When Paul Graham was busy writing a report on the future of Australia’s electricity sector, a salutary reminder of the rapid progress of technology landed in his letterbox.
In the mail for the chief economist of the CSIRO’s energy flagship was an advertising leaflet spruiking batteries on the market for solar photovoltaic panels. These are the game-changers in the scenarios he was trying to map out.
"Every now and then, you think you’re doing something futuristic and then things happen faster than you think,” Dr Graham said.
His task at the time was to assess the complex and unprecedented issues confronting the industry, from slumping power demand to the need to slash climate changing greenhouse gas emissions
From the roofs of 1.3 million Australian homes – with about 50,000 added in the first three months of this year – PV panels are already hurting baseload fossil-fuel generators by flattening the peak demand periods that used to deliver windfall profits.
The real disruption, though, will come if batteries linked to solar PV and other renewable energy sources such as wind become affordable.
“The whole system is built on the fact that you can’t store energy,” Dr Graham said. “If electrical storage could actually become a reality that really turns the whole system on its head.”
“If you’ve got that, (consumers) can potentially disconnect from the grid.”
“This is such a game-changer we didn’t want to be too optimistic,” he said. So the advertising leaflet took him by surprise.
With electricity prices roughly doubling in the past five years – mostly due to a $40 billion splurge on new poles and wires – utilities are about as popular with consumers as the big banks and used-car sellers. With gas prices about to soar at a similar rate as the Australian price rises to global levels amid the LNG export boom, the urge to exit the energy grids will only grow.
Don’t pull the plug just yet, said Damien Moyse, research director at the Alternative Technology Association.
“You have to pay $15,000 to $20,000 now for batteries” that would enable most families to exit the grid,” Moyse said, so making the move economic “is a fair way off at the moment”.
Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, though, plan to bring that day a lot closer. The US billionaire is close to picking a location for a $US5 billion ($5.4 billion) “gigafactory” to mass produce batteries for his Tesla electric cars, aiming to drive down costs by 30 per cent.
“Storage is where PV was five or 10 years ago,” Tom Werner, SunPower’s chief executive said during his first visit to Australia this week. “Consumers will go from being essentially passive to having total control of your energy bill within five to 10 years.”
SunPower, which last month joined Google to lease out PV to about 18,000 US households, will soon start a pilot in Australia to finance PV and storage with plans to broaden the offering “in a small number of years”, Werner said.
However, big incumbent generators, such as Origin Energy and EnergyAustralia, have made it clear they plan to resist further erosion of their business models.
The big incumbents, though, have been largely silent while the Abbott government conducts another review of the Renewable Energy Target less than two years after the independent Climate Change Authority (which the government wants to axe) found no cause to alter the goals.
The target includes a 41,000 gigawatt-hour target for large-scale renewable energy, which if achieved, is likely to well exceed the original 20 per cent share of total supply because demand is falling short of overly optimistic projections.
The clean energy industry fears the review panel, led by businessman and climate change sceptic Dick Warburton, will recommend the target be delayed or cut.
For the solar PV industry, though, the worry is the hammer will fall hardest on the small-scale renewable energy scheme that gives an upfront credit for up to 15 years on power their panels will produce.
Ric Brazzale, president of industry group REC Agents Association, said the sale of the small-scale technology certificates brought the cost of a typical 3.5-kilowatt capacity PV panel down about a third from $9500 to $7000.
“People are very concerned about the future of the (solar PV) support,” said John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Council.
The industry is on course to install 800 megawatts of PV this year, nudging the total towards 4 gigawatts, a rate that would probably halve next year without the aid, Grimes said.
Technology advances, though, will eventually catch up with incumbents. The CSIRO unit has moved on, and among other things, is working on flexible “organic” solar cells.
“They can be less efficient (than silicon-based PV) but they can be more ubiquitous,” Dr Graham said. “It’s the whole roof, not just what you have to attach to it.”
Doing your homework is key to saving big bucks on energy bills
It is understandable that cold callers who interrupt dinner with supposedly unbeatable offers to switch energy retailers or buy solar PV panels usually get short shrift.
If you want to cut power costs, though, Alan Pears has a few tips. As you would expect from an RMIT lecturer who has also spent a career promoting energy efficiency, he says homework is essential.
That means not just looking at past power bills when calculating PV payback periods as new appliances often use vastly less energy.
PV owners usually pay high electricity prices in the evenings, after PV output declines. So a focus on saving energy then makes good sense. Lights, TVs, computers, cooking and air-conditioners, and that old fridge in the garage are key targets.
Energy star ratings can help savvy appliance shoppers, even if governments do little to explain how they work.
A customer, for instance, might be steered towards buying a large air-conditioner with a rating of three to four stars when a smaller seven-star unit might suffice especially if combined with some insulation and shading.
Similarly, new heat-pump clothes driers could reach eight stars and end up cheaper than the one-three star offerings selling for under $500, Pears said.
Interestingly, as gas prices are expected to double in coming years, switching from electricity to gas for cooking and hot water has become less of a good idea.
Pears says his testing of a portable electric induction cooktop bought for $105 suggests a superior performance over a gas alternative, including lower greenhouse gas emissions “even using Victorian electricity” sourced from emission-intensive brown coal.
Tumbling PV prices and smart appliances mean dropping off the grid is also within reach even with current battery technology.
“You can go off-grid for the same cost as renovating your bathroom or your kitchen,” Pears said.
This is article is sourced from The Sydney Morning Herald.