A hopeful vision of new politics

out-of-the-wreckageWhat an excellent piece of work by George Monbiot! This book adds a number of important layers to our understanding of what it will take to change our path.

Monbiot’s key message is that the story we tell needs to change. The two narratives of the 20th century still survive today – the social-democratic story and that of neo-liberalism.

Those stories have their flaws, failed at some points and so we can’t look backwards for a replacement story – we need something new. We need a new narrative, one of togetherness and belonging.

We need to insist on the values we hold as social creatures who have evolved to live in pro-social societies, because if the dominant narrative is one of rationality, individualism and selfishness then our values slowly but surely shift toward that.

We need a set of principles and Monbiot proposes a long aspirational list for us to consider.

The book looks at our forward path from the perspective of community. For this is Monbiot’s main prescription of what we need to build, he looks at the alienation within modern society and why we’ve lost the togetherness we once had.

And so he explores belonging – belonging with, belonging to and belonging in. He looks at initiatives springing up in societies around the world that bring back our sense of community and help form our identity – and indeed our politics. The Clarion clubs of the UK in the late 19th century were formed to help groups share time together and to create shared political values – who knew?

Monbiot talks about communities taking back control while warning against the withdrawal of resources that the Big Society initiative came to be associated with. He highlights the benefits of building a participatory culture, and quotes a Lambeth study that expects 10% participation within 3 years as a tipping point to building the types of thick networks that can make communities resilient and vibrant. Genuinely creating the belonging that we need and love.

And in communities the wealth is shared in public spaces and amenities – private sufficiency, public luxury. So the commons becomes a key part of the discussion, rather than one ignored by our modern economic paradigms.

The other key planks to the path of change are the dual tasks of reframing the economy and changing our politics. Monbiot takes his economic lead from Kate Raworth – and her new book is well worth the read.

He takes heart from the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and believes that the radical trust model is desperately needed for organisers to unlock widespread movements. He has instructions for organisers about inviting participation and criticises the march and speeches model, precisely because it doesn’t give marchers easy instructions for getting involved and building something together.

This is all music to my ears. I’ve been reading widely about this, and I’ve been harbouring a secret desire for a universal basic income and all the time in the world to volunteer and do things we care about. I’m experimenting with online community building and I recommend this one as a book to read.

Have you read it? what did you think?




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Why should parties support community energy?

C4CE congressSouth Australians spend over $2bn per year on electricity. Households and small business account for approximately 60% of that expenditure and are increasingly recognising that they can generate the same amount as their electricity needs each year by installing rooftop solar energy. In other words, we all live close to a local energy source that is extremely affordable compared to grid energy.

In addition to our expenditure on electricity, we spend a similar amount on transport and heating energy – and there are increasing opportunities to electrify these two energy needs.

How much of this expenditure could be returned to energy consumers – with a system that is cheap to run? with good use of the energy assets we have invested in? with further help to reduce consumption and to use energy at the cheapest times?

How much of this expenditure could be returned to communities – with investments made by local investors rather than remote shareholders? With expenditure supporting local jobs?

Some estimates suggest 30%. All parties are focused on reducing energy costs but none have really explained how they will get the system operating in the most effective manner. They offer pieces of the puzzle – a community owned electricity retailer for the low income sector, integration of demand management and storage into market operations, a distributed virtual power plant.

With a potential prize to South Australians of over $500m – community energy deserves stronger consideration.

There is an opportunity for each party to spend some time exploring the ramifications of locally scaled energy – its impact on affordability and local economics, its improvement to local energy security, resilience and energy self-sufficiency.

There is an opportunity to support communities to develop their own solutions, increasing the likelihood that fairness, local jobs and local investments will become priorities.

There is a clear case for government support. Communities cannot mobilise resources at the pace of the private sector and so are the poor cousins in the race to profit from renewable energy. Communities are concerned with delivering public goods, the unprofitable benefits that come from pursuing affordability for all, local employment and skills enhancement.

What support does community energy need?

  1. Funding to get started. Initial funding can bring communities together to plan and provide seed capital for projects. It can leverage 20x or more in capital from small investors and leverage enormous amounts of productive community volunteer time.
  2. Community-based institutions such as community energy hubs.
  3. A retailer focused on delivering customer and public benefit in order to set a standard for the whole market and to provide a strong collaborator for community projects.
  4. Trials and examples that prove the cost-effectiveness of the local energy model and demonstrate the necessity of rules changes in the market. Championship for such rule changes.
  5. Local price signals and incentives to support investments and behaviours that improve the utilisation of local energy assets and improve energy security.
  6. Unbiased advisory services that help consumers reduce bills, navigate the complexity of new products and shifting markets and identify community-benefit initiatives. …used to build skills, knowledge and capacity within each community.
  7. Commitments to deliver local community benefits for every new energy project and fair democratic processes to empower community voice and provide opportunities for local control of energy resources.
  8. Opportunities for local investors and small investors to invest in new energy projects.
  9. Flexibility in rule making and design to support communities in the myriad of ways they might choose to implement fairer systems and support to the most vulnerable members in their community.
  10. Subsidies at the community level to re-engineer local systems for improved energy security – with a focus on those communities most poorly served at the moment.
  11. A focus on skills and training to enable local businesses to participate in the energy transition and local procurement policies to ensure a substantial proportion of investment is captured locally.

We have an election coming up in less than 10 days and our emerging community energy sector has co-signed a letter to each of the major parties asking for stronger consideration of community energy.

This blog will publish some of the comparisons between parties, published policies, political promises and from the responses we receive, so please check in before you head to the polls on March 17.

You can view our letters here:

Australian Conservatives

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Power, and its careless use

the powerWhat would the world look like if women suddenly had the power?

Something I love about a work of fiction is the shadow it leaves in your thoughts for days to come.

Naomi Alderman left me with a chuckle and plenty to ponder.

She creates a world where teenage girls are suddenly given the power to kill, maim and control with fear. Well that makes me smile. Teenage girls already represent a pinnacle of female power. Before the world tells them what they can’t do, they have a confidence often missing in older women. They don’t yet know about the systems lined up against them that give them slightly less than boys, and that socialise them to accept, to prioritise caring, to avoid pushing themselves ahead of others.

Teenagehood is powerful for both genders, (as much as it can also be disastrous and difficult), and it is definitely a time when children become adults and start to own and shape self. Physically, boys get to discover a physical strength – sometimes without the maturity about how to use that strength and Alderman’s 15 year old girls find themselves in exactly that boat. It’s no mistake that control of ‘the power’ gets a little tenuous when girls are angry.

In this book the Men’s Rights Activists come out of the woodwork. Of course in real life we might struggle to understand the trolling and the abuse and what drives it. In this book, it’s clear that men have suddenly lost their place in the hierarchy to women, to all women – big time. And they have plenty to be afraid about, rather than an imagined loss. Of course they want to wage war. This recognisable behaviour made me smile.

The story swaps powerful women for powerful men in a blatant and exaggerated role reversal but I wasn’t offended. Instead I was intrigued – to what extent do I tolerate this behaviour every day? To what extent to men take their authority for granted and see their ownership of power as totally appropriate and to be expected?

I remain intrigued by the blatant sexism in the epilogue. Who can’t imagine a man that claims to be respectful of women but just can’t see the structural disadvantage we face? Who hasn’t been mansplained? Who wouldn’t be listened to differently if they wrote as a man? So why does it feel so weird when the roles are reversed??

My main cause for reflection is the carelessness and gratuitous use of power in the book. Why should I believe that we will all sign up to ‘power with’ not ‘power over’ when there is so much evidence to the contrary. But I won’t spoil the story – this one is definitely worth enjoying yourself.

If you do read it, please let me know when I should encourage my teenage girls to have a read. Can we see this world clearly because we are older? Would it shine a light for my 13 year old before anybody gets in to chip at her confidence?

…and if you like this sort of future dystopia/exploration work. My recent favourites have been Walkaway by Cory Doctorow and The Circle. Let me know what you think.

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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.



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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.




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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.

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