March 30, 2017: Electric Shocks

Image source: finder.com.au

Image source: finder.com.au

Are you prepared for significantly higher electricity prices?

I have a friend who works in the solar industry and watches the wholesale price of electricity on the National Energy Market very closely. He tells me that for about the last six months the wholesale price has been double what it was last year. So instead of 4.5c/kWh it has consistently been over 9c/kWh.

I was also contacted for advice last week by a company that has just been told by AGL that their electricity price is going to increase by 57% when their contract comes due for renewal in the next couple of months.

How long do you think it will be before residential customers see similar increases? My guess is, not long at all.

While I know this is going to hurt a lot of people, there’s a part of me that thinks this is the best thing that can happen. For many years now I’ve been saying that the only thing that will make people start to think about how much energy they use (and how to use less) will be significantly higher energy prices. What this will do is 1) make more people and businesses look at how they can improve efficiency and conserve energy and 2) make renewable energy (with storage) more cost competitive in the market. Already solar and wind energy are the cheapest forms of new electricity generation but the obvious problem is that they only make power when the sun shines or the wind blows. Storage is the key to making renewable energy work on a broad scale and there are lots of ways of storing energy.

The obvious one is batteries but we can also use renewable energy to pump water uphill when there’s an excess then let it run back down through a generator when more power is required. This is called ‘Pumped Hydro’ and is what Prime Minister Turncoat is touting as our latest ‘Nation Building Exercise’ (anyone seen Utopia?) in the Snowy Hydro Scheme. By all accounts this is a program that was conceived thirty years ago and has been languishing in someone’s drawer in Canberra due to very high costs and dubious benefits. In the Turncoat version there is very little indication of how much it will cost, when it will be completed or where they will source the power to pump the water up the hill. By some accounts it is, in fact, a fossil fuel project with the plan being to use dirty coal and gas to power this ‘renewable energy scheme’.

There are also plenty of ‘Solar Thermal’ projects in the pipeline which can store the sun’s energy in the form of heat either by melting salts or heating big blocks of pure graphite. Another way of storing energy I read about recently is to use electricity to convert hydrogen into ammonia which can be stored and transported in liquid form (using current LPG and LNG infrastructure) then converted back into electricity via a fuel cell. There are also other forms of chemical energy storage as well as physical ones like using electricity to lift a weight then using gravity to produce power or using excess energy to turn a flywheel which can be drawn upon later for power generation.

For now, batteries are the simplest, most cost effective and most readily available way for you and me to store excess electricity. But before you rush out and put a deposit on a new Tesla Powerwall2 you probably need to know about AS/NZS 4777.1:2016. This is the new Australian Standard for ‘Grid Connection of Energy Systems Via Inverters’ and, according to this article from Finn Peacock at Solar Quotes, it may well make it illegal to install a Powerwall2 on most houses with solar in Australia. This is because most houses have single-phase power and there is now a limit of 5kW of inverters per phase. The Powerwall2 contains a 5kW inverter so you would be fine to install one if you didn’t have any solar but, as soon as you add solar panels (with their required inverter/s) you would exceed the allowable inverter limit.

This is why we need a standard for battery installations!

This is why we need a standard for battery installations!

The image above shows what can happen when a cheap lithium-ion battery explodes and is the reason why there is also a new Australian Standard in the works for Battery Installations. The word I’ve heard is that it will most likely require all batteries (both the cheap exploding kind and the well-built, water-cooled Tesla varieties) to be installed in a fire-proof enclosure outside of homes and garages. This will add a LOT to the cost of a battery installation.

So you could get around the 5kW inverter limit by buying even more solar panels, a couple of Powerwall2’s and going completely off the grid. But, especially with the coming Battery Standard, this is likely to be a very expensive proposition and is a fundamentally bad idea. As I’ve been saying for a long time now, in order to effectively go off the grid you’ve got to install a lot more solar and batteries than you really need (in order to get through a period of cloudy weather). Not only is this expensive but, as soon as the batteries are full, there is nowhere for all that excess solar power to go so it is simply wasted. If we stay tied to the grid we can properly size our systems and any time we have excess renewable energy it can go into the grid and be put to good use by someone else.

If only Mr Turncoat’s government would get behind this idea and make it easy and affordable for people and businesses to do it we could go a long way towards solving our looming energy woes. But for now they seem more interested in propping up the dying fossil fuel industry.

170330 clear solar glass

Meanwhile these guys are propping up some ‘energy harvesting glass’.

On a brighter note (pardon the pun) a reader (and old high school friend) sent me this article from the ABC a couple of days ago about a team based in Perth that has developed the world’s first commercially viable clear, solar glass.

‘We call it energy-harvesting clear glass,’ Professor Alameh said… ‘This is a glass that can pass the visible light through, while blocking the UV and infrared components of the sunlight and routing them to the edge of the glass for conversion to electricity via solar cells placed around the edges of the glass.’

Depending on the cost, this could have promising applications in greenhouses and skyscrapers. If we’re going to build these ridiculous buildings covered in glass and air-conditioned 24/7, at least let’s make them so that the glass produces some energy.

More soon and, as always, thanks for reading.

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