May 29th, 2016: The Future of Energy?

There is no question that we, as a global society and Australia as a nation, need to act quickly and decisively in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Climate Change is upon us. The evidence is overwhelming. Atmospheric CO2 and methane levels are the highest they’ve been for a million years. Global temperatures are spiralling out of control. Extreme weather events are multiplying. Coral reefs are dying. Sea levels are rising and islands are disappearing. We’ve known this was coming for thirty years. We’ve known that we are causing it. We’ve known that we need to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid potentially disastrous results and yet we continue to do nothing. In fact, we are making matters worse when there is so much we could be doing to make things better.

'Politicians Discussing Global Warming' by Isaac Cordal

‘Politicians Discussing Global Warming’ by Isaac Cordal – I have used this image a number of times before and it continues to perfectly summarise our current situation.

Our Prime Minister once said, ‘Climate change is a global problem. The planet is warming because of the growing level of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. If this trend continues, truly catastrophic consequences are likely to ensue from rising sea levels, to reduced water availability, to more heat waves and fires.’

In spite of this, and in spite of Australia’s commitments made at the Paris Climate Talks, the ‘right honourable’ (perhaps we should make that wrong and dishonourable) Malcolm Turncoat has just passed a budget that makes no mention of climate change and only mentions Renewable Energy in the act of stripping $1.3 Billion from ARENA (the Australian Renewable Energy Agency). In last week’s Newsletter, I quoted Dr John Hewson (former leader of the Liberal Party) as saying, ‘The slogan is jobs and growth. I would have thought that one of the most significant sectors for economic and jobs growth is renewables – I am staggered that it didn’t get a mention in the speech or in the documents.” Hewson said the decision to remove funding from ARENA was an ‘absolute tragedy.’

After reading Dr Hewson’s comments I was honoured by the opportunity to meet Dr Hewson last week. We had a very interesting discussion which revolved around the issues of Climate Change and Renewable Energy. Dr Hewson is a staunch advocate for transitioning to a low-carbon economy and is deeply involved with a company that is developing some VERY promising solar thermal and energy storage technologies. I hope to obtain Dr Hewson’s permission to share more information with you about the fledgling company and their developments very soon. For now, let’s just say that these kinds of technologies have the potential to greatly reduce the current cost of producing and storing renewable energy and thereby speeding up the shift to a low-carbon economy.

Can Renewable Energy Replace Fossil Fuels?

Ultimately we MUST figure out how to source all of our energy from low-carbon alternatives. Nuclear fission or fusion may play a role in that future but, until we have solved the problem of what to do with the waste without poisoning ourselves and the planet over the long term, I am of the opinion that nuclear energy is not an option. So that leaves Renewable Energy (RE).

BUT I do not believe that we can replace all of our current fossil fuel use with RE. We simply use too much energy. We have been spoiled by cheap and plentiful supplies of coal, oil and gas for far too long. We (meaning humans as a species) are insanely wasteful, and I do mean INSANE because we know we are destroying our own future and yet we keep doing it. In order for RE to replace fossil fuels we have to dramatically reduce our energy consumption. This will involve a complete overhaul of ‘Business as Usual’, starting with the completely LUNATIC idea that companies, nations and economies are dependent on growth at all costs. If we had a political, social and economic system that strived for balance in all things it would immediately become necessary to act to limit global populations, protect the environment, make products that last and conserve energy across the board.

So, to answer my own question, yes, I think RE can and will replace fossil fuels but only after we REDUCE the amount of energy we use in every possible way. For us privileged few who live in the luxury of developed nations with a ‘high standard of living’ (perhaps we should make that ‘slow method of dying’) this is going to mean major changes to every aspect of our spoilt little lives. From the size and complexity of our dwellings and how we heat and cool them, to the products we buy, how/where they are made, how long they last and what happens to them when they wear out. From the way our cities and towns are designed and built to the ways that we move around in them. From the food we eat and how/where it is grown to what happens to our waste products, how they are recycled and how they are converted back into usable things. From the way we nuture and protect the natural systems, the air, water, soil and biodiversity that sustain us to how we treat each other as coinhabitants of this precious and fragile Earth.  We are at the start of a revolution that is going to affect every aspect of our lives and I, for one, am excited and optimistic about what the future will bring.

But for now we are subjected to a government that is solely focused on ‘Jobs and Growth’. So what can we do?

Jobs and Growth Through Energy Conservation and Renewables

As Dr Hewson rightly (and honourbly) pointed out in response to Turncoat’s budget,  ‘the most significant sector for economic and jobs growth is renewables’.

I would like to add ‘energy conservation’ to that because, as I stated above, renewables alone cannot replace all of our current fossil fuel usage and waste. We MUST make a concerted effort to reduce our energy use to a minimum, then we may have a hope of meeting all our energy requirements from renewable sources.

On the Grid or Off the Grid

A lot of people are excited about the possibility of solar power systems with battery storage. In almost every conversation I have on the subject I am asked, ‘How soon will we be able to go off the grid?‘. There are plenty of cases where it it does make sense to go off-grid such as remote communities or even single houses that are located at a distance from the nearest powerline. But, for most Australians who already have a powerline running to their house, I am convinced that, in the long-term, the best option will be to stay connected to the grid.

In the short term there are going to be problems in the transition. Already we are seeing power companies jacking up the daily cost of being connected to the grid. In fact, for us here at the Greeny Flat, our entire energy bill for our first year was comprised of the ‘Daily Supply Charges’. This is typical corporate double-speak because the charges have nothing to do with supplying anything except a connection to the grid. They should, more accurately, be called ‘Daily Grid Connection Fees’. Nevertheless, we actually made money on the electricity we bought from and sold to the grid despite the fact that we receive less than half as much for the energy we sell as we pay for the energy we buy. In the short term I expect we’ll see power companies continue to increase these grid connection fees, especially for customers who have solar panels, to the point where a significant number of customers start to disconnect from the grid completely.

At that point we will see a complete about-face from the power companies (otherwise their investment in poles and wires will be worthless) and they will embrace solar panels and battery storage in a BIG way. The current problem with solar and wind power is that they are intermittent. They only produce when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. Unfortunately people and businesses and industry don’t just use power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. ‘Load shifting’ can help a lot with this problem. There are many things that consume energy, like water heaters or car chargers for example, that can be timed to operate during periods of low energy use and high renewable energy production.  A ‘Smart Grid’ will help a lot with this because it will be able to communicate with all of these loads and tell them to turn on at the right time. But there are still going to be times when we are using more energy than we are producing. For those times we HAVE to find ways to cheaply store renewable energy for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Battery technology has come a long way and is developing incredibly rapidly driven (pardon the pun) by massive investment in electric vehicle technologies. But there are also lots of other ways of storing energy such as using gravity (lift a weight or pump water up hill during times of excess energy and let it down to produce energy during the shortages), inertia (store energy in a big, heavy flywheel) or thermal storage (use excess energy to heat something then convert the heat back to usable energy). In the future I think we’ll see all of these possibilities and many more becoming commonplace and connected (like the loads) to a smart grid that will be able to pull energy from all of these connected storage devices as it is needed.

Right now, none of these storage systems is cost-effective except for running your electric hot water service during the day while your solar panels are producing energy. Batteries are half the price they were a couple of years ago but still much too expensive to make economic sense for anyone with a grid connection. But things are changing fast and it won’t be long before it will be financially beneficial to install a battery system. That time will come sooner if we have a smart grid that allows us to buy energy from the grid when it cheap and sell it to the grid when it is expensive. For that we will need smart meters so the one thing I will recommend right now is that, if you have to have your meter replaced for any reason, make sure it is replaced with a smart meter.

And Don’t Forget to Conserve First

All of these developments in renewable energy and energy storage systems are very exciting and sexy. So much so that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we have to REDUCE our energy consumption FIRST and then look at how much renewable energy we really need. Smaller homes with good Passive Solar Design, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, walking or riding a bike, eating locally grown and organic food, growing your own food, taking shorter showers, even things as simple as putting on a jumper rather than turning on a heater when the weather is cold… these are all ways of reducing our energy use and carbon footprint. Ultimately these are more important than sexy Tesla cars, Powerwall batteries or even solar panels on the roof.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>