Government, renewables and exercising choice.

This is a summary of a talk I gave at Meridian Conversations a couple of weeks ago. But, now I’m sober and have the internet, so this version will be a bit better researched.

More than anything, it’s about how to tell Government what you want and the most effective means of giving them that message, with a focus on electricity generation, which I know a thing or 2 about.


I’m starting from the view point that the IPCC know what they are talking about; that humans are wrecking the climate by burning fossil fuels and changing the composition of the atmosphere. Also, the best way to fix this is to stop this pollution as quickly as possible and with the most lasting changes. If you disagree with any of that, this post won’t make a scrap of sense to you and you’ll probably be happier here.

The lowest hanging fruit for Australia is to change our electricity generation. Page 6 of this pdf shows why pretty dramatically. Check out the growth in emissions from stationary electricity generation.

The other assumption is that we will, eventually, do the energy efficiency projects we should have done 15 years ago. The big ticket items here are domestic solar hot water and more residential insulation. Despite what the media have told you, insulating houses is a bloody good idea.

I’m a huge advocate for energy efficiency (EE), but there’s probably only 5-10% of energy use to be trimmed with EE measures. This means electricity demand will continue to grow, as forecast by just about everyone. Note here that growth in electricity is not necessarily a bad thing; moving to electric vehicles will lead to a reduction in emissions, but an increase in electricity use.

So, to reduce emissions, we need to change the generation mix.

Signals to Government

The next question is then how do we tell Government that we think changing where our electricity comes from is important?

Given that Australia is something of a democracy, the traditional signal to government is your vote. I’m not going to tell you how to spend yours, but if you think that changing the way electricity is generated in Australia is important, the only major party with a policy that will address this before 2013 is the Greens. It’s your call.

Beyond Voting – Greenpower

The other thing that Government really listens to, and the only option available between elections, is money.

Firstly, there’s Greenpower, a voluntary scheme where electricity users pay more for their power to ensure it comes from renewable energy sources. The accounting behind this is a bit complex, so I’ll separate it out into another post on how the electricity grid works, but it’s a very robust scheme and well auditted. I’ve worked as an engineer completing the certification for a newly comissioned renewable generator and it’s an incredibly rigorous process. As with buying free-range eggs, paying for Greenpower shows that you are prepared to pay more for a product with no direct benefits to the consumer and that the ethics of the upstream production of that product is important to you.

If we had all signed onto it 10 years ago we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

Feed In Tarriffs and Rebates

Now it gets complex. The rules around domestic rebates and feed-in tariffs (FITs) have changed a lot recently and FIT’s vary from state to state.

However, the mechanisms are all roughly the same; governments subsidise some aspect of renewable energy technology through either grants for the initial capital or inflated returns on the commodities associated with renewables (renewable energy certificates, RECs. Again, in another post).

In terms of most efficient means for connecting renewable energy capacity to the grid this is widely regarded as an extremely expensive mechanism.

The numbers above are from Wikipedia, but are roughly in line with figures I’ve seen elsewhere.

The problem with ‘distributed renewables’ (effectively solar panels on houses) is the old ‘economies of scale’ chestnut.

Most energy machinery works better the bigger it is. Big pumps are far more efficient than little ones. Same goes for inverters, turbines, transformers… all the little bits and pieces that make energy generation and transmission infrastructure. Distributed generation means that rather than one enormous central generator and the associated efficiency gains (and some losses from transmission, but they’re small) every house has a small, inefficient electricity generator (solar panels). Worse, because householders aren’t really electricity generators by trade, over time inverters fail and panels get dirty. Their effectiveness overall will be reduced. As a taxpayer, there is some cause for mild outrage at this inefficient spending, but, rejoice in the powerful chance you are provided to put your money and ideals where your mouth is. Something like that anyway.

But, this mechanism, flawed or otherwise, gives concerned punters a way of showing their commitment to the cause. Government feeling squeamish about large scale renewable generation? Fine, I’ll put one on my roof.

There is also the small chance that this increase in what is effectively demand-side generation will do some freaky things to the grid. Imagine an affluent suburb (not effluent) where every roof has solar panels. Let’s imagine it’s the middle of summer and all the rich people are on holidays. It’s a cloudy day, so nothing is generating, but all the houses still have their small domestic loads ticking over; fridges, alarm clocks, standby lights. But, then the sun comes out, and what was previously a small demand at the substation suddenly becomes a much larger supply. What happens then? How does a network operator manage something like that? I’m an energy engineer and I’ve got no idea. I doubt it’s a good thing though.

There are other benefits though, difficult to quantify benefits. Getting panels on roofs (rooves?) puts renewable energy and associated issues in the public sphere and people start talking. Solar panels become a status symbol; green cred becomes a competition. FITs have the potential to make home owners more conscious of their energy use, but this is slightly negated by the preference for gross, rather than net, tarrif calculation.

Summarising? Surely soon.

The unifying theme here is to detail your options and the possible ramifications of exercising them. You’ve probably gathered that I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on this stuff, but as much as possible I don’t want to push them on you; the logic should stand on its own and you’ll reach your own decision in good time.

As always, questions, comments, happily accepted below.



About evcricket

Extreme gardener, engineer and bird nerd.
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8 Responses to Government, renewables and exercising choice.

  1. My issue with greenpower has always been mistrust of the market element of it, combined with the fact that here in Albury the nearest generation is the Snowy Hydro scheme, meaning we get renewable energy by default. It seems to me that signing up for greenpower would pretty much mean paying more for the same thing.

    I agree that small scale solar is an expensive way of getting more renewables into the mix, but hopefully that will lead to governments looking to subsidise larger renewable projects as a way to make their renewables spend go further.

    • evcricket says:

      There’s a few issues here Dave that will be cleared up in P2 of the electricity series, so thanks for the reminder. In brief though;

      1. Greenpower is not a market. It’s a straight subscription. The market is the trading of certificates used to measure renewable power. Again, more in P2+3.
      2. Popular misconception, but location makes NO difference as to whether or not you’re getting renewable power. It’s all in the accounting in the background. The Snowies have struggled for output in recent years, low rainfall and the fires filled the dams with silt, so you’re more likely on the Victorian pool average, which is the highest CO2 per kWh in the Country. Brown coal, is no good.
      3. People much smarter than me would argue (Garnaut, Wilkins) that Government should not subsidise renewables at all. There should be a price on carbon, let the market sort it out. Again, more in later parts.


  2. Peter says:

    There’s been some talk in the US of using plug-in electric vehicles as a kind of distributed battery to flatten out spikes in supply. The idea goes something like this:
    1. first thing in the morning commuters drain their hybrid vehicle batteries while driving to work.
    2. once at work they plug their vehicles in to recharge (which is highly distributed)
    3. peaky distributed power sources (solar specifically, but also potentially wind) charge “local” vehicles during the day
    4. commuters drive home, discharging their batteries once again
    5. vehicles are plugged into the grid and charge as needed from the grid (which obviously excludes solar, but would include wind and traditional energy sources)
    6. ???
    7. PROFIT!!

    (steps 6 and 7 may be uniquely seppo, not sure…)

    What’s the status of plug-in electric vehicles in Oz?

    • evcricket says:

      Coincidentally, they’re about to run an electric vehicle ‘trial’? ‘program?’ in canberra. Will be plug in Mitsubishi MIEVs I’m pretty sure. The trouble with this sort of thing is the control necessary to make it happen. How do you tell all the batteries that it’stime to start charging? In the old days, with off peak hot water, there is a signal sent down the line that switches all the meters on, so it’s likely to be something like that.

      I also wish they would start designing electric cars from the ground up, rather than making a normal car electric. All I want is something that can seat 2 people and carry 100kg worth of groceries. I don’t need airbags, impact protection, ABS, air-con etc… but that’s what we get. So rather than a vehicle that weighs 400kg, we end up with one much closer to a tonne. There’s some funky concepts around, but I;m not sure of their road worthy status.

  3. ellymc says:

    Thanks Ev! How kind of you! I’m going to read this again because I am not very good with science and maths so I will need to go through it a few times. And I’ve recently started teaching myself economics, and my brain can only expand so far at a time. Bus essentially, my question is, have we ruin the planet by installing solar panels on our roof?

    • evcricket says:

      Short answer is you have definitely not destroyed the planet. It’s just that there are more efficient means of achieving the same aim. Hard to do though until Guvmint gets fully on board.

  4. Kat says:

    I saw a talk last night which was a wrap-up of the recent Intersolar trade conference, which is a massive affair held in Germany annually. One product mentioned was a device which provides 2 min of storage for grid-connect PV, which allows it to smooth out the kind of supply spike you mention. I assume it’s integrated into the inverter, but not sure. Great idea. I think also CSIRO are working on stuff like synchronising compressor cycling of fridges and aircons with PV production to smooth out spikes, etc etc and so forth. With a ‘smart grid’ approach (buzzword yes I know), there are far more opportunities than there are hurdles. I like smart stuff.

    • evcricket says:

      That is interesting Kat.

      Also, totally with you on the #SmartGrid stuff. I went close to a PhD proposal for some high-level renewables linkages; flow on from Sydney Water work. Linking intermittent processes with intermittent energy supply. At SW, you’ve got 24 hours to fill a reservoir; and it only takes 3 hours to fill it. So, there’s the possibility of only pumping when the wind blows.

      It’s part of the reason why I’m so behind the NBN. That level of control infrastructure is going to open some REALLY interesting doors for us in network management.


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