Bytes of data can solve our heat and energy dilemma
There’s a simple and achievable answer to electricity grid unreliability on extreme heat days right before our eyes.
First, you find a strategic number - it could be 10,000, 100,000 or more - high energy use homes that already have rooftop solar PV, or are suited to installing it, and that have big time-of-use relevant electrical loads like air-conditioning and pool pumps.
Second, you use readily-available energy monitoring devices (such as Wattwatchers) to measure the heck out of all the main circuits that are supplying power from the grid, generating energy on location such as solar, or are consuming energy at each site.
Third, you implement a rules-based, digitally-automated plan that will ensure that loads on any given day reflect desired outcomes for relevant parties; which means the householders themselves, in the first instance, but can be the wider grid if householders are appropriately rewarded for helping out the system.
Fourth, armed with the data being gathered, economically rational and environmentally advantageous decisions can be made about investing in new or more solar panels, battery storage and more extensive energy management capabilities.
A real example
The home graphed below* is a good example.
On the first day of the latest heat wave in Sydney and across much of the state of New South Wales, the pool system that normally runs during the day was turned off so that solar output from a 10 kW array of PV panels was directed primarily to the air-conditioning.
In the middle of the day almost all of the home’s consumption was being met by solar generation, but as the afternoon wore on this dropped off; which is exactly when the 20 kWh of battery storage planned for this home, but not yet installed, could have been deployed to absorb most of the load into the early evening (assuming the storage had been pre-charged, and held for this time based on weather forecasts, a process that can be automated with existing technologies). By the way, the gap in energy consumption around 6pm was a blackout.
*Solar Analytics data visualisation with energy data from Wattwatchers devices.
The lesson from this example? By planning days ahead to manage tens or hundreds of thousands of the right energy-profile homes during crucial afternoon peaks, it is relatively easy to have a substantial, very positive impact on the stability, reliability and resilience of grids.
Get real about extreme heat
Let’s just recap on the latest heat wave. Then I’ll have a little rant about our dumb politics on energy.
Day 1 of the latest summer heat wave to hit Sydney was last Friday, which required a whole aluminium smelter to be shutdown to avoid - or at least partially avoid - blackouts for homes, small businesses and schools.
Day 2, even hotter in places, fell on the Saturday, with the weekend meaning less commercial and industrial demand on the grid - so a slightly easier task to keep power supply up. Nonetheless, temperatures went over 40 degrees C in over 50 NSW towns and cities, and heat records were broken.
Day 3, a Sunday, promised respite with a southerly buster due in the evening, and everyone hoping for a cessation in climate change exacerbated high-temperature hostilities. But first they had to survive a very bad day for bushfires, with more heat records being broken.
FORECAST from Saturday, February 11, 2017: ‘The conditions for Sunday are the worst possible conditions, they are catastrophic — we haven't seen this in NSW to this extent ever,’ warned Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of tomorrow's fire danger. ‘It’s not another summer’s day. It’s not another bad fire day. This is as bad as it gets.’
The lived experience of the heat wave was extremely uncomfortable for many, and very dangerous for some, but such weather-related disruptions are becoming the norm as global warming accelerates.
Now, the rant
The problems are already here-and-now, so why is the Australian Government talking about far-off supposed solutions like new coal-fired power stations?
Even if these could be financed. Even if just one lower-emission, ultra super-critical modern coal-fired power station with carbon capture and storage could be achieved technically at a plausible cost. Even if pigs could fly, levitating on political hot air. Even with all of that, then scoping, planning, building and commissioning even one such thing would take years, maybe a decade, and would cost billions of dollars.
The only people more deluded than the new coal power station fan club are the ones who think nuclear power stations might be the answer for Australia; and that’s economic looney-tunes territory as well as environmental madness.
So what can be done? What can happen much faster, at lower cost, with far better environmental outcomes?
End on a positive note
Before wrapping up on a positive note, it’s worth addressing the problem that stands in the way of better solutions. It’s a political dreamers thing where the only ‘solutions’ that the establishment sees have to be ‘big infrastructure projects’, with the standard ‘announceables’ of thousands of construction jobs, a multi-billion dollar budget and high-visibility vest photo opportunities.
There’s also a strategic political delay element to such grand schemes. You can talk about them forever, maybe throw a few million at a zero real commitment pre-feasibility study, and never actually do anything at all.
Meanwhile, all the time it’s getting hotter on Planet Earth.
So there is another way. Instead of one or a few big projects, we need thousands and hundreds of thousands of little ones, home by home, business by business, school by school and so on (I should mention that there’s a smart way to bundle energy efficiency, solar PV, possibly battery storage, and school air-conditioning projects together to help our children handle more extreme heat while not burning the budget).
A data-plus-distributed-energy approach can start immediately, and the benefits will flow quickly. The costs, which may well still add up to billions of dollars across many sites around Australia, can be spread across household, energy industry and public benefit. The program can be ramped up or pulled back year-on-year depending on budget availability and political will, which contrasts with the inflexibility of major single site-based infrastructure projects .
Energy technology innovation, already alive and well in Australia, will accelerate with jobs, investment and trade benefits for the nation.
The advantages don’t stop there. The New Energy grids that we’ll end up with, featuring smart control to match flexible supply with flexible demand, will be far more secure than the Old Energy model of centralised generation with long, extreme weather vulnerable transmission and distribution lines.
Murray Hogarth is Director - Communications & Community Networks for Sydney-based Wattwatchers.