Electricity has been part of everyday life since the beginning of the last century. For most of that time we gave little thought to how it was produced. We paid our electricity bills, flicked the switch and there it was — a basic commodity, like food or water. We never caught a glimpse of the massive coal-fired power stations that churned out power 24 hours a day for our convenience.
Then, about ten years ago, something remarkable began to happen. Spurred by rising power costs, the GFC and a fall in the price of solar technology, Australians started to take the production of electricity into our own hands. We did it by turning our homes into privately owned power stations.
The energy revolution on the roof
According to the PV Institute1, in 2007 there were 12,601kW of solar panels installed in Australia. Today there are 6,216,974kW, and the figure is growing. That’s a staggering 49,000% increase in solar use in ten years.
By any definition, that’s a revolution. Solar energy has captured the public imagination; after all, Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world.
According to the Clean Energy Council, there has been six times more investment in solar in 2017 compared with 2016. Queensland is leading the solar sweepstakes, followed by New South Wales and Victoria. A new Climate Council poll2 shows most Australians think solar electricity and home battery storage are key to affordable,
A separate ReachTEL poll3 found 74% of 1,928 respondents across Australia expect household batteries will be commonplace in the next decade. The spirit of energy independence is abroad in Australia.
Then there’s wind. State governments, especially in South Australia and Victoria, are investing in large-scale wind turbine arrays. In October⁴ the Financial Review quoted Tobias Geiger, managing director of WestWind Energy, who said his company can already build a profitable wind farm without any government subsidy.
A new energy landscape
Craig Rispin is a business futurist and innovation expert with The Future Trends Group. He says Australian consumers are waking up to a new energy landscape and the dream of not paying a retailer for energy is fast becoming a reality.
“People are putting solar panels on their roof and a Tesla battery in the garage, powering their house and getting an electric car and never paying another energy bill,” he said. “We’re behind in this country because of government policy. In the UK and Europe they have neighbourhoods where people put solar panels on the roof and trade their energy with their neighbours.”
Mr Rispin says that within a decade, Australia will experience a tipping point when people aren’t going to be paying any energy bills. “The reason I say that is I’ve dealt with some energy companies and they’re scared senseless that that’s what’s going to happen; that they’re going to become irrelevant within a decade, 15 years at most.”
The poles and wires of the existing distribution grid will become obsolete as power is produced and traded locally, Mr Rispin says. “Why transport power huge distances? Why not have local power?”
In transport, the way is open for Tesla’s electric cars to make a huge impact.
“The best selling car in America is the Toyota Camry. They sold 361,000 of those last year. Tesla got orders for around 400,000. If they can make all the batteries they need, the Tesla will be the best selling car in America.”
The future will be 100% renewable
Professor Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University. He thinks that in ten years’ time it’s conceivable we could be getting all our electricity from a mixture of renewables with storage.
However, he warns that this can only happen with federal government support through a clean energy target. There has been a lot of talk about clean energy targets recently, but why are they so important?
“Governments used to control the electricity supply and they would work out the demand in advance and plan future supply based on that policy,” Professor Lowe said. “The problem is we’ve privatised much of our electricity supply. So what has been built in the last 20 years is what private sector investors think they can run at a profit. The result is that not much new supply has been built in the last 20 years apart from wind farms and householders putting solar panels on their roofs.”
Professor Lowe believes we can create enough energy from wind and solar to meet our needs, as long as we have enough storage.
“The critical issue is that wind and solar have expanded without anyone thinking about the issue of storage, which you need when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.”
And it’s not just residential areas that could be powered by solar and wind.
“Analysis by Professor Andrew Blakers at ANU has shown how solar and wind with water storage could meet all our energy needs 24/7,” said Professor Lowe. “And that assumes we continue to use electricity for smelting and manufacturing.”
How much energy do we use?
There are a number of factors that go towards energy generation from solar, including where you live. In Sydney, a 7kW rooftop solar system⁵ can produce 33.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power per day. (A kilowatt hour is defined as using 1,000 watts for one hour; for example, a 100-watt light bulb burning for one hour uses 0.1kWh.)
If a household uses on average 20kWh each day, and 25kWh in summer for air-conditioning, most of that energy can be supplied by a 7kW solar system. However, it will also need 12kWh of battery storage. That’s because if everyone works or is at school, then no one’s using power during the day. So much of a solar panel’s energy is wasted unless it can be stored for later use.
In fact, smart manipulation of when to use your solar power and when to store it in a home battery is key to efficient energy use and lowering your power bills.
The only catch is the price. According to Tesla⁶, the cost of purchasing and installing its Powerwall 14kWh battery unit is between $11,000 and $12,000. Your current electricity bills will show how long it will take to pay that initial investment off.
Coal-fired stations and renewable energy sceptics
Despite analyses like Professor Andrew Blakers’ that are positive about renewable energy, some remain sceptical about its reliability. The problem for renewable energy sceptics lies in the way traditional coal-fired generators make electricity.
Unlike solar and wind generators, coal-fired power stations do not instantly stop making electricity when they malfunction.
They have massive revolving turbines, which due to their inertia continue spinning when the generator runs out of coal or fails for some other reason. This gives energy grid regulators time to find new power sources and avoid a blackout.
But according to the Australian Wind Alliance, renewable energy can easily replace coal-fired power stations like the ageing 1,600MW Liddell station in New South Wales. Alliance coordinator Andrew Bray has compiled figures that show 3,600MW of new wind and solar farms are ready to play their part.
The problem is that most of these are yet to be built, or even funded. However, short construction periods mean these on-paper projects could be up and running by 2022, the year Liddell is due to be retired.
Total control on your smartphone
Sarang Vengurlekar is CEO of Baulkham Hills technology company Future IQ, which specialises in home and office automation. Mr Vengurlekar says the future of home energy use lies in the way we monitor it. Integrating solar into the home electricity grid is key, and he’s already modified his home to monitor his energy use.
“Tesla batteries are becoming very popular in the market now, and we are planning to add a meter to the main power box that tells us how much energy we are using each day,” he said. “I have iPads in every room in my house that show me how much power I’m using and keep a log of energy use. The Tesla batteries have an inverter that tells them when to feed energy into the house. This means the battery is linked to your home power system. So you can see how much power is being generated from the solar panels and how much is being used in the house, and how much is going to the battery.”
Home automation systems sense where people are in the house and only turn on lights or air-conditioning in that area. Smart thermostats communicate with the air-conditioning system, turning vents off when a room is vacant.
Batteries are the next big thing
It’s not so much energy generation as energy storage that holds the key to the future. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to the Snowy River hydro basin in early 2017 hatched the Snowy 2.0 project. The idea is to generate hydroelectricity by using cheap off-peak electricity to pump water from a low to a higher dam. Then, when electricity is needed at peak times, the water is released and creates hydroelectricity as it falls back down.
There’s also an interesting project in South Australia that could start a new trend. The system requires only one dam, to be built near the coast, and uses the ocean as the lower reservoir. Sea water is pumped up from the ocean to the dam and allowed to run back to make hydroelectricity. A number of these “sea stations” could be built around the country, releasing additional power to the national grid as demand arises.
The Hills Shire Council has taken steps to save energy through new technology. A spokesperson for the Council commented, “The Hills Shire Council is committed to undertaking energy saving projects, including LED lighting upgrades in Council owned buildings, venues and facilities, installing gas hot water systems, implementing specialised sub-surface drainage on a number of sporting fields, and installing sensors and variable speed drives on exhaust fans in a number of Council buildings.
“Council has a total of 12 operational solar power systems on its buildings, which have generated a total of 215,743Kwh of electricity in the last financial year.”
Around the home, battery technology is the new face of renewable energy. Elegant and quietly functional, home batteries are the equivalent of the refrigerator in the ’50s or central heating in the ’60s. They represent the future — a smart, connected, self-sufficient future when energy flows without cost and without damage to the environment.
“We can create enough energy from wind and solar to meet our needs as long as we have sensible storage,” Professor Lowe concluded. “It can be done.”
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