The Power of Onlyness

onlynessThe power of Onlyness – make your wild ideas mighty enough to dent the world….

The denting the world stuff is a very attractive concept to me. I enjoyed the Breaking Out book for the same reasons and tried to pursue John Butman’s ideas about identifying my fascination, creating a framework and breathing the idea with an audience.

In a sense Nilofer Merchant is making a framework for us all in this book and it is an inspiring read packed with case studies of minnows making their dent.

Onlyness is about identifying the thing that only you can be and only you can bring to the work we do together. To believe in this concept, you also need to believe that everyone you work with will be unique and offer useful and different contributions with different motivations – but that doesn’t mean we all need to work in isolation, or some ideas need to rise to the top. Merchant sets out to explore how people have made their dent, why each dent has motivated so deeply in them and to show us a structure for doing it ourselves.

Step 1 is about discovering your onlyness, the power of your own meaning. This is a combination of where you find yourself, your history and upbringing and what they gave you, and your particular passions. In contrast to John Butman, Merchant sees the whole as your uniqueness, not just the particular fascinations that have caused you to pursue ideas.

I have a sense that my onlyness is about South Australia. This is my home and I have made conscious decisions not to stay in other parts of the world, but to return here and entwine my pathway with its. Although my ideas and passions are about our energy transition, there are plenty of folk doing the same thinking as me – far fewer of them are concerned about how South Australia’s particular story pans out.

And Step 1 is not easy, it includes rejection and self doubt but at the end of the journey you know what matter and why. No one in the case studies found their onlyness easily and many found it difficult to accept that this was their work to do. At the end of the chapter she quotes J. Ruth Gendler,

Power made me a coat. For a long time, I kept it in the back of my closet…I didn’t like wearing it much, but I always took good care of it. When I first started wearing it again, it smelled like mothballs. As I wore it more, it started fitting better…

Finding your co-denters is step 2, the power of meaningful relationships. One of the best parts of this book (well for me at least) is the richness of references to studies on networks, leadership, followership and numerous other realms that help cast standard management studies into the theory of onlyness. The overarching message, though, is ‘only not lonely’. Good work is achieved together and working with the right peeps makes any project. You also need to understand how to work with people who don’t share your passion or beliefs as many different folk can be key to the changes you want to make in the world. Finally, building trust is a key to scale.

Part three is about making the dent, acting as one – meaningfully. Galvanising many to care, giving the commission to own it and allowing everyone to bring their onlyness. This section talks to the special type of leadership that people have shown in order to bring about changes that they care deeply about, because more people can usually make a bigger dent.

Overall, this book is inspiring for its instruction to everyone – to be unique and to use that uniqueness to make our own difference in the world. Read and enjoy.



Posted in Booknotes, Changemaking | 3 Comments

Our energy system is changing…

energy collage

Readers of this blog will know that I think our energy future is:

  • 100% renewable
  • decentralised
  • smart

But what do the changes look like without the advocacy? Here are some of the trends we can see right now.

Falling costs of wind and solar means more renewables
We are on track to meet the Renewable Energy Target earlier than 2020 and capacity beyond the target will be built as renewables projects sign power purchase agreements directly with customers. The prices of solar panels, wind and batteries continue to hit record lows. The residential market is predicted to have its biggest year yet.

We need to remind ourselves that we have gone from a nascent wind industry and virtually zero solar in less than a decade. If change is speeding up, we will see renewable and battery storage penetrations change at remarkable rates over the next decade.

More renewables means a more volatile market
2017 has involved a series of interventions in an attempt to stabilise the electricity system, both physically and financially. The system does not incentivise some of the assets we might need in the long term. Seasonal storage, dispatchable supplies, smart control systems and interactive loads.

In the meantime, there is a dip in prices through the day as the solar glut gets larger. And there is a strong peak in prices after sunset. The other half of pricing, networks, has little downward pressure as SA Power Networks prepares its case for pricing from 2020 – 2025.

The storage conversation is growing
There is increasing recognition of the need for storage. (the need for demand response, which can offer the same service to some extent is talked about but not so loudly). We have had good coverage of the Tesla big battery and studies to build pumped hydro schemes. The early adopters are buying batteries for their houses and experimenting with different models for how they interact.

Ultimately we need daily load shifting (with either storage or flexible load management), we need week by week balancing and we need some interseasonal storage to bring summer surplus into winter.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening
Many advocates are concerned that the cost of electricity is disproportionately falling to those who can’t afford solar and batteries. Our energy-intensive businesses cannot afford to carry the burden of an inefficently priced system either.


The changes in our energy system and the lack of alignment to deal with changes point to a rocky road ahead. Of course, changes always spell opportunity for some. I’m hoping the relatively blank slate can become an opportunity for communities to write their own energy future, You can read more about that here.




Posted in Community energy, energy transition | Tagged | Leave a comment

The case for community energy

38817692251_38b2c8eee9_mIn my recent talk at TEDx Adelaide I asserted that building our energy systems at a local scale:

  • will be cheaper;
  • will be more secure; and
  • will be fairer.

The anecdotal evidence for these assertions comes in part from my Churchill Fellowship looking at community energy systems around the world.

This post aims to summarise those three themes.

Let’s start with some definitions. When I say local scale, I am talking about something that is bigger than an individual site and smaller than the centralised model we have at the moment. When I say energy, I am starting my thinking with the electricity system which is well on its way to going 100% renewable but expanding to include transport, heat and other energy uses that may ultimately use a combination of electricity and renewable fuels. When I say community I am keen to see people back at the heart of this essential service through its governance, ownership and investment.

We are racing toward a clean energy future, as we need to. South Australia’s electricity grid is an excellent-sized example of a whole system. It has relatively weak interconnection to the systems interstate (~25% of our peak needs) and therefore needs the capability to be self-sufficient. And we are experiencing the challenges of an energy system in transition on a regular basis.

I imagine a future system with solar energy in every neighbourhood. Enough to give a place minimum energy self sufficiency, combined with local storage. Storage can take the form of batteries but also energy that can be stored in its final form,  like hot water and the thermal inertia of our buildings. I imagine each community having adequate local control systems to run independently if needed and to optimise supply and demand on a daily basis. I envisage significant large scale solar and wind offering cheap power, particularly to our major industries. Our local systems would be well positioned to exploit the times of cheap power. This positioning will improve as we add transport and heating energy to our electricity demand and as we generate renewable fuels from electricity as one of the components that provides long term storage of energy. Finally I imagine large scale storage from different battery technologies, solar thermal and pumped hydro to provide the balancing factor that we will need at different time periods – daily, weekly and seasonally.

So how is local energy more affordable?

At both the centralised and individual ends of a spectrum it is difficult to match supply to demand. Our state electricity system has an average load of roughly half our peak, 1500MW with of a peak of 3,000MW. This means half our network asset lies idle much of the time. At an individual scale you need to over-invest in generation and storage in order to cover all eventualities.

The opportunity at a community scale is to

  • have diverse assets  – generation from different sources and a number of forms of storage,
  • have a better chance of matching loads to supply because there are more loads to choose from with differing needs and operating patterns
  • treat the local network as an asset to be optimised as well
  • reduce the demand on the high voltage network while using it to a lesser extent to benefit from cheap generation (eg surplus wind) and back up supply
  • have an incentive to reduce costs through further energy efficiency and demand shifting

Prices don’t fall until we reduce our contributions toward the centralised generators and high voltage network but this is key to diverting our investments into local assets and using them well. I’ve written on this topic a number of times.


Is local energy more reliable?

One of the drivers for adding batteries to a solar household is energy security. There is nothing more annoying about being subjected to a blackout when you own a perfectly good generator on your roof. Batteries can fix the limitations of solar panels and supply your load during times when the grid is not available. The duration of this service might depend on how well charged your battery was at the time of the blackout.

A community approach to reliability reduces everyone’s reliance on the main network at the lowest possible cost. Diversity in our energy needs help a community balance its system during normal operation and in a similar manner, diversity in needs and energy availability during a potential blackout can help with managing priorities and ensuring available supplies are suitably rationed to last.

needs triangleThe energy system always grapples with the right amount of energy security because any more comes at a much higher cost. One of the ways we can break this down is to provide different levels of energy security for different energy needs. This won’t happen at a centralised level. The system is simply too slow and remote from customers to explore these opportunities with communities. If I could provide 99.9% service for my essential needs and only 95% for my flexible and luxury needs, the system could be a whole lot cheaper.

Will local energy make the system fairer?

Australia is currently seeing a swing from the ‘market will provide’ philosophy back toward discussions of planning and essential services. We’ve lost all the policy making infrastructure to really have a good conversation about fairness.

There have been a few low-income initiatives in the energy space recently but nowhere near enough and not as part of a larger take on energy market reform. One of the benefits of community energy can be to experiment with ways that a community brings everyone along on the path to a clean energy future.

Posted in Community energy, energy transition, Policy Ideas | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

theinevitableThis was a really interesting read for me. Trying to put myself in the mind of someone who has tracked technology since the beginning of the internet and understand what he is trying to say.

The trends Kelly identifies are not about the technology that delivers them. They are about the intertwining of our technical and social systems and how they end up looking different over time. I wanted to write this blog to record the 12 trends so that I could come back and ponder them as they reveal themselves as trends in my life and experiences.

  1. Becoming: nothing is static, it is always heading toward a destination – it is always becoming. The example here is continual updates. No longer do we buy once and stop. We instead maintain a system through updates. Or we access SAAS offering which are continually updated behind the scenes. Understanding that its a process rather than a destination will help us rethink what we try to build. Of course the big trend missed in the 90’s was how many people would provide the content of the internet. the big media companies thought they were the controlling force. This diverse human creativity is part of the reason our technology is always becoming.
  2. Cognifying: Artificial intelligence is coming at us. Like the internet of the 90’s, we are only just starting to understand some of the ways this could change things. If we can hand over cognitive grind, what would we prioritise with out time? Letting robots into our lives, finding ways they can help us, finding things they can do that we couldn’t… is all part of the future. “let robots take our jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters”
  3. Flowing: This is rich chapter and grapples with the ways we discover value when copying stuff is ubiquitous and free. In many ways this has been the challenge of the media companies since the dawn of the internet and Kelly imagines the death of static in favour of ways that our media “flows” and morphs continually. He cites generative values that are generated at the point of exchange: immediacy, personalisation, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, discoverability. And he argues there are 4 stages of flowing: Fixed,Rare. Free,Ubiqitous. Flowing,Sharing. Opening,Becoming.
  4. Screening: This is a trend predicted in The Circle. Our interaction interface is becoming screens for so many dimensions of our lives. Kelly paints a picture of watches, glasses, VR relaxation, desktops, kitchens and tables all screening at us continually throughout the day.
  5. Accessing: Access becomes more important than ownership. Real time, on demand, decentralised. through platforms and in the cloud. The digital native with complete freedom from possessions and flexibility in choices and lifestyles.
  6. Sharing: Like Clay Shirky, Kelly recognises that sharing is easy and it becomes harder as you move up to Cooperation, Collaboration and finally Collectivism. But now that sharing has become the norm we will continue to move through to bigger outcomes.
  7. Filtering: More filtering is inevitable as we produce more, overwhelming content. Everyone is trying to tweak the algorithm to get their stuff in front of you. But we will make new ways to filter and personalise so that we can get what we need.
  8. Remixing: We know that remixing is leading to new approaches. There is an ongoing conversation about IP and copyright and whether they hinder our social progress. Kelly’s bold statement is that ” In 30 years, the most important cultural works and the most powerful mediums will be those that have been remixed the most”.
  9. Interacting: Virtual reality has a long way to go but has also come a long way. It will get better with more senses, more intimacy and more immersion. Interactivity will be considered the norm and if something doesn’t interact smartly it will be considered broke.
  10. Tracking: This is where data collection is taking us. Enormous amounts of information that we can use to better understand ourselves, our collective behaviour and our world. This is what the internet of things will do.
  11. Questioning: Questioning is more powerful than answering and Kelly gives a list of reasons a good question helps us progress. This is the basis for asserting that questioning is a skill for the future.
  12. Beginning: In a sense much of the story thus far is aimed at demonstrating how we are only just seeing the inklings of what is possible. Indeed, we are at the beginning…

If you like thinking about the future, and don’t mind a bit of techno-utopia, this is a book to read.

Posted in Booknotes | Tagged | Leave a comment

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)


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.


Posted in churchill, Community energy, energy transition, Talks | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Confidence is queen

not-just-luckyNot Just lucky by Jamila Rizvi

Why do women work hard and then put their career successes down to luck? Jamila Rizvi sets out to do more than expose the workplace gender inequities that exist, she also hopes to offer useful strategies for women.

This is inevitably a tricky task. Not only do women come to the workplace with a spectrum of personalities and differing strategies, we are also from a range of generations. The early part of this book emphasises the socialisation that dictates so many of womens’ differences from men. While Rizvi doesn’t mention generational differences, she is refreshingly young but has been in the workplace long enough to be jaded. Even with the advantages of a 90’s upbringing that promised less differences between men and women’s opportunities, Rizvi has experienced the ways that the workforce pulls women back into line. Because socialisation, while dramatic during our formative years, is an ongoing process and in the workforce it continues to reinforce the dominant position enjoyed by men and the socialisation that men have enjoyed.

Rizvi does an admirable job of this tricky task. She explains the necessary generalisations up front, acknowledges that men may experience many of the issues she raises and cautions that she can’t speak for the compounded issues faced by women minorities. She doesn’t shy away from intersectionality though and fulfills the important job of pointing out additional challenges women of colour and women with disabilities may face throughout the book.

One of the first things we need to rediscover is our confidence. Rizvi highlights that the modus operandi for being a top student at school does not apply in the workplace. The unconscious bias, the rewards to competitiveness and those who big-note themselves, adjust the playing field in men’s favour. Simply delivering good work and hoping to be rewarded does not cut it. And for girls that have thrived in the school environment, this can batter their confidence, being thrust into a game they are ill-equipped to play.

So we find out what confidence sounds like. We can’t help the unconscious bias that privileges men’s deep voices and sets different standards for men and women in the extent they are allowed to dominate the conversation. But there are a bunch of practical steps we can take to speak confidently, hold our space and create an assertive meeting style.

We learn what confidence looks like. For a start, step outside of society’s expectations and understand the clothes that are going to make you feel comfortable and confident in.

And we learn what confidence feels like – with a shout out for the value of vulnerability and a call for workplaces where feelings can be useful. After all no one feels confident if they know they are faking it all the time.

The book continues to cover the challenges that everyone faces in the workplace, but are especially acute for women and the way we have been socialised. And it keeps its promise of offering practical steps for dealing with each challenge. It is definitely worth a read for women at the start of their career, or those who don’t yet believe in themselves. Even some of us who feel set in our ways might like to reflect on the little things that can bring us more personal power. It’s the many small strategies and the eyes wide open to bias that might give us future generations who can admire their success as a product of their talents and hard work instead of ever suggesting they were ‘just lucky’.

Posted in Booknotes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Community Energy Program for Resilient Hills and Coasts

Diagram - transition over timeSix Councils from the Adelaide Hills to Kangaroo Island are calling for ideas for a community energy program. Victor Harbour has already run two community bulk buy programs for solar and is especially interested to see an offering that will scale, to speed the region to a more future proofed energy system.

The region spends around $150m per year on electricity. In a region twice the size, Enova Energy (Australia’s only community-owned electricity retailer) estimated that it could keep $80m in the local economy. This means $40m is the prize for a good community energy program. It is captured by

  • creating savings  for electricity customers that are re-spent locally.
  • Helping everyone to own rooftop solar and profit from their own investments.
  • creating local energy jobs, inside the retail business, in delivering energy projects and also advice and installations to energy customers.
  • developing skills and capacity, ultimately creating products and services that can be exported.
  • Transferring ownership of energy projects to local shareholders and ensuring that the use of local resources produces benefits for these communities.

Tandem Energy has partnered with Enova Energy to tender for the community energy program. We see the program consisting of many local energy projects across the region and we think there are two foundational projects that facilitate everything else:

– a local retailer that can buy and sell local energy, can help customers reduce their energy costs and can provide the contracts that underpin long term investments.

– a local, ‘community-benefit’ organisation (Hills and Coasts Community Energy) that can be the project delivery agent – bringing in external ideas and expertise, designing the approach that will best suit the community and then delivering in ways to localise the benefits and ensuring approaches become community energy projects over time.

Tandem and Enova will be the project delivery agent in the first instance and here are some of the many projects we’d love to get started on. Some of these would rely on grants or Council budget and others are commercial propositions so the project delivery work could be funded once the project proceeds and some profit could be returned to make Hills and Coasts Community Energy self sufficient for funding.

  1. Community owned retailer
  2. Organisation – Hills and Coasts Community Energy
  3. Solar Bulk Buy
  4. Removing barriers for those currently excluded from the market
  5. Micro-grids
  6. Community scale solar and wind
  7. Energy security for emergency and other key community facilities
  8. Energy Education
  9. Energy Opportunities – Master planning, feasibility and analysis
  10. Community Energy Action Planning
  11. Climate Ready Homes
  12. Low Income and Renewables for All Energy program
  13. Regional Energy hubs for economic development
  14. Business Energy Audits and solarisation
  15. Energy Project Community Finance
  16. Energy Project Innovation Lab

You can read all about the ways other regions are delivering these types of projects in this document.

Would your organisation like to partner with us in  delivering any of these projects?

Since I wrote this original blog Tandem Energy and Moreland Energy Foundation were contracted to deliver a report and proposal for this community energy program. We surveyed the community with a teaser of information here. A general summary of what we proposed is here. With the changeover of councils across SA in late 2018, we are still waiting to see if this gets any traction with a new set of councils. In the meantime RH&C won a grant from the Local Government Association to develop legal and governance material.

You can subscribe to our (roughly monthly) community energy news which will report on progress, or you can email me at heather[at]

Posted in churchill, Community energy, energy transition, Policy Ideas | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Energy, South Australia, 2018

pexels-photo-156451.jpegThe 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.Picture1

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.

What’s missing?

  • 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
Posted in Community energy, energy transition, Policy Ideas, Solar Energy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Is local electricity cheaper?

Is local electricity cheaper? I believe it is, and I believe we need to price the system to move it toward this outcome.

I’ve written about this topic before – Here and Here, so let’s explore.

We have huge centralised systems. In part to exploit the economies of scale. In part because our energy sources have traditionally been concentrated.

We are entering an era of decentralised energy. Sunshine is available everywhere. Wind has been exploited at scales of 50-500MW – still more dispersed than the past model of 4 x 200MW generators all in a single power station.

Tackling climate change is an urgent need so I am not even going to discuss it. I’ll assume 100% renewable energy is the future and show that we can get there cheaply. Let’s get the price signals right, in order to do this faster than we currently imagine.

Lets consider three main price components of our energy.

  1. Generating the energy,
  2. moving it around the system in time (eg storage) and space, and
  3. providing enough backup to have a resilient, reliable supply

The fourth biggest asset in our system is energy efficiency and flexible load, opportunities that the end user has to contribute to reducing the overall cost of the system. (see, for example, Europe’s ‘Efficiency First’ strategy). We have yet to exploit this effectively. I haven’t included it in the costs because we should be able to deliver it tenaciously in a cost-neutral manner (ie with good paybacks and positive cost/benefits)

We also have a system that is capital cost/infrastructure heavy, and becoming more so. About 50% of our costs tied up in assets we have already paid for. So using existing assets might be cheaper than changing our patterns of use in the short term, but we want to design a system that directs new investment into the fleet of assets we want for the future, not more of the traditional, relatively-expensive stuff.

The three price components are interrelated. If I generate locally, I don’t need to move the energy as far. If I have storage to better match supply and demand, it can also provide backup services etc. For now, lets assume that each component is about a third of our costs.

I’ve played with the numbers and come up with the following comparison:

price stack comparison

Generation: Rooftop solar is competitive in cost with the average wholesale market price and large scale renewable energy, located at the best solar or wind resource, is the cheapest of all. Using our rooftops has the added benefit of not using land that might have alternative uses and value. The lowest possible generation costs would come from cheap renewables that can be used instantly and locally. The ‘cheap’ system worth moving toward has diverse cheap sources, many of which are local. And flexible loads that are turning on when there is surplus – surplus generation needs to be well priced, well forecast and well managed for optimal use.

Network and Storage: Our distribution network is priced the same for all regions, despite the fact that significantly more assets are supplied regionally. This is known as postage stamp pricing. It is priced by energy consumption (kWh) so the increasing numbers of solar owners are reducing their network contribution.

The economic case for building transmission assets, by contrast, is developed based on the price differential that can be exploited between regions and the additional capacity benefit. As local energy sources are developed, the investment decisions of 70% of the distribution assets can move to this economic rationale. For much of high voltage system above 11kV there may be a case for no new investment.

The ‘cheap’ system to move toward will be shared local distribution and storage to best utilise local assets plus a thinning high voltage mesh to interconnect regions.

Backup: We have long known that in places with no network, a diesel generator and a fuel tank provide cheap backup. The capital lying idle is cheap, the operating costs are expensive but you only do it when needed and for your essentials. Every system has a failure point and we often build in additional assets to counter for this. Our network will out-compete batteries for some time to come but anyone at the end of an unreliable long network will know that battery + network or genset + network is already a better solution than relying on network alone. We overbuild this backup capacity because the network provides all or nothing. The cheapest future option will be less reliable network supplemented with local supplies and storage sized for high priority loads only.

Local Economy: The electricity system doesn’t value the benefit that can flow to local economies. Enova estimates that is can keep 25% of the money spent on electricity within the local area by being a community owned electricity retailer. Indeed, the move toward rooftop solar has put money back into householder pockets to be spent locally instead of flowing to the shareholders of utilities. The value of local ownership, local installation, generating local jobs and skills, plus additional economic value by relentlessly pursuing energy efficiency and making our loads more flexible all contribute to a local economy.

Fairness: Two sections of our communities are particularly vulnerable to price hikes. Our lowest income quintile and our energy intensive industries.

We need our energy intensive industries as job providers. Small business like food and drink production and manufacturing can spend over 10% of turnover on energy. Industrial scale processing and mining have similar factors for energy intensity. Increasingly energy prices is on the radar of the Board. These businesses have a challenge to adapt to the future and be the first to put their hands up for our cheapest surplus energy.

People on low incomes suffer disproportionately. They are more often renters and the house they live in may be an energy guzzler. They often have health needs and higher than average energy consumption. They don’t have solar. I have collated some of the data in my Renewables for All posts. Since our energy supply is increasingly capital intensive, I am attracted to the idea that we could have fixed tariffs for some people. For example, the book Scarcity shows that you would do better for someone in difficult financial circumstances if they had the option of regular manageable payments and the ability to build up an emergency fund if the cost was a little higher than needed. The challenge would be to design this so the provider was incentivised to kit such households out with cheap rooftop solar, energy efficiency and flexible load management so that the fixed cost was as low as possible over the long term.

Local priorities, governance: The final advantage of local energy is the ability for communities to agree their own priorities and costs, to control the transition of the system and to chase local opportunities. Many of the community energy initiatives around Australia demonstrate how different local priorities can be and the effort communities are prepared to go to.

The Way Forward

What does pricing look like to deliver us a cheaper, more reliable and fairer system?

Congestion pricing tells us we need a ramping price mechanism to usefully incentivise many people to move behaviour throughout the peak and shoulder cost periods. This might apply at the other end of the price scale for surplus energy too.

Behaviour change experience shows that only some people will engage with the data challenge and after developing a few heuristics will move to a set and forget regime.

In pricing debates, the need to provide consumers with simple options is emphasised repeatedly.

Smart home technology is bringing the capacity for control and monitoring down to a cheap and accessible scale. Some of the technology companies in this space emphasise that customers want to retain control.

New technologies open the way for new business models and therefore different pricing mechanisms.

Much work has been done by the regulators, AEMO and others on tariff options but the incentive to deliver value to consumers is stymied by the market structure. Pricing needs to consider  the consumer perspective and alternatives. It needs to see the whole retail/generation/network costs, the cost of network upgrades and connections and the additional costs of energy assets behind the customer meter.

I propose that the energy sector needs to run a co-design process that pushes the boundary on how we think about energy charging for now, for our transition pathway and for our 100% renewable energy future.

Posted in Random | 4 Comments

One small change to delight those who walk around our city

red walkEvery few months I get a bee in my bonnet about the settings on the pedestrian signal at a traffic light. Most recently I watched two big groups wait through a whole cycle of lights just outside the Piccadily cinema. They were crossing the skinny part of the street (Childers) so they had oodles of time but because they were in two big groups and the light was red and no one had broken ranks, they collectively ‘wasted’ about 15 people x 70seconds = over quarter of an hour. This cycle is repeated in various forms throughout the city all day every day.

Every year or so, I do something about the bee in my bonnet and try to engage Adelaide City Council. I’ve been doing this for the past 6 years but I haven’t been overly successful.  I’ve learnt along the way so I thought I would document some of the points and continue to advocate for a mini co-design process that would get us a good outcome.

And what a good outcome it could be. Based on an estimate of 10,000 pedestrian movements that could be improved daily, a 30second saving per person equates to 30,000 hours per year saved, happier pedestrians and a more vibrant city. That’s right! Our traffic light design wastes pedestrian time to the equivalent of three+ people’s lives. That’s not how much time is spent standing and waiting[1], just the time unnecessarily wasted.

I won’t go on about the case for change, you can read my documentation and recommendations for Council yourself.

Here are some reasons for a co-design process:

  • the experts need to be involved but everyone I have met won’t drive change in a timely way – a higher force is needed.But also a champion to sit with the process – I’ve offered repeatedly to be the provocateur but I suspect they don’t want me. 😉
  • The experts can’t see the car-centric paradigm that dictates all their current designs. Incremental change would need to be respectful of this current paradigm.
  • there are issues. The end of my street was put on a ‘long green’ and then reversed because the local blind people couldn’t hear the signal.
  • future proofing means you might consider the responsiveness as being important. In future, we might expect our app to highlight to a traffic signal that we are approaching.
  • this appears to be city-centric. The CBD has dedicated walk settings for large numbers of pedestrians but the next level out have many lights, often across low-traffic and skinny streets. This is the main opportunity for improvement.
  • with co-design you can iterate around cheap options and more expensive / longer term alternatives.
  • we need to remember this is a techno-social system so changes need to be backed up with car and walker education.

Finally, I am torn on a path forward. I will give the Council one last opportunity to respond positively but then I need to be more proactive myself with a clear “change-tactic”. I have avoided campaigning to date, after all, this is a little issue, surely not worth tying everyone’s time up with but I probably need to find more allies. My preference is to keep poking the system until I find a champion – sometimes this can be about a policy ‘window of opportunity’.

All ideas welcome.

[1] Public Spaces and Public Life Study 2011 reports that many parts of the city have between 5,000 and 25,000 pedestrians during a day. It would be fair to guess 100,000 movements per day that wait at one traffic signal (probably more) for an average of 45seconds (because you can be waiting for 90 seconds). That’s 500 people waiting 24-7 all year around. Some of this is unavoidable but it does make my estimates for improvement above look rather conservative.
Posted in Random | 2 Comments