Power Corrupts: electricity prices, poles and wires

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should rage burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                         - Dylan Thomas

[Publisher’s Note: This is Trevor Berrill’s reponse to recently The Monthly published an article called about rising electricity prices (see Power CorruptsTrevor is a a Sustainable Energy Systems Consultant

To bring home the political consequences of rising electricity price some Qld farmers who use electric pumps to irrigate their properties turned against the LNP in the Jan 2015 election because government didn’t keep their promise to cut electricity prices … this may have been a telling factor in some crucial regional seats which the LNP were favoured to keep but labor won e.g. The LNP lost Bundaberg with a big swing but held the more rural Burnett alongside it. Will Labor heed the call from farmers, industry, households at a time when electricity demand is falling? Or will they simply blame someone else or better still, the weather. – Ian Curr, Feb 2015]

Old news now but very nice summary of the problem.
As The Monthly article points out, the rapid rise in electricity prices due to gold plating the network helped the solar and energy efficiency industries but only until the ALP got thrown out and the LNP took over federally and in the states. Then the back lash against energy efficiency (EE) and solar took over as all incentives at both government levels were removed. We now wait to see what the new ALP government will do as they come up against the Sir Humphreys and vested interests in the electricity and fossil fuel industry as solar and EE are really hurting their profits and Government coffers. (See my points in my article re “Unblocking Solar…” on your Workers Bush Tele blog site).

Part of the problem is that the BIG end old school of the electricity industry always want to build the next BIG power station as they always have – great for them and their Minister’s egos. This is the ongoing Demand vs Supply problem for the old school electrical system proponents, that relies on building large centralised plant which take years to build and billions in finance. This in turn means that you have to predict the future in terms of growth in electricity demand in order to make sure you can sell enough units of energy to pay off the debt to build the next coal or gas power station. Then when your predictions based on modelling energy and peak power demand growth don’t go to plan, and growth is slower, or as happened in the past 5 or so years actually fell, suddenly your ability to pay off the power station debt is in deep faecal matter. So you have to work out ways to stimulate demand for electricity. It’s made even worse when previous governments have been stimulating the rooftop solar and energy efficiency industries which of course reduces demand for your coal or gas fired electricity.

Wind power at Wello Point. The author tries for a wind speed record at Wellington point in Moreton Bay.

The alternative is a far more decentralised, distributed electrical network with smart communications and control. It is based on building a larger number of smaller, distributed power stations (of which roof top solar is one form), together with energy storage, sensing and data collection , communication and smart controls. It actively encourages energy efficiency and peak power demand management as these measures are far cheaper than building the next big power station or gold plating the transmission lines and distribution networks. Then you are able to shift power around the network to where it is most needed, taking it from the nearest generators first to avoid long transmission line energy losses. Storage is also distributed throughout this system so that excess network energy can be storage from solar and wind systems when they generating well, and released back to the grid when needed in peak periods or at night. Waste from fuel burning generators can be captured and used for local heating and cooling applications, doubling their energy efficiency.

All the technology is available now and as CSIRO and other researchers has shown, this is the cheapest path way to build the next generation electrical system. It is already happening to a limited extent. This is also a far more flexible and resilient system in its ability to respond to changes in electricity demand and to extreme events such as cyclones.

But the old school model heavy-weights in the electrical and fossil fuel industries, with their conservative government backers, are blocking it. All they see is the value of their cumbersome coal power stations and poles and wires, which they hoped to sell off, and their revenue from the sale of electricity, eroded by this model.

Trevor Berrill
Sustainable Energy Systems Consultant & Educator
29 Burnett St
Wellington Point
Queensland 4160
Phone 61 7 3207 5077 or
Mobile 0400 177 283

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