From the Climate Spectator
Five reasons disconnecting ain’t so dumb
Tosh Szatow & Damien Moyse
*This is the second part of a two-part series. The first part – When will people unplug? – was published Friday.
In part one of our series, we outlined findings from research released in January by the clean energy social enterprise Energy for the People and the not-for-profit Alternative Technology Association. Entitled What Happens When We Un-Plug: Exploring the Consumer and Market Implications of Viable Off-Grid Energy Supply, the research found that many Victorians could unplug from the grid by 2020 – using stand-alone power systems combining the use of solar power and battery storage technologies.
Here, we offer our take on the common arguments for why unplugging from the grid is a dumb idea.
Unplugging is dumb 1: The grid is there, it’s cheap back-up so we should use it
Yes, the grid is there. But when digital cameras were invented, we didn’t strap them onto landline phones and call it innovation. Apple integrated them into smartphones and gave us ‘apps’. The rest is analogue history. The key question is – what’s the best way to give customer’s what they want? If it’s cheaper to deliver clean, reliable energy with stand-alone power infrastructure, staying connected to the grid is simply nostalgic.
The fear that we will make large chunks of the existing grid redundant is legitimate. But customers and taxpayers should not be held ransom over the inefficient investment decisions made by others. The sooner we can re-purpose, or move on from inefficient assets, the better.
Unplugging is dumb 2: Big is better – centralised systems are more efficient
Big centralised systems are often efficient, but they are also cumbersome. Like the Titanic, it is hard to turn them around when the need is urgent.
The study of complex systems reveals that over time, a mix of efficient organisation and decentralised adaptability is required for systems to stay viable (see figure 1, page 7 and figure 2, page 8 in this publicly available paper for an overview). Research suggests that if in doubt, we need to lean towards system adaptability.
System redundancy is great in times of change as it makes time and space for productive innovation, and the potential to avoid catastrophic breakdown of existing systems. The Titanic was an amazing feat of engineering for its time, but the lack of rapid response systems in the face of a threat had tragic consequences.
Unplugging is dumb 3: Communities won’t know how to run the grid
Communities won’t have to manage their own grid, they can buy these services in an open market. Communities, or whoever takes on ownership of stand-alone power infrastructure, will simply need systems for governance in place to ensure coherent, quality management. Day-to-day services will be the domain of professionals – linesman, solar maintenance crews, battery management providers and energy auditors, will be paid appropriately for their expertise.
The key is once ownership resides with people who are only motivated by customer outcomes, and not by optimising historical assets, new possibilities for design and operation of power infrastructure becomes available including the integration of energy efficiency and smart demand management services to minimise customer costs.
Unplugging is dumb 4: The sun doesn’t shine all year round
Indeed. It is worth remembering the history of the energy market. We created baseload energy demand because ramping coal-fired generators up and down in response to demand fluctuations was inefficient. Not only can we now store energy simply and reliably, we have techniques for managing the timing of critical energy loads – space heating, cooling and water heating.
Generating and storing solar powered energy, shifting energy loads to suit the timing of energy supply and improving the efficiency of energy use is all possible in a new energy market reality. Indeed, a shift to stand-alone power infrastructure creates a powerful incentive to optimise the energy supply chain, from generation to end-use. Of course, when worse come to worse, 10 days of a back-up generator is a pretty good plan B.
Unplugging is dumb 5: But coal, wind and bio-energy are all cheaper than solar PV – and solar thermal will be, too?
Generating electricity is a funny thing, it only has value if it can be used by someone for something useful. The long lines that connect generation assets to customers are interdependent. So while the generation cost of coal, wind, bio-energy or solar thermal, once its potential is realised, is often lower than solar PV, when solar PV is coupled with storage in a stand-alone power infrastructure model, it provides cheaper energy to customers than a big grid solution. In the right location, there is likely to be a role for bio-energy, but nothing quite has the modularity of solar PV and its cost-competitiveness at a small scale.
If customers are happy to live adjacent to coal-fired power stations, wind farms or solar thermal plants, electricity transportation costs can be minimised. But who would choose that? Unobtrusive, silent, reliable solar panels on rooftops have inherent advantages well-suited to being integrated as part of self-sufficient local power infrastructure.
A final thought
The shift to stand-alone power infrastructure, if made, would be a deliberate choice. People may preference micro-grids, with the potential for self-sufficiency, in response to grid outages but remain connected to the grid for back-up, day-to-day. But in the long run, economic fundamentals become compelling. If the cost of a big grid connection for back-up can’t be justified, then the role of the big grid for back-up will be increasingly challenged.
The grid looks cheap now, but that’s because almost all of us share its cost. The utility death spiral hypothesis highlights how the economics of the grid as back-up are eroded as customers choose to generate their own energy, store it or use it more efficiently.
A proactive exit from big grid assets, selling to new businesses that can run them profitably, might just be the panacea for the utility death spiral and the investment risks it entails.
Tosh Szatow is co-founder and director at Energy for the People. Damien Moyse is projects and policy manager at the Alternative Technology Association.Leave a reply →