The 'Batteryistas' versus the 'Energy$avers'
On my watch: Murray Hogarth
Just because energy infrastructure is distributed doesn’t make it OK for it to be inefficient, economically or environmentally.
Spending a couple of days this week at All Energy Australia, the conference and trade show billed as the nation’s leading event for clean energy, shows the 'new energy' world dividing into two distinct camps.
Let’s call them the ‘Batteryistas’ and the ‘Energy$avers’.
At their more extreme end the ‘Batteryistas’ want rooftop solar PV and a battery storage system in every home, and the bigger the better!
The ‘Energy$avers’, meanwhile, are watching with a rising sense of discomfort that once again the low, zero and negative cost benefits of energy efficiency will be sidelined in a headlong rush into the latest ‘shiny new thing’.
That new attraction being on-site storage provided by an increasingly dizzying array of competing battery, inverter and control system technologies.
Distributed infrastructure investment still adds up
Batteries are an expensive, highly engineered solution, and aiming to put them into every home may well be overkill. With some very basic maths, priced conservatively, trying to put 5kW of solar PV (say $5000) and 10kWh of storage (say $8100) on 1 million homes would cost $13.1 billion.
Just because, in this rough numbers example, that might break down to an average of $13,100 of home energy infrastructure investment at each of a million sites doesn’t guarantee that it’s economically or environmentally sound.
Don’t get me wrong. Solar PV, and increasingly battery storage and electric vehicle charging behind the traditional utility meter are an important part of the ‘new energy’ operating environment.
Also, if well-to-do people want to spend their hard or easily earned money on distributed clean energy then good luck to them. Don’t waste time trying to stop them; however, we also know that social equity and grid effectiveness considerations may well drive arguments for taxpayers’ dollars to be invested into storage, and that’s a different matter altogether.
If the number of solar + storage installed homes is 1 million, or 2 million, or any number, then the most economically and environmentally effective and efficient outcome is going to depend on those being the ‘right homes’.
So how can we work out which homes are the ‘right’ ones for the best outcomes from a massive distributed investment in behind-the-meter energy infrastructure.
For one thing, the best outcomes may well come from local micro-grids rather than every individual home trying to have solar + storage. More likely, some homes will be better suited to more solar than they need for self-consumption, and others will easily accommodate more batteries than they need for self-storage.
At Wattwatchers, we believe that accurate real-time data on energy consumption is the vital prerequisite for guiding the best decisions for home consumers and often business ones too. We have a data-led model.
At a global level, the simplest way to get to a zero net carbon economy, at least for energy, is to simultaneously minimise energy use and maximise renewable energy.
It means that even if clean energy costs a bit more, and that’s not even a rock solid assumption any more, then through energy efficiency the overall cost of transitioning to a clean energy future can be roughly neutral. That’s actually the strategy being adopted by Australia’s leading clean energy jurisdiction, the Australian Capital Territory, in direct contrast to the Australian Government which is based in Canberra.
Look beyond the rising level of market overexcitement
If you push aside the massive marketing hype surrounding battery storage at the moment, then some rational points can be made.
Anyone who spent time on the trade show floor at All-Energy Australia in 2016 will know that the many competing battery, inverter and related technologies - from North America, Asia and Europe, and some from Australia as well - that dominated the event can’t all be successful. Many won’t be around in five years’ time.
Some battery chemistries just won’t cut it. Some inverters simply won’t perform. Some business models will blow up in the financial sense, and at worst some of the batteries themselves may blow up in the combustion sense and even burn houses down. The long-term environmental waste aftermath of these technologies may well be serious, perhaps even alarming in e-waste terms.
If public monies are to be invested in proliferating battery storage, then it has to deliver bang for the buck and it can’t become a new unqualified source of environmental harm or social inequality or economic inefficiency.
Embedding quality data as an integral part of the process, which at scale should cost between $300 and $500 for a five-year independent service, will help.
The right data enables a staged approach that puts energy saving first, then possibly new or increased investment in solar PV, and storage only if it makes sense after all of that – by which time the size of the batteries required will have been reduced, in many cases, and the price of batteries will have come down significantly.
That’s not what the ‘Batteryistas’ are telling people. So it’s important to make sure that the ‘Energy$avers’ get heard as well.
*Murray Hogarth is Director of Communications and Community Networks for Wattwatchers, the Sydney-based digital energy technology company that has won the Australian Technologies Competition 2016 ‘New Energy Award’.