Category: Energy

September 18, 2020

Opportunity Cost Calculations

One of the outcomes of my recent bill were the articles written. Lindsay Handmer over at Gizmodo wrote an interesting piece about opportunity cost.

Australian_$50_note_paper_front

A blast from the past! Aussie $50 note from 1973-1995

For those playing at home, “opportunity cost” is an economic term, defined as follows:

…the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

In particular, looking at my statement about leaving the money in the mortgage offset account, versus buying the system.

I had confidently stated my preference for the financial outcomes of the system early on. As it was likely to save me (at least) double the value of my offset in terms of electricity savings, it looked like an easy choice.

Honestly, opportunity cost was not something I gave much thought to. I decided to invest the money in acquiring a hybrid solar system. I wanted to save on electricity bills, and the money looked well-spent.

What some may not know is Lindsay and I had a fairly long email discussion about the direction of the article. We checked facts and figures,and compared notes in terms of thought process.

The ultimate conclusion is the one that most basic analyses have come to; the Powerwall is not yet considered financially sound in terms of payback, against its warranted 10 years.

Estimates for payback vary widely on how you analyse it, and individual circumstances. I had calculated mine at around 8-10 years, and that looked good after the first bill produced savings of ~ $450 compared to same quarter last year (or about $1800 per annum).

OPPORTUNITY COST

I got to thinking about my financials, since Lindsay’s article. During a subsequent proof read for another article I’ve written (to be published in the near future), I decided to go back and review “opportunity cost” as a thing.

I wondered if I’d made the right decision.

are wrong

 

The article on gizmodo was right: while I was going to save on electricity bills, that money would no longer be helping slaughter my loan. By sticking it to the power company, I’d lost the chance to stick it to the bank!

What a conundrum…

I should mention that in the weeks before the install, I’d moved my mortgage to a product without an offset. I still could have dumped the lump sum it the mortgage directly, and let it ride.

But would I? Really?

Even in Aussie dollars, $16k is non-trivial amount of money to the average family. Maybe it was time to have a family holiday? Pay off some other debts? Do some enhancements around the house? Buy a GoT-themed jumping castle? Wait. What?

The point is, while its all well and good to say “stick it in the offset”, there are no guarantees that it would stay there. The problem with ready cash is that there are always things for which it could otherwise be used. Life happens.

DOING THE NUMBERS…

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the money went into the mortgage, for the Powerwall’s warranty period of 10 years.

Assume the interest rate stays at 4% (unlikely), and we keep any benefits in the mortgage. Under the principal investment of $15,990 the interest saved is $639.60 over the first year. Second year is principal $16,629.60 (adding the savings), which saves $665.18 and so on.

Now, based on rolling the principal + interest over every year, after 10 years we arrive at … carry the three … square the hypotenuse … divide by the tangential inverse of pi …

A total interest saved figure of $7,679.11 from my investment of $15,990.

Not bad!

I’ve continued to pay electricity bills during that time, of course.

Starting with my base usage costs of $1920 from the 12 months leading up to Powerwall, let’s be extremely generous to the retailers, and flag an upward move of 0.5% per year, on average.

That means in the first year the new usage costs are $1,929.60. Second year $1,939.25 – and so on.

Over 10 years, that little hike makes for a total electricity bill of $19,736…

Angry Penguin
I feel your rage, angry penguin… (c) Business Insider

Therefore, despite saving money in my offset, I’m still down by a figure of just over $12k. If the price rise was just 2% per year on average, its more like $21,443.93 paid to the electricity retailer (loss of nearly $14k).

Just for reference, 2% increase on usage costs, for the average of 25 cents per kilowatt hour in these parts, is half a cent.

If the increase was 4% (1 cent per kWh), I’m paying out nearly $24k in electricity. That’s enough to cancel out the interest savings AND put me in the hole for the value of my system!

run away

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Man. Who knew an increase of 1 cent could hurt that much?

Let’s take another tack, and look at using the money I save on electricity against the mortgage.

Again, we need to make some assumptions:

  • mortgage interest rate will be 4% ongoing
  • $450 saving on the first quarterly bill extrapolates to $1800 per annum
  • degradation in Powerwall is cancelled out by increases in electricity price
  • money saved on bills will be put back into the mortgage*

* Again, it probably won’t, but given the opportunity cost matrix assumes that all monies stay dedicated to the mortgage, I say game on!

Starting at Year Zero with a capital position of negative $15,990 we can compound all our numbers moving forward. Remember, we’re adding $1800 into the pot every year from bill savings, as compared to my old provider.

Therefore in the first year, we subtract $639.60 in lost interest from the starting capital position, but add $1800 per year in bill savings. That rolls over to the new amount for calculating the offset in the next year.

Year Lost offset Bill Savings Capital Position
0 n/a n/a -$15,990.00
1 -$639.60 $1800 -$14,829.60
2 -$593.18 $1800 -$13,622.78
3 -$544.91 $1800 -$12,367.70
4 -$494.71 $1800 -$11,062.40
5 -$442.50 $1800 -$9,704.90
6 -$388.20 $1800 -$8,293.10
7 -$331.72 $1800 -$6,824.82
8 -$272.99 $1800 -$5,297.81
9 -$211.91 $1800 -$3,709.72
10 -$148.39 $1800 -$2,058.11
11 -$82.32 $1800 -$340.44
12 -$13.62 $1800 $1,445.94

This indicates that some time very early in the twelfth year is when I hit payback, under the opportunity cost calculation. That would be the system paying itself off in full, and accounting for the mortgage offset.

DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

Really, these numbers are just an exercise in maths. And a bit of fun.

It would be highly unlikely in either scenario, that spare money would sit in the mortgage that long. There are things to do, and locking up a bunch of money for a few percent interest until I’m in my 50s? Sounds like wasted beer money, or holiday money, or holiday beer money.

Beyond the first year will I really save $1800? What happens when the interest rate on my mortgage shifts?

Trying to cater for all these factors could drive a bloke crazy.

Looking at the opportunity cost is an interesting exercise, but it won’t keep me up at night. I’m hardly tying myself in knots with post-purchase cognitive dissonance either. I have a power bill that makes me smile.

There are also intangible benefits I’ve had on a personal level.

My rough biscuit has been on TV a few times, and across other media, which was a bit of fun.

I have created a little corner of the internet to blather my thoughts into the ether, and I’m flattered that people read it!

One of the best parts has been meeting with switched-on people, who want to make a real and positive change. They have a lot to teach, and I am in awe of the chance to learn from them.

You can’t put a price on that.

September 4, 2020

Agile Energy Projects in the Marketplace

I’ve been on radio, TV, in print, and sprayed around the internet. Its a bit like the install day back in January, but obviously with a dollar figure attached.

Despite that, there is still a lot of people ready to step up and put the boot into Powerwall, and lithium storage in general. I will never fathom why these parties are against progress, so I don’t read into it too much.

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THAT…

During that time the world rolled on, and it appears renewable energy, particularly solar hybrid, has been going from strength to strength. One tweet in particular caught my eye, from Noah Smith.

The Telegraph article linked by that tweet, written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, is an interesting discussion on battery storage as it affects the landscape. It is also a bit of a dig at the Hinkley Point nuclear project in England.

wrote something previously on Nuclear Power, so without a re-hash I will reiterate: I AM NOT ANTI-NUCLEAR. However, I did point out there are significant financial hurdles to overcome in Australia. Leaving aside the social issues, that is.

Three paragraphs in the article from Evans-Pritchard got me thinking.

Perhaps the Hinkley project still made sense in 2013 before the collapse in global energy prices and before the latest leap forward in renewable technology. It is madness today.

The latest report by the National Audit Office shows that the estimated subsidy for these two reactors has already jumped from £6bn to near £30bn. Hinkley Point locks Britain into a strike price of £92.50 per megawatt hour – adjusted for inflation, already £97 – and that is guaranteed for 35 years.

That is double the current market price of electricity. The NAO’s figures show that solar will be nearer £60 per megawatt hour by 2025. Dong Energy has already agreed to an offshore wind contract in Holland at less than £75.

Those are some pretty compelling numbers, but the reasons why it got me thinking relate to my own work life.

A Short History Of Dwarves

I’ve been an IT guy for a living nearly 20 years now, working mainly in databases where I can help it. I’ve seen almost every tech acronym or buzzword put into practice, sometimes very poorly. Or for the sake of change.

One of the better periods was back in the day, when the technical stuff was held apart. I like the imagery that Neal Stephenson uses in Cryptonomicon – IT guys were like the Dwarves in Tolkein; working away in the dark, hammering out things of beauty like Rings of Power.

The company (Elves) would frolic up to the entrance of the forge, beseeching the Dwarves for a solution. The Dwarves would give a range of timelines and costs, and the Elves would pick one. We’d go into the forge, create what they wanted, and the land was content.

With advances in technology, and the hunger for globalisation, things needed to move faster. Thus, “Agile” was born as the new way to do things.

dt071126

Credit www.dilbert.com

Generally speaking, the move to Agile is positive from my point of view. It seeks to guide the Good Ship Project through the icebergs as each one appears, not assert a course from Day 1 and expect no issues with implementation at all.

As long as Agile is implemented the right way, it can do good things.

There is a caveat though, and the seed of this started with smart devices in my opinion. If we’re ever having a beer, talking shop, I’d pinpoint smart devices as disruptive in more than just a good way.

Now non-technical people see an awesome app for $1.99 and wonder why projects still cost millions. As a result, they demand more.

Agile has collided with this belief that speed of delivery, and convenience, is cheap. Non-technical people don’t necessarily understand the systems. They’re trying to tell the developer how to do their job down to the finest detail. That isn’t actually helpful.

Dear Managers: right now, there IT guys reading this, and nodding their heads. Maybe muttering. Likely, swear words and dark thoughts are being countenanced.

Agile Energy Projects

One thing that holds true of IT projects, energy infrastructure, and pretty much anything down to a backyard deck, is the Quality Triangle.

scope

If you are going to implement or change the project in terms of finances, timeline, or scope/size, then you have to accept it will affect the quality of the outcome. Aiming for all three is purely theoretical, in my opinion.

As with the recent Census Fail incident in Australia, sometimes it doesn’t matter how many resources you throw at a project, or how long it runs. The excreta hits the rotary ventilator, and its time to put out fires.

Hinkley Point C is subject to some base requirements, but the main one is the generation of 3200 MWe from a nuclear reactor. Not the biggest in the world but still a mighty undertaking.

Once you’ve decided it will generate that much, you’ve set your course. A prescribed amount of effort, human resources, and other elements must go into it. Critically, the reactors will be of a certain size and type, and you’ll pay the capital cost of that regardless.

If you encounter cost overruns or other issues, generally speaking you just have to suck it up, as per the article:

… the estimated subsidy for these two reactors has already jumped from £6bn to near £30bn. Hinkley Point locks Britain into a strike price of £92.50 per megawatt hour – adjusted for inflation, already £97 – and that is guaranteed for 35 years.

In Australian terms, that is $160 / MWh, which is frankly ridiculous.

All of this points to the fault lines emerging in “baseload” power argument. Not only is “base” power a myth, but the agility of these big power generation units is practically nonexistent from conception through to decommission.

As Hinkley Point C, and Finland’s Olkiluoto construction debacles show, centralised nuclear power might be green, but it isn’t necessarily going to stand the test of time, economically.

Smart Advantage of Renewables

Technologies I have seen work, or worked with directly show us that agility is the biggest factor in any tech marketplace today.

And let’s not kid ourselves: energy delivery is now a technology field. This is particularly true of renewable energy, which eschews the old school sledgehammer approach to power generation, in favour of smarts.

Smart use of power, smart direction of power, are going to be the big players moving forward. It starts with domestic applications, such as Tesla Powerwall, and smart management to deliver benefits for the home owner.

 

Beyond serving one household, it has the potential (and in some ways, the obligation), to serve the wider community.

This is achieved by using the battery as a trading platform. Benefits abound for the network willing to engage with customers. Reduced overall costs and waste benefit everyone in the longer term.

This move toward smarter storage also helps address the business sector. The power needs there are large, and despite being mainly during the day, will not going to tolerate the intermittent fluctuations of solar PV and wind.

Storage using batteries is one leg of the argument, across a various range of chemical makeups. Energy storage like pumped hydro can also assist deliver stable power on a larger scale. The big one for Australia should probably be molten salt reactors, particularly for South Australia, which has suffered issues recently.

Certain industries have scope for change today. Heavy transport, and transport in general, is already under the microscope in nations like Sweden, where they seek further reduction in carbon emissions.

Electric Vehicles take carbon off our roads and out of the manufacturing process through a simpler template of construction. If you don’t believe that, think about the amount of metal required to build a drive train for a petrol engine, versus an EV’s battery & motors setup.

How do we address the remaining heavy industry players, and areas outside domestic power supply that aren’t easily converted to renewable technologies?

Scale Advantage of Renewables

Critics of renewable energy sources often derisively quote land area required for building large-scale generation. Regardless of whether its wind, solar PV, pumped hydro, molten salt, or another method, a “farm” for renewable power will take space, that is true.

solarnewb
Nyngan Solar farm, Australia. Credit: Solar Sunwerx

Renewable energy projects are much simpler to implement from an engineering point of view, compared to a nuclear reactor. They are also more flexible.

A nuclear plant, once scoped, has very little opportunity for changing the Quality Triangle. It also isn’t going to get much more efficient if you delay implementation, because the technology is largely static.

Manufacturing issue with your solar PV arrays? Let’s just get less panels for now. They’ll be cheaper later on, or more efficient, anyway.

Dispute over one of your wind turbines? Fine: proceed with the rest of the farm until the outcome is known.

These are two examples (there are more) where the scalability of renewable energy creates a huge advantage. The unit size of a wind turbine, or a solar array, is in no way limiting for people who know how to implement them.

Pumped hydro and molten salt reactors are similar to traditional power stations, in that their capacity is roughly determined at time of construction. The key difference is they are primarily storage, over and above being generation.

They don’t need to be on all the time, only engaged when other resources are running low, or as demand spikes. This is another advantage over “baseload” coal or nuclear, which cannot uplift to address demand spiking.

Only gas-fired stations have this ability at the moment. The surging price for gas, as well as its status as a fossil fuel, renders it a short-term option at best.

The Paradigm Shift

You cannot simply build a traditional network and throw more and more renewables at it until you reach a very high number.

Coal in Australia has been built to over-capacity, resulting in wasted capital expenditure, and poorly managed outcomes. Witness the issues South Australia has at the moment, because of short-term thinking around renewable energy integration.

We need “smart” implementation of renewable energy projects. Flexibility must remain a core tenet of implementing this intelligence.

As Evans-Pritchard covers in his article, there are many storage options in development across the world right now. We’re in a period of real transition where more options will blow the marketplace right open.

This requires the right thinking, to engage renewable sources on a far larger scale, holding hands with storage options of all kinds. Markets will shift rapidly. Consumer needs, particularly in the developing world, will have no need, and no money, for sledgehammer tactics like “baseload” power.

Projects designed for even 30-year life cycles will find themselves at risk of rejection. It will be simply uneconomical to support such inflexible systems.

With the right people at the wheel, concerns over our energy needs, and the perceived shortcomings of renewable energy, needn’t be a concern.

August 31, 2020

The Australian Greens – Election 2016

The Australian Federal Election has been called for the first weekend in July. Like all these political things, its bloody hard to escape. The big parties are making the usual noises, but could The Australian Greens sneak up on them with a solar-powered stick?

508662-ballot-box

One Bloke’s Perspective

I’ve don’t consider myself politically active. No time for student politics when you’re drinking at University. No set opinions on voting, except maybe putting the hard line religious parties dead last on any ballot paper, if they dare to show up in my electorate. Separation of church and state!

A firm belief that politicians get paid too much. That’s a point on which I’ve had many arguments. Australian politicians are among the best paid in the world, and have some ridiculously good retirement benefits.

Look, I’m quite sure parts of being a Member of Parliament suck, but there are parts of every job that suck. For that kind of money ($195K base + extras) I could put up with some crap – I already do for much less!

So I’ll stick my hand up and say that I’m opinionated, and probably naive in terms of deeper politics. But, as with art, I know what I like.

Australian Political Landscape

It has always seemed, to me at least, that the great irony of the political system in Australia is compulsory voting in a nation where, on average, people could care less about politics.

Yep, that’s right: you need to register to vote once you hit 18, and you can get fined if you don’t vote at either State or Federal level.

How I see two-party politics…

Oh sure, there are some dyed-in-the-wool supporters, who will unleash spittle at a rate of knots in support of their party. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows on election day; old dudes who look ready to go into cardiac arrest at a moment’s notice.

If you want a rundown on the major Australian political parties, go have a read here: the Liberal Party (conservatives) are in a Coalition with National Party (farmers) to form our present Federal Government. While they have their own little internal horse trading, the Coalition, as they are known, are fairly solid when it comes to opposing stuff from the other side, and pushing economic liberalism.

At the moment, the other side are the Australian Labor Party (progressives). In a similar vein to their opponents, they love nothing more than saying “Those guys bad! We good! Vote Us!” but politically are all about social democracy.

The fanatics of either side probably think everything is great when their lot are in power, and rubbish when they’re in opposition.

There other other parties, the most prominent of which is The Australian Greens (progressive environmentalists). However, they only hold a small number of seats, and along with some independents and minor parties, form the “conscience” of the Australian people on certain issues.

The influence of the Australian Greens is obviously limited in the bigger picture, but occasionally they’ll hold the balance of power in either house (upper house = Senate; lower house = House of Representatives) on specific issues, often forming a voting bloc with independents who haven’t already done a deal with a big party.

When you live on a continent with this much good weather, natural beauty, quality beer, and generally high standard of living, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Most people I know are of the belief that, regardless of who wins, there will be pros and cons, and its not worth getting worked up about.

The majority of Australians probably fit in the middle of politics, and will vote based on their conscience, guided in some cases by the media (who have their own agenda).

Combined with compulsory voting, and a hyped up news cycle feeding on social media, it makes Australia an interesting political minefield. This has resulted in some states recently suffering single-term governments for the first time in decades, as one notable fact.

It seems that people are just willing to throw out whoever is in power; parties don’t win elections, they lose them.

In turn, the major party politicians constantly play he-said/she-said in terms of trying to score points. Its quite tiresome when there are more important issues to address – things that affect all of us, and are largely being ignored.

The Biggest Issue

Across the world at the moment, the threats posed by environmental destruction, and ongoing threat of man-made global warming, are going to affect us all.

It is right there. People know it is right there. If you’ve been paying attention in the last 10 years, you know there is a lot of rubbish talked about how its not right there. It is one of those things that some people see as a threat to their way of life, or some kind of charlatan’s trick to cripple the economy, so they work to undermine it.

In Australia, we have such a very large investment in coal, across all of mining, export, and thermal power generation. There is even a campaign called “little black rock”, which I will not dignify with a link, which seeks to tell people how releasing carbon is awesome.

Australia has an abundance of bright sun and strong wind, as well as the emerging wave power we can generate. We have the highest level of rooftop solar PV penetration at around 1.5 million households. We have some of the best researchers in the world on Solar PV, and lots of space to build the necessary infrastructure, both domestic and industrial.

Renewable Energy – Why So Negative?

The Coalition government are definitely not keen on it. Under their leadership we’ve had wind farms called “visually awful” and cited other impacts, all of which have been long held in contempt by science.

article-7818-hero
One of my favourites – click image for story @ Independent Australia

They reduced the RET (Renewable Energy Target) and have had an ongoing campaign against change in the status quo, in order to protect their conservative interests in mining and export markets.

They have run the clippers over our peak scientific body, the CSIRO, valued here and internationally for scientific research and technology development. The move is ostensibly to move from “analysis” to “adaptation” of climate change, but when you look at the CV of their CEO, and hear some of the comments about his time in Silicon Valley, you have to wonder.

It won’t surprise anyone to note that the coal and energy lobbies pour money into the Liberal Party like water.

The opposition Labor Party (yes, that is the correct spelling) have also got a quandary on their hands, particularly as they seek to protect their traditional battleground of workers’ rights and family issues. They can’t simply shut coal off tomorrow, because it would leave a hell of a lot of wreckage on the social landscape of towns supported by coal.

Nevertheless, they have announced some targets, which are nice, but really could be more ambitious. Labor have strong ties to Unions, and the CFMEU (Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union) are a big player.

The gradual decline of mining has seen job cuts aplenty, and IMHO Labor need to work harder to convince people in the Unions that Australia can pivot into renewable energy.

Ironically, both the major political players are running the dusty political principles of “jobs and growth”, but aren’t really putting up alternatives to the status quo, despite Australia’s recent exit from manufacturing and the ongoing slide in the mining sector.

There is also a genuine fear of fundamental change, in part due to the historical allegiances the big parties have, and the unknown quantity of renewable energy in a nation historically riding on coal. The latter is understandable, as mining is what kept Australia bouyant during the GFC.

But, we’re at record low interest rates. Record high housing prices. Coal prices are falling, mining is shrinking. This isn’t 2008 any more and the government can’t just muddle through on the back of the mining giants.

Where is the next big wave coming from? When all signs point to a new revolution, neither of the big parties have used renewable energy as a pillar in this campaign, both as an environmental and economic winner.

The Australian Greens – The Little Engine That Might

At present, The Greens are under the leadership of Richard Di Natale, who has brought a kind of pragmatism from his Senate position in Victoria.

(c) The Australian Greens

It is unlikely they’ll win many seats, but the growing youth vote has seen them take several inner-city enclaves away from the big boys in the recent past at State and Federal level.

Along with disillusionment with the major parties, forthright leadership from Di Natale will assist the Greens wrest more of the vote away from the majors in years to come. Is this a good thing?

Perhaps, if for no other reason than getting the incumbents to change their thinking. More promising is the option to add a third voice to the decidedly binary view of Australian politics.

This change in rhetoric from the Australian Greens also dispels the myth that they are just a bunch of left-wing loonies, ready to bring down society and take us all back to peace-loving hippies with unrealistic expectations of love and peace. And kale … or something.

Renew Australia

Subtitled “Powering The New Economy”, the Australian Greens have released a document (PDF downloadable from that page), where they lay down the high-level principles behind fundamentally changing the energy economy, and several industries along with it.

Its worth a read, if for no other reason than to show that somebody is thinking about “jobs and growth” in terms that require a bit of a paradigm shift. The summary points are:

  • Ensure increases in energy efficiency
  • Get energy generation to 90% renewable by 2030
  • Establish a new authority to plan and drive the transition
  • Create a transition fund to assist coal workers and communities
  • Implement pollution standards to stage a gradual shut down of coal power stations in a suitable manner (dirtiest first)

All of these seem to be pretty reasonable, though I don’t doubt when some people read that – particularly those in the coal/energy industry – they’ll freak out a bit. And that’s OK, because change blows. We fear change.

The good news is, the Greens have released more detail about the transition process as it affects miners directly, as well as some dialogue on other policies via their website. Recognition of the issues facing people is not unexpected, as The Greens have a heavy emphasis on social equality.

Perhaps people still have this image of “Greenie” protesters who get all angry about people chopping down forests, or chaining themselves to mining equipment. Successive Greens administration have started to develop a more sophisticated approach to politicking, and it appears to be having an effect.

When I started this article, I’d planned a breakdown of the policy and the pros and cons of each bit. That would take a lot of words, and probably be a waste of time when you’re smart enough to figure out what the policy is about, by reading it yourself. So I’ll just look at one of the points above from a perspective close to my heart.

Energy Efficiency

When looking at how efficient the average Australian house is, people in Europe would be mildly shocked. The reasons why are probably more eye-opening, in terms of our building industry hitting the trough, and hard.

Overseas building industries started their push for better quality and efficiency decades ago. In Australia, labour costs are high and house prices surging, so adding extra cost is tough to accept. Consumer apathy is also a big factor, when you’ve got relatively cheap, abundant coal energy.

“Just turn on the Air Con!” is a pretty common statement. I’ve previously discussed the issues in my own house with ducted A/C (and associated muttering).

As a result, a lot of new housing in the last two decades is single-brick house with minimum ceiling insulation in the form of glasswool batts. If you wanted wall insulation, you’d pay extra in your new build in a lot of cases. Some didn’t even offer it, and I understand its extremely difficult to retrofit (i.e. ripping out internal walls)

We generally don’t do double/triple glazing, and just stick big reverse cycle air conditioners into new builds to cater for hot/cold days. No wonder we’re big electricity consumers!

People living in older weatherboard houses might as well be in a wooden tent. The farmhouse I grew up in had louvered windows and a big pitched roof, and yet somehow we got away without air conditioning in summer, and just a potbellied stove or combustion fire for winter.

Cold in Sydney right now – could really use one of these. AND, of course, the wine…

The great thing about seeking better efficiency, besides the obvious saving on heating/cooling requirements for the household, is the boost to the building industry in terms of jobs and growth (are you listening, major parties?). It also adds a layer of new requirements for retrofit options.

As new procedures and technologies are brought to bear, new opportunities crop up to establish service industries. This is especially important for people who might have skilled up in the practical arts of mining, and find themselves at a loose end.

A lot of people who went into mining got the training they needed, and can re-train to do something different in the building industry. Same for people no longer in car manufacturing after 2017. They’re smart people, and know the value of hard work. They need employment.

Better building practices can limit the upward growth of energy usage, as well as using the energy more intelligently. Along with home battery storage installed by companies like Natural Solar, smart control from Reposit Power, and better knowledge about how we use power, we can help limit the impact of change and minimise long-term costs.

The End Game for Coal

The Greens have put a shorter time limit on coal than the other political parties in Australia, recognising that this country has abundant natural resources for renewable energy generation.

They also acknowledge the practicalities of shutting down coal, and the social and financial cost in doing so.

However, their target of 90% renewables by 2030 leaves less than 15 years. In a political arena where The Greens won’t have the traction in Parliament to implement this kind of policy for at least the this Federal election, and probably the one after, you have to wonder where the impetus will come from.

With the falling price of solar PV, as well as the emergence of battery storage and the expected price drops there, I suspect we’ll see consumers have a big say in where the energy industry goes. The acceleration of uptake into battery storage, in particular, will force a rethink on network deployment and maintenance.

As I discussed in my last post, the Networks are interested in deeper consumer understanding.  They realise that working with the consumer on grid-connected battery storage is preferable to alienating them into off-grid battery storage.

The increase in domestic renewable generation will have a
knock-on effect to the domestic coal market for power generation.

External forces like the falling world coal price will apply pressure from the other end. Mining for coal will come under serious pressure, particularly if it requires more generous subsidies from the taxpayer.

We have existing oversupply on our current networks, which presents the opportunity to shut down the dirtiest power stations (looking at you, Hazelwood) in the shorter term.

The white knight for mining companies could be other resources, such as Lithium. The demand for lithium will only increase over the shorter term, as battery factories (like $11B facility planned by Volkswagen) ramp up production.

It almost seems like closing the circle: moving energy away from coal requires more lithium, which allows mining to move away from coal into lithium.

Or is that too good to be true?

I think  even with these factors considered, we’re still going to need one of the major parties to help the Greens get this type of initiative across the line before 2030. I wouldn’t be putting money on the incumbent Government to help if they get back in.

After all, you can’t spell Coalition without “Coal”.

August 7, 2020

CEC Guidelines for Battery Storage

It was with a gentle murmur that the Clean Energy Council (CEC) released its *deep breath* Install Guidelines for Accredited Installers – Grid-Connected Energy Systems With Battery Storage.

Editor’s Note: This post has now been edited for family appreciation. For those who wish to play Sweary Bear, replace any bold-underline-italicised words with whatever pleases you… 

It got a bit of coverage on Clean Energy Council but was otherwise under the radar, perhaps due to the relative nascence of these systems that will be both home- and grid-connected.

NCBI also covered the Case Of The Burning Battery reported in March, which should probably raise a few red flags in the industry about cowboy operators, more than anything.

growatt-1
That wasn’t supposed to happen… 

What I’m told by people on the ground is that the inverter caught fire, not the battery. Not that it matters once you’ve seen the way it was wired up (click on the article link), and where it was located (in a garage). You get a bit more of a feel for how it can go wrong, and why guidelines like this are important.

I’d never install battery storage in my garage because the door faces west, and the heat buildup when you park a car in there is what you might call sub-optimal. Throw in the fact that a lot of the battery storage units being imported are operationally rated to 40oC, and it paints a picture of best practice that most consumers should be able to understand understand.

I will point out the Powerwall is rated to operational temperatures up to 50oC, and then cease this smug digression.

As someone who has been enthusiastically engaging with various parties across the industry, as one of the initial Powerwall owners, I was keen to see how the CEC would tackle such a broad area.

There are a small number of systems in existence already that are completely bespoke, mostly in the sealed lead-acid domain (AGM etc). A number of these are off-grid, and therefore not subject to the guidelines.

In my opinion, the Guidelines have been prompted about the move towards consumer-grade equipment, targeting lithium in particular. It does talk about checking electrolyte levels “if applicable”, but these guidelines weren’t hurried about by AGM or flow batteries, that’s for sure.

Battery Storage Guidelines

After reviewing the document (click here for the PDF) the first time, I was particularly concerned by the general direction of the content.

And when I say “particularly concerned”, I mean “utterly livid”.

Page 17 contains the following (and you can see how raw this draft is, based on proofreading skills on par with my own):

That … kind of makes sense I guess. Looking at the options, and with the understanding my battery storage is mounted on the outside of the house, I’m going with “battery enclosure”.

That should be covered by the IP rated battery chassis and the weatherproof IP rated cover I’ve got, right? Right???

Uh…. What the deuce?

Maybe I need to count to ten, take a breath, and read further.

Maybe it isn’t just some nanny state bull dust gone mad, and that mitigation is in the detail.

Maybe we should skip ahead to Page 20 where we see this:

cec_pg20

I hasten to point out that both AS 62040.1.1 and AS 62040.1.2 are related to UPS. These storage systems aren’t actually UPS, so do we ignore that or not? And what constitutes “all in one” or the term “such as PCE and control gear”?

Back to Page 8 for more reading on definitions:

cec_pg08

Houston, we have a problem. Because we’ve got a lot of battery storage systems out there – and those being introduced – that do NOT meet this definition specifically, Powerwall included.

Some of the other manufacturers have this covered with a single box that I’m aware of, but in terms of outcasts, you’ve also just caged up units like Redflow and I believe Enphase while we’re here.

This is big trouble for manufacturers, who were trying to make batteries appealing using nice cabinets and cases. Now you’re going to need to consider specifications for caging the darn things up, like some kind of sad tiger in an Eastern Bloc concrete zoo, its nobility and grace forgotten.

Installers are going to be even more hesitant. Now all the wiring diagrams have to consider extra metal and framing (pretty good at conducting electricity I hear) as well as adding the cost and trouble to the install process, which will affect end users.

Going further back, into the section on 2 Scope we read:

cec_pg06

Again the (possibly incorrect) alignment with UPS standards, and the assumption that all-in-one systems contain everything, basically back to the panels.

Or does it?

But it also states that all-in-one had to contain the PCE, and reference it again on Page 9 under 3.1.5 Combined cabinet/enclosure the words “An enclosure containing both batteries and PCEs” but saying nothing about the inverter.

So which is it? If “all-in-one” different to “Combined cabinet/enclosure”, then why does the former need to contain the inverter but the latter contain only to the PCE hardware? Does that not automatically create overlap or confusion about where the document’s specifications sit?

Why aren’t inverters caged up or in a separate “battery room”? They’re just as dangerous as battery storage after all. We don’t have all those power switches and isolators for the fun of it – they are to keep the system safe to work on, and the people safe that work on them.

Are the “all-in-one” systems required to have suitable locks under the Australian Standards? Which AS document? This document doesn’t address physical locks required for these enclosures at all. If someone gets an enclosure, battery room, or fenced off area, is it OK to just leave it unlocked? The document doesn’t say. It does assume a lot, though.

My head is starting to hurt. I imagine a few industry insiders are looking sideways at this document, and wondering how they’re going to meet the bureaucratic mish-mash this could turn into.

Where Now?

I understand from speaking to a few people in the industry, that the CEC put this together in consultation with various stakeholders, and that its very raw. I think another round of reviews is required urgently, because this becomes a requirement, not a guideline, as of 1st October this year. Less than 5 months away.

No-one is putting a cage around my Powerwall. No-one is putting a safety sign on it, or near it, either.

The document makes multiple references to ensuring “unauthorised personnel” aren’t permitted access to the battery equipment, and that is a good point.

Rather than putting that on something as quaint as a sign, I’ll just use some common sense: if you’re on my property without my permission, you are unauthorised to be there, much less get close to my solar equipment or other possessions.

If you do not leave immediately, I will authorise my good friend, Mr Pickhandle, to assist you in any way we see fit.

July 31, 2020

Energy Networks Conference

This is a conference for Energy Networks Australia, whose members make up the industry responsible for building and maintaining the poles, wires, pipes, substations, and other media for distribution of electricity and gas services.

“Oh you mean those guys who send me the damn bills every month?!!”

Well, no. That is your retailer and its important to understand the difference. The AER (Australian Energy Regulator) website describes the distribution networks clearly:

Electricity and natural gas distributors own and maintain the distribution networks, including electricity powerlines and power poles, and natural gas pipelines that carry electricity and natural gas to houses and businesses.

Your retailer is the company with the relationship to you. The Distributor – usually referred to as the Network – is the company building and maintaining the hardware.

My electricity retailer is Diamond Energy. I have an agreement with them whereby I pay for electricity usage in my house, including an agreed price per kWh and daily connection, as well as my feed in tariff (FiT) for exporting solar power. If I have any questions over my billing or service, I go to Diamond.

Diamond Energy sell their product to me via a network owned and maintained by Endeavour Energy (the Network or Distributor), who are responsible to ensure the network is up and running. If there is an outage, Diamond talk to Endeavour about resolution, and feed information to me.

The Network is focused on a working system, and the Retailer is focused on a happy customer. Classic, two-layered B2B (Business To Business) situation, operating in parallel with a B2C (Business To Customer) relationship.

On to Energy Networks 2019

I decided it would be pretty cool to take a few days off work, and go see how the big end of town do things. Trains, planes, and automobiles later, I was in Adelaide.

OK,  its DISCLAIMER time: Yes, I was there as a guest of Reposit. No, I was not under any instructions to say certain things or do certain things. You can believe what you wish in that regard, and you probably will!

All I know is I’ve seen the technology at work, and it is good.

While wandering around the displays, I saw a lot of people who are high up in the industry domestically, such as CEOs and COOs and other positions with abbreviations starting in “C”.

There were also overseas players like Enphase CEO Paul Nahi, who was in town to get a look at the scene, and back up their announcements about working in Australia.

Our nation is gunning for a leading role in battery implementation, to go with its solar PV penetration rate. If only our governments would see this and pull their finger out …

Of course, a few ruffians were about the joint like Giles Parkinson and Finn Peacock, to report on proceedings and relay the vibe.

It was slightly unusual that Reposit were bringing a customer to see the Networks, without a Retailer necessarily being in the way. The reasons why are down to what Reposit is offering to all layers of the market.

An Important Step

Things just got real in light of an announcement made last week by SA Power Networks (SAPN), the Network Distributor for South Australia.

They will be engaging 100 households in a Residential Battery Storage Trial in the Salisbury area, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.

This is huge for customers, as they will benefit from installation of a subsidised system with either a Tesla Powerwall or Samsung ESS battery. Lower bills are practically guaranteed.

It gives the Network an unparalleled look at how battery technology can smooth peaks and troughs, and give them on-call resources in addition to existing generation. It may also help reduce network implementation and maintenance costs.

The smarts at the centre of systems installed? Reposit.

Bringing The Tech

That’s Dean Spaccavento, one of the founders of Reposit, being interviewed at the stand on Thursday. Good hustle!

In that shot, you can see a Macbook, which is running a live demonstration of the Reposit Marketplace application. This allowed networks to understand the capabilities Reposit from the back end, including the virtual power station concept.

The consumer end was demonstrated with a new iOS app, and as this involved dispatching power from my Powerwall, I made a couple of dollarydoos over the course of two days, which was a nice little bonus.

Together, the applications aptly demonstrated solving the problem for the network, and bringing the user into the circle of trust.

Along with a detailed rundown on how the Reposit Box makes decisions on behalf of the consumer, it provided a really good look at not only how the products work in theory, but how they were going to be applied for the SAPN trial. It is a very tasty thing to get a feel for it, while knowing a real-world scenario available for analysis over the coming months.

In addition to the Reposit team talking about technical aspects of the system, I personally fielded questions about where I sat as a consumer.

Understanding The Customer

For networks, the experience of battery users to date has tended toward those who want to get off the grid altogether, for two primary reasons:

The lifestyle consumer wishes to live in a location the grid can’t service today, typically in a rural area where land is cheaper. The capital cost of extending poles and wires can be prohibitive, so a battery system is often a better option, financially. At the same time, these people seek to build an efficient house, investing up front to ensure ongoing costs are minimal.

The combative consumer no longer wishes to pay for what they see as extortion from either the network, retailer, regulator, or government. Sometimes a combination of two or more. They tend to be older, cashed up, and technically minded. They’re ready to leave the grid at the drop of a hat, regardless of where they’re located.

In both cases, it is a very small percentage of households who can afford to take the option of off-grid living. Most of us don’t have money for enough batteries and solar panels to get us through a week of wet weather, and can’t even fathom being away from the safety of the grid.

Now, with the advent of smaller lithium storage tech, the networks and retailers are going to need to deal with a third type of consumer: the grid-connected battery user.

How to address this?

I suppose, after talking to a few people from the industry, some of whom alluded to specific service issues they were having in their backyard, the message I want to broadcast as a user is: don’t panic!

We Don’t Have Horns

A lot of us like having electricity that is reliable, safe, and affordable. While some might complain about their electricity bill, the fact is electricity still isn’t the biggest cost factor in a lot of households.

We’re not all about to up and leave the grid because Elon Musk mentioned it was a possibility. In a lot of cases, it still isn’t financially practical.

I spent a fair bit of money and solar + storage, and still have days where I run out of battery, or don’t fill it up. So I need the grid, because I don’t want to leave my family stranded. I also need fresh water connection and gas to cook with. This is all part of modern living.

What we want, as consumers, is to be treated fairly when it comes to giving you access to resources that we paid for. After all, it is what you expect in return for your resourcing of the grid.

Mistakes were made when it came to some of the early gross tariffs. Uptake of systems with a FiT of 40 cents / kWh or higher were higher than expected, probably due to poor planning.

That doesn’t mean the users contributing their exports outside those schemes should be given a rate approaching 50% of off-peak, either. It wasn’t our fault the government got a bit trigger-happy and / or gun shy about solar systems back in the 2000s.

Potential Solution

I don’t really have a problem with solar export being paid at rate smaller than the single-rate import tariff. And I realise a lynch mob will be after me for saying that.

It comes down to simple economics: as you can’t guarantee supply of solar from rooftop panels, you can’t expect to charge the same as a guaranteed supply from the grid. That said, 5c / kWh is bloody ordinary.

It might not matter for much longer, because batteries change this dynamic – I absolutely can guarantee the delivery of power from my battery.

It is stored, often idle, and usually ready to go during the day by 1PM, with about 6kWh to deliver outbound. Get hold of another 100-200 users with varying battery types, and that might be a Megawatt or more, to help you fill a hole.

Particularly with Reposit managing my usage, I’m confident that most days I’ll be available for you, provided I’m going to get fair recompense for use of my resources. After all, if you come to me, chances are its cheaper than going somewhere else.

I can see a point in the future where solar feed-in-tariffs are no longer used, because it will so be advantageous to own a battery and keep a steady stream of electrons moving through it, rather than from the panels. Retailers will run to this solution, and networks will benefit.

Its just a question of how the reward will be calculated.

Getting To Know You

The first step for any Network stepping into this brave new world might be a tighter relationship with Retailers, and disseminating information you have on where the industry is headed with batteries. In turn, they can share with you their experiences, and what they’re seeing out in customer land.

Together, you can get schemes like GridCredits moving, with early intervention to prevent another financial blowout like Gross Tariffs. Can’t leave these things to the government, based on experience so far.

Will you look to have a flat rate like Diamond Energy’s GridCredits 100 scheme? Can you leverage your existing market spot rate calculations to flow through to users or chip a little bit of profit off that? Those are big money questions that this IT guy doesn’t have answers to. Its a work-on for you and the rest of the industry.

It might even be that you need to provide information on the practical costs of peak demand to the consumer base, in order to give users a view that goes beyond a perception of simple greed.

Of course, there are some people you’ll never convince otherwise 🙂

You’re still unlikely to see mass defections from the grid, but as the price of batteries drops, certainly more people are going to investigate the outlay to do so.

Increase in batteries and PV is going to see a decrease in grid usage against projected growth, which is already softening on a per-capita basis. This might affect profitability, particularly where a network needs to be extended to reach a growing population.

power consumption
Power Consumption Per Capita in Australia Credit: Trading Economics 

One of the facets of SAPN’s trial is to look at mitigating network capital costs by using the network resource that is user batteries. I’d be paying close attention to that, particularly where you are responsible for remote networks that require backup diesel generators etc.

How To Engage Consumers?

This is the multi-billion dollar question. As you may have surmised, I’m quite engaged.

Since this whole Powerwall thing landed in my lap, I’ve made it almost my second job to know everything I can know about how to most efficiently use the resources I have.

The rest of your customer base are probably going to tail away from that in terms of knowledge, right down to those who don’t understand the difference between Network and Retailer. They need help.

There is a wealth of data there, in terms of human feedback, that you – and the Retailers – need a relationship with. It will serve you well in the long term.

I shall sign off by imagining myself back in a trendy bar in an Adelaide laneway, hoping everyone looks forward to this bright new battery future as much as I do.

July 24, 2020

Is Nuclear Power Glowing or Just Green?

An interesting conversation happened on twitter around 4 years ago, including a remark from Dr Karl Kruszelnicki in reference to nuclear power, in response to another tweeter.

The other tweeter is someone I’d run across recently when discussing the nuclear arena, so I decided to enter the discussion using my personal account.

Twitter has what I see as an advantage in the 140 character count, as people can’t waffle on, and therefore get to the point (supposedly). On the other hand, it is really hard to have a detailed, productive discussion.

In a previous discussion about nuclear with the same party, it started to get a little heated, then a third party joined in and the whole thing became a waste of time.

In these discussions, I tend to take a pretty neutral view, as I do with battery storage. Its important to have the conversations and have multiple viewpoints, because sometimes its enlightening, and sometimes it can change an open mind.

As one of my first points, I referenced an article on Renew Economy, which sought to dispel some myths about nuclear as a low-carbon option. A lot of this I had heard before, but the author, Mark Diesendorf, clearly put a lot of research into compiling the numbers for that article.

If you look at the comments on that article, there are a lot of people also fairly derisive of nuclear. That is probably not a surprise when the site is primarily focused on Renewable Energy, and I found myself nodding along to some of it.

Thing is, I’m not anti-nuclear power. Not at all. I’m a Sci-Fi fan and in a lot of that material, there are nuclear reactors involved. Some of them are even man-portable reactors designed to power awesome stuff like exoskeletal armour, mecha, or spacecraft.

But we’re not talking about some kind of Iron man style weaponry or interplanetary exploration that people take for granted. We’re talking about boring old this:

Kerncentrale_Doel_in_werking

No laser weapons or sexy, sexy aliens here, scifi fans… Credit: Wikipedia
The Basics of Nuclear Power

Similar to other thermal power stations like coal, we have a production facility generating heat, with turns water into steam and drives a turbine. This needs cooling towers to let the steam escape, and you can see a bunch of wires carrying the power away.

Where the nuclear power plant differs is that the fuel lasts longer. Rather than jamming coal in there regularly to keep the home fires burning, the uranium rods in the nuclear facility will last for years. Under a controlled nuclear reaction, the heat produced is what creates the steam to drive the turbines and crank out that sweet, sweet electricity.

And now you’ve probably just asked the question about how dangerous the radioactive material is, and you’re right. There are potential dangers in nuclear power that other power types don’t face.

The Wikipedia entry on the topic of nuclear power plants clearly outlines the dangers and controversies around nuclear power. I’ll let you read it there, but suffice to say nuclear power plants are large, complex bits of equipment. Humans are human. Accidents happen, if rarely.

Even when things are running well, and safety measures are stringent, you can have episodes like Fukushima, where Mother Nature had a hangover and tripped over the rug on her way to get more aspirin.

So, as far as places-to-avoid-human-error go, nuclear power plants are right up there. Throw in the production of weapons-grade radioactive material using nuclear power plants, and it looks a little scary.

Supporters will point out that there are nations around the world who use nuclear power like France (74%) quite happily, and other countries in Europe who have a high proportion of their electricity generated from nuclear power.  They’re also right – carefully managed, nuclear is a great source of low-carbon power.

I say “low-carbon” because you still need to dig stuff up out of the ground. That is also true of solar panels (silicon and metals), wind farms (steel) and any form of energy generation you like. Everything has a price until we learn how to run things on our own sense of self-satisfaction like this guy (Simpsons fans know where its at).

There are also some options for progress in the nuclear power in terms of better reactors, like the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). More efficient than traditional reactors, with less waste and fewer safety issues (including less weapons-grade material).

self satisfaction

Yet, there isn’t a single commercial IFR operating in the world, due to cost, and a few red flags about safety that might actually be red herrings. For now at least, the IFR is the pipe dream for nuclear proponents.

Back on topic: so, I had a twitter discussion about nuclear power in general, versus renewable energy specifically. I found it stimulating and somewhat enlightening, via some links that were shared.

My adversary stated quite clearly he wasn’t anti-renewables, instead believing that renewables can’t provide all the power required in growing economies, and would need help in the form of stable, low-carbon nuclear.

The discussion finished amicably, and I went and did a bit of reading about nuclear power, particularly in Europe. After all that, I thought it best to document what nuclear power means to me, and how it compares to the renewable options in the current climate.

I was particularly interested to explore how I felt about it here in Australia, after some time to think.

Ayres Rock, Australia: A Kangaroo warning road sign in the desert near Uluru

Ayres Rock, Australia: A Kangaroo warning road sign in the desert near Uluru

It doesn’t all look like this, BTW…         Credit: Fodors Travel
Nuclear Power Perspective

Let’s forget about the safety thing for a moment, and assume we’re pretty grouse at building and maintaining nuclear power plants. No worries, she’ll be right!

One of the primary drivers of change is economic. Fact.

People generally don’t stop doing a thing until another thing comes along that is better value for money, or at least drops into their available budget.

As a simple example, I remember when power windows were a luxury item on a car that I couldn’t afford. These days, not many production cars still have window winders – technology gets cheaper, more people adopt it, and it becomes commonplace.

Nuclear isn’t getting cheaper, at least not in terms of capital cost to establish. Nuclear power plants cost billions to set up, and with the recent accident at Fukushima, financiers are understandably nervous about pouring that sort of money in.

The European nuclear projects under construction are well over budget and running late. China is gearing up with more nuclear, but finance is never really a thing with them, and besides which they’re also sinking a whack of dosh into renewable energy development, while searching for answers to their fossil-fuel based pollution issues.

Once the nuclear plant comes online, it is actually a very cheap power source, but it still has to be subsidised heavily to pay interest on all those loans in the meantime, and over the lifetime of the facility.

In Australia, where the only reactor we have is for research and medical purposes, nuclear power has never really taken off for the reasons stated in that wiki link. This is another blow to the nuclear lobby, in that while we have oodles of “yellowcake” (uranium) in the ground, and space to build reactors, to do so is widely regarded as political suicide.

Mining of uranium in nature reserves and national parks, particularly areas under the guardianship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, is a move that most politicians won’t countenance.

Perhaps that is more emotional than scientific, but if we’re looking to a more habitable planet, maybe we want to stop killing trees and such. Even if the longer term benefit is wiping out fossil fuel usage, what are we saving in that scenario?

In addition, centralised Nuclear power still suffers the same costs as coal for delivery. Poles and wires, substations, links in a chain that is infrastructure and therefore requires maintenance.

You could address some of that by building more power stations of smaller capacity in the appropriate areas, but then the cost per kWh rises due to base capital cost to build. Smaller does not always mean cheaper on a unit level, and you’re still required to get infrastructure built for users to get the power.

I still haven’t exactly dismissed nuclear as an option, but when you’re talking about the political and financial hurdles it faces in Australia, it looks like a very difficult climb. In a lot of ways, nuclear power has missed the window in Australia, and its hard to see how it can catch up.

This is particularly true when we look at the potential for renewable energy.

Renewable Energy

The fact is, renewable energy is getting cheaper, and more widespread, every day. Critics roundly mock the subsidies needed to establish “free” energy, while failing to look at their own backyard, often strewn with coal that the taxpayer funds.

Politically, fossil fuels are used as a battleground for jobs – particularly the mining industry – though I often wonder how many of those jobs are funded by the taxpayer, as a percentage. The mining magnates seem to fluctuate between reaping massive profits, or crying poor and sticking their hand out. Nice work if you can get it.

974569-gina-rinehart
“Makes me money AND kills the environment – winning!” – (not) Gina Rinehart… Credit: Foxsports

In Australia, we’re seeing in increase of large scale solar farms, as well as wind farms. There is even some solar thermal around the place, while our wave power tech is getting noticed around the world.

Jeez we’ve got some smart units in this little nation.

So, with the price of solar panels dropping significantly as per Swanson’s Law, and other renewable energy efforts cranking up, we need to look ahead to the year 2020 in the shorter term, because the next step is just around the corner.

Storage has been given a shot in the arm with the announcement of Tesla Powerwall, and it has allowed many other players to stick their hand up and remind people they have battery systems, too.

The price of storage is also falling, and going to fall further. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that sits ready to launch in households across the world, not just Australia.

We’re best positioned to use it, because we have the sun, the high electricity prices, and the highest consumption of coal per capita in the world. Which is, quite frankly, awful. We need to have a look at ourselves…

We’ve got a population largely distributed along the coast, but also rural communities who struggle for services and maintenance of their power and communications networks, not to mention roads and transport infrastructure.

So its natural to start there, I reckon.

We already have people who live independent from the power grid, because they were faced with a location with no existing infrastructure. In some cases, the cost to run power would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, just for an individual home!

So we scale that up, like the moves to take suburbs or whole towns off the grid. This can also translate into backup power for towns at the end of the line, or in known trouble spots where natural hazards or aging equipment may cause issues.

The power sources can be any form of renewable energy, provided housing efficiency measures are put in place, along with battery storage of suitable size and chemistry. There will be teething issues, but these places stand to benefit the most in the shorter term.

The next step is to establish suburban micro-grids, using solar + storage in suburban areas, lowering the cost of infrastructure and maintenance longer term. Companies like Reposit Power are already looking into enabling this technology in Australia.

As an aside: I’m bemused that we don’t have a situation like San Francisco, where solar panels are now required by law on buildings 10 storeys or under.

With installers like Natural Solar getting into consumer-grade power storage for solar, this will snowball, and allow consumers to wrest back some of the control from the grid.

That is, of course, if “the grid” exists as more than a marginal concern for many users in these neighbourhoods of the future. The grid will likely become an enabler for local people to share a power community, all things going well. Perhaps even export their power if another grid needs it.

And traditional, centralised power? Delivering electricity from hundreds of kilometres away will have its place. For a time. In light of the adoption rates of storage, it cannot be otherwise.

However, in the wide brown land, with ample sunshine and inflated electricity pricing, it seems more likely that our independent streak will gradually wean us off big network power. As a primary feed, anyway.

Having a power station hundreds of kilometres away will seem ludicrous, when you can make your own right on your roof, or the guy down the street can do it for you.

The poles and wires of yesteryear will gradually be marginalised; a chorus line dancer grimacing out a smile, while the lead actors renewable energy and storage bow at the front of the stage.

Here in Australia, it probably won’t matter what is burning inside that power plant.

Coal is dying, while trying to take us all down with it.

Nuclear is the Delorean of our time – everyone knows its cool, and can do some great things. Its never going to appeal as a real option to more than its collection of fans, and with its inescapable history in Australia there for all to see, it won’t be able to get back to the future on current projections.

back-to-the-future-slice

You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to figure that out.

July 15, 2020

Energy Consumption – A Consumer Outlook

Though not generally a political type, some of the stories I am reading about the energy market give me pause for energy consumption into the future.

This seriousness will result in a mostly wordy bit of prose, quoting some people and websites more clever and studied than I, with no pictures (sorry).

The leadout story this week from my point of view was Giles Parkinson at Renew Economy, discussing the QLD regulator’s rejection of the increase to FiT (feed in tariff).

The findings of the QPC are not a surprise, given its past and current attitude to solar and the networks generally. It and other state-based regulators are criticised for seeking only to protect the interests of the incumbent network operators and gen-tailers.

There is even talk in the report of cuts to tariffs, rather than a holistic approach toward balancing energy consumption and transport patterns.

Those who consume energy can also produce it, after all. Clean power sold for energy consumption locally has a wide range of benefits, not the least of which is reduction in future infrastructure investment costs (which consumers will bear).

NEM annual consumption

When you also consider the health benefits of low-carbon energy, you start producing a compelling financial argument beyond comparing (green) apples with (carbon) apples.

Big economies like China and India could derail The Paris Agreement for the rest of us, if they continue as-is. The good news is, those countries are considering implications beyond cost-benefit of network and employment, on behalf of their growing populations as energy consumption increases.

It would be grossly unfair if the West denied these growing economies, particularly in the Third World, a chance to power their nations. The question is whether we let them continue with old technology, or help lead them with new, to the benefit of all.

If I may digress gleefully for a moment, another article from Giles at Renew Economy has some of the best quotes I’ve ever seen in regard to Base Load power, from the Chairman of Chinese State Grid Liu Zhenya:

… fundamental solution was to accelerate clean energy, with the aim of replacing coal and oil. … the only hurdle to overcome [for base load power] is ‘mindset’ … there’s no technical challenge at all.

When you consider he was addressing a group heavily invested in oil and gas, that is solid gold from Mr Liu.

And yet, here in Australia we have campaigns running like Little Black Rock which purports to fly in and save our way of life. That is in spite of coal tanking globally, putting several projects by local and foreign companies under threat.

Indian company Adani, who were due to develop the massively controversial Carmichael coal mine, are looking to shift their focus to renewables, as one example.

Which brings me to the next in a long line of great article quotes from Renew Economy, this time in relation to something a little closer to home.

AGL is now working with 68 households in Carrum Downs, Victoria, to get a better understanding of energy management technology, solar, and storage.  The trial is aimed at reshaping grid usage through smarter use of devices, as Jason Clark from AGL says:

“If peak demand can be reshaped through minor changes to customer behaviour, network companies may be able to delay or avoid major investment that would put upward pressure on energy prices, while maintaining the same levels of supply reliability,”

This is a very interesting move from a retailer, and parallels a development in my own little world.

A few weeks ago, a nice chap from Endeavour Energy called to see how the Powerwall was going. After some general enthusiasm from both parties, the point was reached: they wanted data about household energy consumption as it relates to storage. They wanted my help to prepare for their infrastructure planning.

I’m usually pretty wary of these things, and I know some would be tempted to laugh in their face and bid them good day.

Yet, I agreed, and expect my install to be joined by others.

It is important that the infrastructure companies understand what is coming from a planning and engineering point of view, first and foremost. This will hopefully give them insight into how to most efficiently build future networks.

Stop sniggering, you lot. I’m serious!

I accept that the electricity retailers, in particular, will try and jack prices up in response to decreased revenue from people going solar at an accelerated pace. However, at the same time, purchase cost for solar hybrid will drop through research, development, and most importantly competition.

The next logical step for the energy triumvirate (government, wholesalers, retailers) would probably be removal of subsidies for renewables. This creates an environment where solar is suddenly more expensive, and so people stay on the grid, and state-based energy consumption.

I would argue that removal of subsidies is inevitable as the cost dives, and the government starts looking at penny pinching (they’re not going near negative gearing for a while at least). The only question is timing. Will the consumer market make this move possible before the electricity Illuminati ask for it?

(wait – elecminati? Uh… nope… )

Overarching all this, home electricity storage is moving into the mainstream. Large companies like Samsung, Panasonic, and LG are on board after seeing what a host of smaller ventures could achieve.

A suite of electric cars will be coming onto the market over the next few years, from mainstream manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Daimler as well as the continued development from Tesla, the Model 3.

Regardless of the engineering shortcomings of Lithium batteries pointed out by some very clever people, this isn’t a science fair. With apologies to The Simpsons, you don’t win friends with a big steel box, full of lead-acid gel cells weighing 50kg each. Consumers won’t go there in numbers.

If they did, companies like AGL would have run consumer trials years ago. Endeavour Energy wouldn’t ring nerds like me to see if they could, pretty please, get some data out of my system. The game has changed. A sexy, compact lithium battery with enough media coverage has seen to that.

In the near future, the government will have angry energy retailers on one side, and big corporates on the other, both looking for profits.

The government will have to start thinking, and hard. Particularly as consumers are presented with more, and cheaper, options for managing consumption of their energy.

And, just quietly, a penchant for throwing out incumbent governments…

We may have some short-term pain as our present members of parliament flap their arms about renewable energy, complain about imaginary wind farm illnesses, and so on. They have lobby funding to protect, after all.

This year feels like its going to be massive for renewables in Australia, and across the world. All it needs is companies like AGL and Endeavour Energy to continue to reach out to customers. At the same time, we should be involved willingly, to ensure that we’re getting a say or at least know what is going on.

Meanwhile, all of us need to start putting pressure on governments to get with the program. Follow websites like Renew Economy and One Step Off The Grid to stay informed about the news, views, and general interest stories.

Look at your energy consumption. Check your power bills and see if there is something better out there for you. Educate yourself, and others, to make a difference.

May 27, 2020

Reducing Climate Change Risks

As scientific bodies continue to explore and model the effects of climate change, the technologists, disruptors, and entrepreneurs are seeking ways to combat it. The use of renewable power in the form of wind and solar is one of the key areas.

However, a valid criticism of renewable energy is stability: if the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow, solar and wind are in under-supply. If the sun DOES shine brightly and the wind picks up, the renewable energy grid produces oversupply.

This situation is prominent in the California “Duck Curve”. The belly of the duck is over-generation from solar, while the head of the duck is the consumption ramp for night-time domestic use.

chart

California Duck Curve showing oversupply / ramp requirement paradox (c) GTM

As domestic and commercial solar uptake increases across the world, there is a genuine risk to existing grids. Trying to address this issue alongside a mix of traditional power generation is difficult. Large, traditional generators cannot uplift generation, or halt it, at short notice.

I believe the natural solution is widespread adoption of storage technology.

Domestic storage will mature rapidly over the next 5 years, as household battery options become cheaper, due to vertical integration of the production process. This will be particularly true in established Western housing markets, particularly those dwellings with rooftop solar options.

It also enables the concept of virtual power plants for retailers to access power stored in domestic appliances. In the future, consumers will engage in peer-to-peer trading via blockchain and other smart technologies. The net result is to lower the need for a traditional “grid” and the associated maintenance for poles and wires.

Industrial storage will see positive disruption to hi-tech engineering solutions, using renewable generation. Efficiency has a large role to play here, as innovation across multiple sectors leads to better production engineering.

The volatility of frequency required for running many heavy industries can be offset with larger scale storage. These battery systems act like a buffer, or regulator, in order to provide assurance of stability. Large storage can also be deployed by energy networks in order to back up local power infrastructure.

Transport storage is a key area for addressing carbon emissions. While cars are the major playground for this technology right now, the move to heavy transport, agriculture, and public transport offers a range of other benefits.

I call it “Transport storage” because it offers more than just a way to move people or goods from one place to another. There is the opportunity to place domestic, industrial, and transport storage in synch, to produce a more efficient outcome for renewable energy.

Consider the California Duck Curve I mentioned before. This is the result of “too much of a good thing” when we have an over-abundance of solar PV! What if there was a way to mitigate this?

The average shopping mall in most countries has a roof space in the hundreds of square metres. They also contain hundreds, if not thousands, of car spaces.

If we add solar panels on that roof space, and storage in the basement, we can effectively create a curve smoothing apparatus by plugging in a suitable number of EVs during daylight hours. A similar system could be used by places of work for the benefit of employees.

Such a system would draw not only from the local (mall rooftop) power, but also spill excess renewable energy into recharging the transport network in other places. This might take the form of powering connected public transport – like electric buses or trains – on site, or via the grid.

All the while, this large-scale storage and renewable generation helps flatten the belly of the duck during the day. When people return to their homes at night, they can cut the head off the duck using their domestic storage.

Storage, along with the associated smart management technologies, provides the cornerstone for a renewable energy future. The combination of increased efficiency, and reduction of fossil fuel burning, is undeniable.