The barrage of announcements from various politicians reminds me daily that an election is nigh. Labor, Liberal and Xenophon have all read the public mood and remained pro-renewables. (The Greens have always been pro-renewables of course) The party energy policies differ, but will all contribute to increasing renewable energy in this state.
Timely, therefore, for a view of the future and hopes for the coming year as we continue barreling along, challenging our old traditional energy system to keep up with the changes.
Where we find ourselves:
2018 will have strong uptake of big wind and big solar. A number of key projects have started construction, attained planning approval or announced contractual milestones. Bungala, Whyalla, Aurora solar thermal, Riverland and Port Augusta Energy Park – just to name a few. AEMO update their data every six months and you can see the project graph from December. The Orange runs our state at the moment. The light blue shows what could be possible. Many of these projects will be built with large storage as well because that is now a criteria for approval.
Strong uptake of rooftop solar will continue. 2017 was the biggest year yet and broke records all over the place. In SA we breezed past our 50% renewables target early and have solar on over a third of all homes. Even if the residential market saturates, the commercial and industrial market is only just taking off.
There is plenty of interest in household batteries and prices will fall. As the early adopters enter the market to experiment, so do the utilities – with SA Power Networks and AGL both subsidising a number of household trials so they can see the effect on their businesses and look for customer/company win-wins.
Around the corner are a number of challenges we haven’t grappled with. We already waste surplus wind power at times and we will have surplus solar before we know it starting with a mild, sunny Sunday in October (not 2018 but soon enough). A counter to this trend will be the arrival of transport and heat into the electricity mix. These are huge sectors and will become, in time, great loads for balancing out surplus electricity.
Finally, the energy industries are only transforming slowly – too slowly – and the entrenched interests are dragging their heels on change altogether.
- Local scale energy systems are a sweet spot that we need to develop. They promise to be cheaper, more reliable and fairer – we should at least be testing this idea.
- People are missing. They’ve been insulted by energy politics and outrageous prices. We won’t get a better energy system unless we bring voters on this journey and support them along the way to make the decisions that change their own energy equation.
- There is no apolitical energy conversation that can develop thoughtful energy policy in this state.
- Putting a value on community benefits, and local economic benefits. After all, energy is meant to be in service to us. It is the reason we invested in this essential service as a public asset originally.
- Fairness is missing. The economists in the energy sector argue that ‘fair’ means everyone gets the same price. They ignore the widening gap between the haves and have-nots as those who can’t own solar are disproportionately paying for rising prices and are often the people who can afford it least.
- Innovation is missing and the system has not articulated how the utilities should do the learning and experimentation that they must if they are to steward the system to a completely different state.
- Business models and tariffs need to change to change the incentive regime for the energy majors. We’ve left the system in pieces so the incentives often don’t line up between each part of the system and the customer who must pay them all.
- Finally, customers are missing. They are placed in a far less powerful position than the companies, even while 800MW of rooftop solar is the biggest generator in the state at times. Flexible load is cheaper than batteries and energy efficiency can always be beneficial to the customer. Making customer participation and benefits a high priority should be in every energy policy.
Our Energy Future
I imagine our energy system could be a network of local scale micro-grids. Each micro-grid would be smart, balancing local loads and supply whenever necessary. And each would have enough self sufficiency to provide essential needs at times when the main grid is unavailable. These local networks would play happily on the market, making the most of cheap surplus renewable energy, offering up capacity when the price was high and building a local economy around readily available energy resources.
I imagine us making the system more affordable by positioning ourselves to welcome an era of cheap renewables. We would need to reduce the cost of our network, as we reduce the need for centralised and poorly utilised assets and fill our capacity up with flexible loads, local supplies and good load balancing. The arrival of transport and heat into the electricity mix might really help with the economics. The support for householders and unlocking of energy efficiency and demand management benefits needs to be relentless.
After the technical and financial dimension, there is the all-important social dimension. I imagine enough robust local ownership to shift the understanding about community priorities. Even if only a few communities transform the governance of their local energy systems, these will serve as a strong demonstration of modern values and needs. I anticipate that community energy will transform our system to 100% renewable energy faster than the NEM.
Therefore, in 2018, I’d really like to see…
- Co-design and better conversations, jointly transforming our understanding of tariffs, serving the low income sector, our overall vision and the role of micro-grids.
- Support for community energy and unlocking the economic development opportunities. Firstly through a strong focus on local resources and local benefits. Secondly with a strategic approach to the new energy sector – building exportable capacity, skills, products and services by supporting a sector to develop new energy systems, to innovate and to collaborate (competitively).
- Financial support for the not-for-profit sector to deliver customer advisory services, energy efficiency and demand management. These are the institutions that will be trusted in the long term to create the collective good in communities and support individuals to share their energy assets in the best way.