. Will be updating the table in this article soon, as most of the networks have now responded to my queries.

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