In 2020, could citizens hold the power?
MAY 12, 2020: Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by nearly a third in the last decade, according to a report by the Department of Energy Transition, Efficiency and Enoughness.
The report showed a dramatic shift to localised, renewable energy production, made possible by radical improvements in efficiency. One in every three Australian households supplies its own electricity – whether individually, in clusters or small communities.
The report highlighted three key drivers for change: the affordability and reliability of solar photovoltaic panels and ongoing improvements in batteries; the community campaign to switch from fossil fuels; and the Great Firestorm Summer of 2016. It found that those tragic bushfires were a catalyst for the technology to leap from the fringes into the mainstream.
What’s all this? It’s a composite of future scenarios imagined by Alan Pears, adjunct professor at RMIT University, and energy consultant Tosh Szatow – both of whom are advocates for localised, not centralised, electricity generation.
While such a rapid switch away from the grid seems hard to imagine, Mr Pears argues that the indicators of change are already with us.
“There are so many emerging options for distributed energy, smart backup generators and battery storage, together with efficiency to dramatically reduce our needs, that the old electricity industry can’t win,” he says. “The centralised technology solution they’re offering will be out-competed by these diverse solutions.”
Appliance manufacturers are already prototyping “smart energy packages” for households: a combination of home-scale renewable energy, together with storage, efficient appliances and monitoring systems.
Mr Pears says big-box appliance retailers will begin selling those packages on a pay-as-you-go, no upfront cost basis.
How will the existing electricity networks and regulators respond? One possibility is that they’ll attempt to maintain profitability by switching to capacity charges – where you pay for the amount of network capacity you need at your peak usage – or by increasing fixed fees.
“Even now my fixed electricity charge is significantly more than half of my bill,” Mr Pears says. “I’m grouchy about that. Fixed charges are regressive – they fall disproportionately on low-income and low-energy users.”
He believes that either way, there’ll come a time when going off-grid becomes the most attractive option. “People who live simply and have low consumption will be the first to move off-grid in the city,” he says.
Mr Szatow, from Energy for the People, agrees that the trend is toward more local generation and storage of power, and more self-reliant homes and communities.
“It was only in about 2000 that the world started taking solar photovoltaic panels seriously. By 2012 in Australia, the price had come down to the point where it was cheaper to produce your energy than buy it from the grid,” he says.
Some households will go it alone, while others – with the help of new energy services businesses – will combine to buy extra storage and backup generators.
“Changes always begins in a niche,” Mr Szatow says. “The niche for small-scale energy generation is where the centralised grid is weakest – for example, in new suburb developments where the network hasn’t been built, or in remote areas where reliability is poor or the servicing costs are high.”
He argues there are several possible catalysts (and timelines) for the niche to become mainstream, including natural disasters, cheap battery technology developed in response to high oil prices, and new energy service models.