IT’S ALL GOOD FUN UNTIL SOMEBODY GETS HURT. Possible pitfalls of a Renewable Energy future.
Once a month, me and a mate get together and talk solar power – for hours. Occasionally, sport, family, food, fishing or some other distraction gets in the way but generally, it’s a cavalcade of photo voltaic thought bubbles. Sometimes I look at us once removed and marvel how two seemingly normal blokes from creative backgrounds, no engineering degrees here, can be so…captivated by a bunch of electrons whizzing around the Aussie Grid. Perhaps it’s because so much is going on in energy that one can’t help but be entranced. Perhaps it’s because the very disruptive nature of the renewable energy revolution appeals to our senses of rebellion. Whatever the reasons, we bounce stuff back and forth, collectively sifting the soil, hoping for a nugget, an answer, some insight. Half the time, we shrug, shake hands and say “Waddayoudo, uh?” and go our separate ways. Sometimes we actually get stuff done. Yesterday we speculated on possible day to day, real world, and yes, political possibilities of a future fuelled principally by renewable energy.
It’s often been said the renewable energy ‘Genie is out of the bottle’. Great, but this Genie is a self-spawning unpredictable creature, bringing forth myriad offspring, some to take root, grow strong and prosper, others to wither and die. And this is probably why my mate and I are so fascinated, the Genie is in full flight- dozens of ideas, concepts, what-ifs, trials, speculations, predictions, inventions, tools, software, hardware, monitors, entrepreneurs, evangelists, even policies are being created it’s impossible to keep up. Some will work, some will wither and die.
With this in mind, we tried to imagine a couple of these situations actually becoming mainstream and an everyday part of the energy market of tomorrow. We are well aware bigger brains than ours have already unpicked, unpacked and repacked most scenarios, but this column is simply an exercise in thinking aloud, like an everyperson not in the solar game, talking rubbish over a beer. Please don’t hold either of us accountable for our own stupidness.
Virtual Power Plants (VPP’s): This is a snappy term for many solar systems on many roofs collectively generating or producing a large amount of solar power. For example, a 5kW system will, on average, generate 20kW of electricity per day. 100 of these 5kW systems will generate, you guessed it, 2000kW and so on and so forth until we get to a model recently flagged by the now derelict South Australian Labour government of 50,000 houses with 5kW systems on roofs collectively generating a lot of ‘dispatchable’ solar power. A 250 Megawatt virtual power plant. The reasoning behind this residential VPP is if the grid needs power in a hurry, like if a heatwave is coming tomorrow, it can tap into what the VPP is producing (dispatchable), stabilise the grid, emergency over, no blackout. We have questions: Who decides where and when and to whom the power goes? The Government? If it’s my roof and my system, isn’t it my power? What if I want to keep it for myself? If I signed into a VPP, can I get out? If I’m paid for the power I export, is it enough to offset the inconvenience of now not having enough juice for my own needs? Do I really want to be a part of ‘the greater good’ and a contributor to grid stability? Isn’t that someone else’s job? Do I want the power produced by my own personal-paid-for-by-me solar system and on my own personal paid-for-by-me house controlled by a government body?
Peer to Peer Power Sharing: Again, cute term. Gaining traction at the trial/experimental stages in several territories across Australia. PowerLedger is one software development firm who are playing in this space to determine if the model has legs. Naturally, they say it does, but I’m not so sure. The idea is you can sell your excess solar power to your neighbour for prices higher than if you sold it to a power retailer (Feed in Tariff). In the early days (3 years ago) when I first heard of this model, I thought here’s the answer to apartment dwellers getting cheaper solar energy. But there’s a couple of potential issues I think may arise if this model goes mainstream. When the distribution companies (who you have to pay to transport your power) put their prices up, will your neighbour appreciate you putting your prices up? Will you have to issue a press release? You’ll still need a retailer. What will their prices look like once it’s established you have a handy little side line income stream? What about disputes? There could be some serious arguments over the back fence. Also, because the model uses blockchain technology, you become responsible for the enormous amount of computational energy required for that technology to administer each and every transaction-effectively negating any carbon emission reductions your feel good local power sharing service has created.
I guess the bottom line my mate and I tossing around is this: As individuals take control over their own power needs by installing their own power plants on their roofs, as individuals wrestle control of their energy needs away from the traditional providers, as individuals begin to feel empowered and self-managing, extreme care must be taken to not hand over that self-empowerment to government agencies or software firms, or both. From my point of view, the paradox of not having control of the electricity that you have created, but be at the mercy of…the market would be a galling prospect.