TEDxAdelaide – bigger isn’t better

Giving a TEDx talk was a wonderful experience. The speakers were so well supported by the Adelaide team and they really do put together a great show. My thanks and gratitude to everyone who was involved. I fluffed a few lines, which I’ve corrected in the Transcript below. If you didn’t make it on the day, please enjoy and I’d love if you feel inspired to share the talk with others #TEDxAdelaide 2017.

(my blog is full of posts about decentralised energy and reforming our energy system – here is a starting point on the case for community energy)

Transcript

Together, we are racing towards a clean energy future. Renewable energy is now cheaper than coal, oil and gas. On an enormous scale, we are building some of the biggest wind and solar systems in the country

But I see roadblocks ahead

At the other end of the spectrum, we have solar panels on the rooves of millions of homes. The cost of solar energy and battery systems is falling fast

I see roadblocks over here too

And as we’ve been tugged between big energy and small energy, we’ve all experienced some of those roadblocks haven’t we?

  • We’ve had blackouts
  • We’ve seen energy bills soar sky high
  • And we’ve been subjected to a confusion of political opinions

Bigger is not better when it comes to energy, tiny isn’t great either.

Here in the middle is a sweet spot. If we build energy at a local scale it can be cheaper, more reliable and fairer. Here in the middle is a sweet spot called community energy.

 

Last year I traveled the world looking at the changes in energy systems in America, Germany, Denmark, the UK (and Japan). South Australia is not the only place hitting roadblocks. Everyone is grappling with a transition from dirty energy to clean energy. I visited communities that are building better energy systems and communities that are demanding changes in the way our energy systems are owned and operated. We have more sunshine here in South Australia than most of the places I visited. We’re in such a great position to lead the way. Already half of our electricity comes from wind and solar and incredibly a third of our homes already have solar panels on their roof.

But we can’t lead the way unless we head to the right spot, unless we head to the right sized system. (we need to head for the sweet spot of energy at the local scale.)

Let me show you why

Community energy can be more reliable.

With big energy systems, we have enormous power stations that transport their energy a long way to the end user. A few critical faults in the system and we have what we had last year, the whole state went black. And if you had a solar panel on your roof at home, you couldn’t use it because of the black grid. Maybe you had a battery or a backup power system but you couldn’t share that energy with your neighbours.

I imagine our electricity system of the future as a network of community energy systems. An energy internet if you will. Because networks provide different ways to get around a fault when it occurs. (Emergency supplies can be local or maybe come from your neighbouring suburb. Either way, we share the cost of the backup across the whole neighbourhood and manage our essential needs when the time comes.)

This is what they are looking at building in New York, a series of microgrids. Because New York had its wake up call when Superstorm Sandy hit. And some of their inner city suburbs, some of their poorest suburbs, were without power for two weeks. (New York set about solving the problem by building microgrids,) And they realised that the best way to reduce the vulnerability of those communities was to give them some energy self sufficiency. The cheapest way to improve the reliability was to invest locally.

Now it’s not just our emergency supplies that we need to share. We can share our energy assets on a day to day basis and be far more efficient. Because we are the ones that pay for inefficiency. And in the big energy model and the small energy model, there’s plenty of inefficiency.

Big energy has always chased economies of scale, promising you cheaper prices, if they build bigger power stations. But they’ve had to build power stations and networks, poles and wires, to meet our peak capacity on that one hottest day in the middle of summer.

Half of that capacity lies idle most of the time. (and on top of that we lose almost 10% of our electricity transporting it from where it is produced to where it is used.)

Small energy is not much better. They’ve chased the economies of mass production. The more solar panels and batteries we produce, the cheaper they can become. But to serve our needs all year round we have to overinvest in the capacity here. So once again, some of that capacity lies idle.

Here in the middle at a local energy scale we can best match the energy we have with the energy we use and we can make the whole system more efficient.

Samso island in Denmark provides a nice little example. They wanted to roll out a renewable heating scheme to an entire village. But they said to every house on the scheme, “we won’t connect you until you’ve improved your energy efficiency by 25%” Then the system they built could be smaller. And the resource, the local straw, could go further.

Finally, the most important thing to get right, is making our system fair. And at the moment, its growing more unfair.

Big energy has become accustomed to sucking value out of our communities, off to head office and back to shareholders. Australia’s first community owned energy supplier has estimated that, of the $300 million dollars spent in their community, they can keep $80 million dollars circulating locally, simply because they are owned and operated in the community.

Small energy, is not much better. And I’m part of the problem too. I own solar panels and the more I use my solar energy, the less I contribute to the operation of the poles and wires that connect our system together. The people paying the most towards our electricity system are those who wholly rely on it. People on low income, renters and other people who can’t afford (install) solar; The businesses and industries that provide our jobs and local services that don’t have space or capital to build their own power station.

In Germany, communities are buying back their electricity grids from the energy corporates, and they’re demanding that those systems answer to community priorities. In Scotland, communities are investing in renewable energy because they know it helps their local economy flourish as industries spring up around this new opportunity.

I said at the beginning that it was economics driving the pace of change towards a clean energy future. We can harness the economics of local energy. We can draw big energy back towards the centre, we can help small energy share and participate in our communities.

When we build our clean energy system from our neighbourhoods out, we will get a system that is cheaper, more reliable and fairer. We will generate numerous local benefits. We will put energy back into service for our jobs, our lifestyles in our cities and our towns.

Our clean energy future will arrive faster than any of us dare to predict. But we need to listen to our roadblocks. Those roadblocks are telling us that now is a critical time. They’re telling us that now is the time for us to find our sweet spot. They’re telling us that this is the most important time for us to unlock the benefits of community energy.

THANK YOU

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About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
This entry was posted in churchill, Community energy, energy transition, Talks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to TEDxAdelaide – bigger isn’t better

  1. brian.phillips@internode.on.net says:

    Good piece of work Heather

    Brian

  2. Pingback: The case for community energy | changing weather by Heather Smith

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