Welcome to my second ecological engineering blog post! In my blogging debut I discussed Innovation Inspired by Nature, for Nature, a post about using biomimicry to enhance renewable energy generation and to change our mindset regarding carbon dioxide. This installment continues my renewable energy theme, with the purpose of building a business case for not only a project, but a total revamp of the way we look at sustainable power generation and distribution. It’s about how I picture our energy system when I try to imagine the future and why we as individuals need to make the right choices to get there faster today. Welcome to Power from the People.
Some Natural Inspiration
Before I get down to business (case) I’d like to make reference to a topic that I strongly believe in (see my blog address) and one that offered inspiration for the following business case; biomimicry. Picture nature. All of its plants and animals are energy-consuming entities. One thing they all have in common is that they all create energy independently. Sure, plants and animals eat each other for energy, hell, some plants eat animals, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about how the energy produced by each plant or animal is used by the plant or animal. When I eat a meal, I get the energy, not my neighbour. Plants create their energy independent of other plants; they use their own leaves to photosynthesise the energy they need to survive, nothing more, nothing less. Efficiency. Have you ever seen a huge tree covered in leaves, soaking up the sun’s rays? Of course. But do you see a vast, complex network of roots transmitting these photosynthesised products to thousands of smaller, leaf-less plants, incapable of generating their own energy? Never. Why would nature want to cut its yields with transmission losses? So why do we?
The Problem: Centralised Power
‘Centralised’ power generation refers to the large-scale generation of electricity at centralised facilities a.k.a power plants. In Australia and around the world, our energy industry has stagnated. Here’s a quote from an energy industry expert:
“Our whole [energy] industry is ancient. There’s no other industry that’s stagnated as long as the energy industry. We’re still looking at 80 year-old or 50-year old coal-fired facilities that are connected to 80 year old transmission lines that are located 200 kilometers plus away from the user” – Anouk Kendall (Executive Director, World Alliance for Decentralised Energy, Canada)
Sure, power generation began centralised. But the fact that it has remained dominantly this way for so long, despite how society has evolved, is a cause for concern. Most of our centralised generation facilities are either coal or gas power plants, but wind farms and other renewable sources also fall into the same category (though have much fewer cons). These power plants are usually located far away from where we need the electricity, such as our homes and cities. This, in combination with society’s ever-increasing demand for electricity and sprawling population, presents some major disadvantages for centralised power generation. Here are the main reasons why we need to move away from centralised generation as soon as possible.
Expensive, Ageing Infrastructure
The large distances between our power plants and homes means a vast network of infrastructure from high-voltage transmission lines to the poles and lines throughout our (older) suburbs. Australia’s total spending on electricity infrastructure between 2000 and 2020 is estimated at a huge $130 billion (Reneweconomy 2015).
Not only is expensive infrastructure increasing our power bills, it’s exposed to Australia’s harsh weather conditions leading to rapid ageing and constant repairs and maintenance, especially over a 50-year lifespan. So much so that weather and trees are the most common cause of power blackouts in Australia as you can see below (with faulty equipment possibly due to ageing coming second):
The next disadvantage of our centralised model is inefficiency. Below you can see the typical path that electricity takes from the power plant to our homes. We raise the voltage, run it through kilometers of cable, before dropping it and sending it further down our urban distribution lines and through more transformers.
Each of those four main stages between generation and consumption results in considerable power loss that really adds up. The losses can be approximated as:
- 1 – 2%: Step-up transformer
- 2 – 4%: High-voltage transmission lines
- 1 – 2%: Step-down transformer
- 4 – 6%: Distribution network transformers and lines
These individual losses add up to an overall power loss of 8 – 15% between what was generated and what arrives at the consumer (Schneider Electric 2013). That translates to millions of dollars worth of electricity lost every year – not great for business!
Then there’s the environmental impacts. Conventional, centralised power plants have several negative environmental impacts depending on the source of power (EPA 2017):
- Atmospheric Pollution: This applies mainly to coal and gas power plants. Coal produces more carbon dioxide, while gas leaks the more potent methane into the atmosphere (Environmentalresearchweb 2015). Both methods of generation contribute to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions.
- Water Use: This applies to the water used in steam production in coal and gas power plants as well as water used in the cooling towers of nuclear plants. A surprisingly large amount of water is consumed during conventional power generation.
- Waste Generation: It’s often overlooked, but when we burn conventional fuels we leave waste products behind. These products are often hazardous and must be stored and disposed of correctly to avoid further environmental harm.
- Land Use: The conventional, centralised facilities that feed our electricity grids take up a large amount of space. But that’s nothing compared to the total space used by near-endless kilometers of transmission and distribution lines, not to mention the fact that houses can’t be built in close proximity to the major transmission lines you find on the edges of suburbia.
The Solution: Decentralised Renewable Energy
Times are changing and the shortcomings of conventional, centralised power generation are becoming increasingly obvious. Increasing affordability has caused rapid growth in the popularity of decentralised renewable energy generation and energy storage technology, with rooftop solar and batteries being key driving forces. Here’s a quote from the decentralised renewable energy advocate group, Green Energy Futures:
“[Decentralised] generation could revolutionise the electricity grid. Whether you call it dispersed, distributed, on-site, decentralised or embedded energy the idea is the same: generate the electricity where you need it, not hundreds of kilometers away where you need expensive power lines.” – Green Energy Futures
We need to decentralise most of our power generation. I say ‘most of’ because I believe centralised renewable energy sources like wind farms and wave power plants are exceptions. Some centralised generation such as these will be necessary around high-demand areas such as industrial areas and cities. These sources of power don’t share the pollution, water use and waste generation disadvantages of coal and gas power plants and I still imagine them when I picture the world in the not-too-distant future. I believe they’re a necessary stepping stone (while technology improves) to our ultimate energy system: decentralised renewable energy. Here’s a video that gives a perfect summary:
The beauty of decentralised generation is that it fosters the growth of renewables; the two go hand-in-hand. You wouldn’t see houses with their own coal-fired power plants. Decentralised renewable energy is already on the rise with 15% of Australian homes having solar panels, making us the world-leader in household solar panel installations (ABC News 2015), but we need to push this number further. There’s no doubt that as technology improves, a little further down the track than the not-to-distant future, our homes and cities will be practically self-sufficient in terms of energy. This will come from advances in solar panel technology, increased efficiencies and thin-film applications that could coat the outsides of our houses and electric vehicles, as well as the emergence of urban wind power production and even private bio-gas generators. Like nature, our energy-consuming entities would also be energy-producing entities.
With decentralised renewable energy comes a list of advantages, some of which were covered in the video above. Here are some of the most convincing:
This one is obvious. With electricity generated on-site at every building, we wouldn’t be sacrificing any power to transmission losses. 8 to 15 percent more energy straight away, why wouldn’t you?
Decentralised renewable energy is making more and more financial sense every year. The production costs and price-per-kilowatt-hour of generation systems such as rooftop solar and batteries continue to drop and are set to drop below that of conventional power within the next few years.
With decentralised solar and wind power, each self-contained energy system allows for much greater flexibility than conventional power. They are modular and easily scalable (Reneweconomy 2016) . Want more solar generation? Need more storage capacity? Add another panel or battery alongside your existing ones without major, widespread disruption.
As you heard if you watched the video above, a decentralised grid is much less vulnerable to large-scale, catastrophic blackouts. Component failure at your house or building might affect you for a short time, but it won’t cause widespread disruptions to your neighbours like a power plant, grid or power line fault would.
Better for the Environment
Once up and running, a decentralised renewable energy system would have no atmospheric pollution, no water use, no waste generation and less land use – it couldn’t get much more sustainable!
The sun, wind and even biological waste products used for bio-gas are completely renewable and reliable in the long-term. These sources of power aren’t going anywhere!
Off-Grid? No Problem!
By changing to decentralised renewable energy systems and with the right government policies, houses conventionally considered “off the grid” would be able to generate their own renewable energy and wouldn’t be at a disadvantage compared to those living in more populated areas.
Peer-to-Peer Energy Trading
While we can all do our best to swap to decentralised renewables like rooftop solar as soon as possible, what can we do with all our existing infrastructure? Well in the meantime, it supports the centralised power we’re still dependent on. In the future, however, we could use it for widespread peer-to-peer (P2P) energy trading. As the name suggests, P2P trading gives residents the ability to trade energy between them. If I’m on holiday but my solar panels are still producing electricity, why should that power go to waste when I could trade it to my neighbour?
While not yet popular, WA actually has its own P2P community! The example of the system that makes me proud of our local government is the White Gum Valley housing project down in Fremantle. Here’s a quote reporting on the development:
“For residents of the multi-unit White Gum Valley development, it allows them to sell their share of solar to neighbours if they don’t use it themselves, thus maximising the value of their investment.
The ground-breaking residential solar sharing project – which features solar PV installed on all the mostly north-facing homes, coupled with domestic battery storage technology and embedded energy efficiency measures – is a collaboration between Curtin University, project developer LandCorp, grid operator Western Power, alongside the Low Carbon Living CRC, the City of Fremantle and Solar Balance.” – Sophie Vorrath (One Step Off The Grid)
It’s amazing to see so much involvement and collaboration between a university, developer, grid operator and other entities to make this happen. CEO of Power Ledger, the company that provided the power-sharing technology, Jemma Green (pun intended?), goes on to say that Perth is leading the way in transforming the global renewable energy market, how awesome (and surprising) is that!
As you’ve now seen, there are countless benefits to transitioning to a decentralised renewable energy society. But of course with the vast amount of existing infrastructure and current level of technology, this is easier said than done. Here’s what we can do to accelerate our transition and get our stagnant energy industry flowing again as fast as possible.
Before I begin, this business case has been aimed at the reader. In reality this will be the individuals like you and I that are being offered more and more opportunity to choose where we get our power. But a fast transition starts from the very top; from government policies and higher powers in developments, grid operators and other relevant parties. Here are my suggestions to a reader of any background that can help us to achieve a sustainable, decentralised energy industry.
More Research and Technology Funding
Transitioning to decentralised renewables is highly dependent on the development of technology and affordability. With advances in technology we’ll see higher efficiencies across the board for cheaper, more versatile applications for solar such as thin films and who knows, maybe even solar power paints? Not to mention domestic wind power like the turbines shown in the video.
This all depends on government funding into research and development; an example of the transition starting form the very top. So it’s a huge shame when people like Trump get elected who are pro 100% fossil fuels. We need to get the right people sitting in the highest chairs, but that’s another argument…
The government should also continue to subsidise renewable energy developments like rooftop solar. Currently, renewable output in Australia is subsidised by almost $3 billion per year (Owen 2016) and that’s brilliant. We need to keep this up and even increase the subsidies into the future to help home-owners transition to decentralised renewables as it’s all in the affordability.
Not everyone who pays a power bill would know of the disadvantages of our current, centralised generation system and how out-dated it’s become. Not everyone would know of the vast list of advantages of moving to decentralised renewables, so increasing awareness through education would be a huge help.
An example of this would be making this course, Ecological Engineering at UWA, a core unit for all engineering streams. Anas should really look into that…
Make the Switch
If you’re on the fence about getting rooftop solar or perhaps a more ambitious renewable system for your home, do it! Reducing demand on the current decentralised grid no matter how small adds up if we all act together and makes a statement to grid operators. Local electricity provider Alinta Gas changed their name to Alinta Energy as they saw the rapid growth of the rooftop solar market. These grid operators will either adapt or die so let’s make them adapt quicker in the short-term!
New Development Standards
This is a no-brainer. All new housing developments should feature rooftop solar. And as technology permits, other renewable sources too. P2P energy trading communities should also be increasingly invested in like the White Gum Valley development in Fremantle. Dealing with our old infrastructure is a huge issue, so all current developments needs to be future-focused.
We need to keep fostering collaboration between communities, universities, grid operators and local government as this will lead to further world-leading developments like White Gum Valley and accelerate us to our decentralised renewable energy destination.
I hope you’ve found this blog to be a convincing business case for a shift to an energy system consisting primarily of decentralised renewable energy, as I (and many others) definitely believe it’s the future of our energy industry. In my closing vlog below, I touch on the other side of the energy issue: consumption.
References (apart from direct links)
Donovan, S. 2015. “Australia Leads World In Household Solar Panel Installations”. ABC News.
EPA. 2017. “Centralized Generation Of Electricity And Its Impacts On The Environment | Energy And The Environment | US EPA”. Epa.gov.
GreenEnergyFutures, 45. Decentralized energy: Why building electricity generation where the demand is makes sense. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HRky9_evMw
Mathews, J. 2016. “Why The Future Belongs To Decentralised Renewables”. RenewEconomy.
Meyer, A. 2016. “Why A Distributed Energy Grid Is A Better Energy Grid”. Swell Energy. N.p., 2017. Web. 17 May 2017.
Owen, M. 2016. “Renewables’ Put Sting Into Bills”. Theaustralian.com.au.
Platt, G. 2013. “Explainer: How Does The Electricity Grid Work?”. The Conversation.
Schonek, J. 2013 “How Big Are Power Line Losses? – Schneider Electric Blog”. Schneider Electric Blog.
Vorrath, S. 2016. “Peer-To-Peer Solar Trading Kicks Off At WA Housing Development – One Step Off The Grid”. One Step Off The Grid.
Wirfs-Brock, J. 2015. “Lost In Transmission: How Much Electricity Disappears Between A Power Plant And Your Plug?”. Inside Energy