(Image courtesy of corenafund.org)
I have been interested in alternative energy systems for my entire career. My work experience for my Electrical Engineering degree was taken with the University of NSW in the photovoltaics lab where Professor Martin Green was breaking world records for solar cell efficiency. I still have some laser grooved cells that I made in the lab in 1990.
I volunteered at the Folkecenter for Vedvarende Energi in Denmark at a time when wind turbines were starting to dot that landscape and locally owned district heating plants were considered a normal contribution to an energy efficient electricity grid. Someone explained to me that these things worked in Denmark because it was in their constitution that access to water and energy were basic rights for people and these services must not be sold at a profit. (I will get a chance to check that story properly)
When I moved to the UK to do industrial energy efficiency work, I was involved in a number of co-generation projects using both electricity and heat onsite, as well as demand management to optimise electricity costs.
Small scale electricity production has been around for a long time and Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute has consistently claimed that neighbourhood scale energy is the most economically efficient way to build an energy system. (He goes on to claim that this scale also turns out to be the most economically efficient way to deliver all infrastructure and points to studies on telecommunications and sewerage systems to back up his claim – this is another issue I hope to investigate and put some solid references behind in my work)
But now we have a technology boom. Can you imagine how excited I am to see the price of solar energy zoom past the cost-effective point, continue on to grid parity and now be challenging the price of wholesale energy? Some say solar will be the cheapest form of energy in most parts of the world in ten years time!
And this year we had a flurry of excitement over battery storage systems. Elon Musk brought a celebrity status to an area of research that has formerly been the realm of nerdy engineers. But while Tesla sportscars and slick marketing might make the Tesla Powerwall a household name, AGL have also released a household product and SA Power Networks have quietly predicted half of us may have storage systems by 2034.
Let’s not forget smart grids. I am in love with the idea of smart grids. The idea that the controls and sensors associated with electricity use could become so commonplace and cheap has me very enthused because I have advocated for energy efficiency and small scale energy for a long time. The cost of smarts on these small systems is often what killed them and stopped them from competing with conventional, large systems. The smart grid we envisaged in 2009 has evolved and looks a bit more like the Internet of Things now I suspect, but I still see this technology as a potential leveler – bringing democracy to the system.
All this good technology is happening, and happening fast so I felt there wasn’t much to be learnt from looking at the technical solutions. Where are we going? is NOT the interesting question here. No, the interesting question is How do we get there? And hence, I decided that the important folk who had to be on the journey from here to there would include the utilities and the regulators.
I do believe the energy systems of the future will be more closely linked to the communities they serve. Solar energy captures people’s imagination too. Hepburn Springs wind farm was one of the first community owned power stations and they set up the Embark website so that others could learn from them and other examples around the world. Now we can point to great initiatives all around Australia. Repower Shoalhaven, Solar Share and our own campaign in Port Augusta to turn a coal town into a solar thermal one. The Zero Net Energy Town in Uralla decided to spend their grant money on a business case everyone can use and Northern Rivers is investigating a community owned electricity retailer.
I will write a blog on the variety of solar financing initiatives quite soon but I can’t go past CORENA – a fantastic model where each solar scheme pays itself off from saved energy and the repayments help fund the next scheme – all based on initial donations.
But back to my theme. We have all these projects happening around the edge of the main system, sometimes in spite of ‘the system’ so what I would like to see is the big players – the utilities and the regulators – actively involved in and learning from these small scale projects. This is the only way, I believe, that they can write regulation and adapt their business models to welcome the electricity grid of the future.
From a technical perspective it is already possible and probably cheaper than the alternatives. If I were queen for the day I would be building a network of microgrids across the country – generating electricity as close as possible to the point of use, using the energy efficiently and managing the loads to match the supply, with the help of a little storage. I would be looking at our old infrastructure and working out which sunk costs to swallow and walk away from – coal fired power stations in Port Augusta for example – and which can be adapted to serve the new model and still give us bang for our buck.
So you can understand my vision for “the system”. In May 2016 I’ll be heading off on a Churchill Fellowship study tour to work out how to get us there.
* When Winston Churchill died, so the story goes, Australians were so keen to honour the great man that they volunteered in their thousands to collect money for the fund that now supports around 100 study tours per year for Australians. There was one collector for every 7 citizens and it was the only day that the banks opened on a Sunday. I’m very fortunate to have been awarded one of these great opportunities, worth about $25,000 and giving me an opportunity to travel to Japan, Germany, Denmark, UK and USA.