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My town is building a “smart” local energy network

The German town of Wildpoldsried produces five times as much energy as is consumed.

Sustainability commentator Murray Hogarth was invited to present at the Australian Regional Development Conference 2015 earlier this week. This is an edited version of his presentation.

My title for this talk highlights the regional opportunities for “smart” local energy networks. But I really want to make the case for why clean, distributed, data-rich local energy networks are going to be “better”.

The rapidly emerging future of energy already is a very good story for regional Australia. It can be a terrific story – socially, economically and environmentally – boosting local jobs and investment, independence, efficiency, adaptability and resilience.

Here’s what I see. Trends, technologies and towns are converging, with:

  • community models – regions, districts, precincts, mini-grids
  • decentralisation – distributed generation, storage, grid defection
  • clean energy – renewables and energy efficiency
  • digital revolution – the power of data and communications

Off grid memories

A question put to the audience: How many people here live or at some stage in the past have lived “off the grid”?

That’s prompted by my own recovered memories from a regional upbringing in Queensland. In the 1970s, I spent part of my time living off the grid. There was a noisy old Perkins diesel generator under the house in the “power room” with big bank of lead-acid batteries. The wood stove in the kitchen also heated water. We’d all crowd around the kitchen dining table in the frosty winters because the rest of the sprawling old Queenslander was draughty and freezing.

My recollection is that finally “getting the power through” cost my folks about $6000, although this was heavily subsidised by the expansion-hungry publicly owned power utility, with a real price tag of around $30,000 in 1970s dollars. At the time, unbeknown to my family and most people on the planet, solar PV was being invented and cost about $1000 a watt. Now that’s dipping towards $1 a watt and could keep going lower.

With a vast unshaded metal roof, I can imagine that homestead bristling with solar panels and sporting new batteries in the 21st century. Cutting off the mains power and going off-grid could make good sense. The wood stove might even make a comeback.

Yarn about a barn

barn-murray-hogarthIt’s not a town, but this barn tells a story of its own about our energy past and perhaps our energy future. It stands on a small farm in the picturesque Yarramalong Valley north of Sydney.

My understanding is that the barn was built in the 19th century, by Swedish settlers, a farming family who didn’t quite understand the climate difference between their northern European homeland and Australia.

Note the steep roof to allow the snow to slide off, and the barn itself was meant to stall cattle through the sub-arctic winters. I doubt, however, that it has ever snowed here – at least not since the last Ice Age.

The barn dates back to kerosene lamp and candle days. When town gas and light first appeared, it didn’t make it out here. But if you look carefully in the sky behind it you’ll see massive high-voltage power transmission lines, carrying electricity generated in the huge coal-fired power stations in the Hunter Valley to the city.

Of course, like the property I grew up with, the farm has mains power now. But I can very easily imagine that east-west aligned roof – the sun tracks across it all day long – covered in solar PV panels, with battery storage down below.

It’s seen a lot of change this barn, and it will see more!

Local is now a thing for regional energy

smart-energy-townsChange often starts with a burst of creativity and experimentation… let a thousand flowers bloom.

That’s what is happening for local and community clean energy, often in regional locations, focused on mainly small-scale renewable generation and energy efficiency, with a range of ways for community members to participate and invest.

It’s happening in cities too. Smart Locale is a new initiative I am involved in to turn the local economy of Ultimo and Pyrmont near the Sydney CBD into a showplace for smart, safe, sustainable living by 2020.

It’s very much happening internationally as well. From Texan towns like Mueller, to German villages like Wildpoldsried, smart local solutions for clean and sustainable energy are being proven to work. You’ll see solar panels there in Wildpoldsried, but one of their greatest triumphs with a distinctively rural flavour (or is that odour) is biogas produced from manure at nearby piggeries.

Sitting behind many of these initiatives, and lining up to support more and more of them, are a growing band of community-based enterprises, environmental charities, non-government organisations, and progressive councils, government agencies and businesses.

Energy and communications technologies converging

A key factor that is making this revolution of local action possible is the convergence of energy technology advancement with information and communications technologies. It’s not just one or two technological breakthroughs working in tandem, it’s a whole emerging ecosystem of solutions.

The right answer won’t be the same for every town and region, although there will be common elements. Overlapping technologies, through which we need to pick and choose what’s right for the job at hand, will provide the solutions:

  • Distributed energy generation and storage – solar, wind, biogas, mini-hydro, geo, tidal and batteries
  • Metering and monitoring – energy use and generation, performance, environmental sensors
  • Appliances and vehicles – efficient white goods, solar hot water/heat pumps, LEDs, electric vehicles
  • Communications – WiFi, 3G/4G/LTE, Zigbee, LoRaWan, NBN
  • Data hosting, networking and analysis – fog, cloud, Internet of Energy/Internet of Things
  • Control via apps and dashboards – software as a service

Don’t get left behind

Once the fear was being bypassed and left off the grid. But is that the worst thing that can happen now? Being stuck on the grid may mean declining service or escalating costs, or both, as others defect.

We already have or are able to anticipate the technologies and business models that will enable a regional revolution for energy supply and services.

The technologies are becoming better and less expensive, precisely because they are technologies propelled by improving science and volume-based economies of scale. Meanwhile the main renewable “fuels” like wind and sun are essentially unlimited and free, they just have to be harnessed by the technologies.

Our communities are moving. Like the technologies, communities and individuals are moving faster than governments, traditional utilities and regulation, and this will continue.

Getting all of this right will take time

What will our multi-grid future look like? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all of the following:

  • traditional on-grid
  • green power via grid
  • hybrid grid and on-site generation
  • mini-grids
  • off-the-grid (mass grid defection?)

And who will step up to anchor “local networks” and push traditional utilities aside, or alternatively force them to change their models? The candidates include:

  • local governments
  • community energy groups
  • remote communities (including Aboriginal Housing Corporations)
  • cooperatives
  • corporations
  • associations

Even with the speed of change, expect at least a decade of action learning to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Data will help to underpin many solutions

While the exact solution formula will differ from place to place, data is going to be an essential common factor to build a smart local energy network that will meet the economic, social and environmental needs of the 21st century.

data-energy-servicesConsumers controlling data is good news

This new energy realm of “data for all” is where I work. Wattwatchers is one of those digital technology start-ups that you hear about so often these days. We’re a little unusual in that fraternity, because we actually design and make hardware, physical stuff, not just produce software apps.

Our products are micrometers, much smaller but a lot-smarter than the so-called “smart meters” that the energy utilities push. These devices and our data streams are future ready, acquiring, aggregating and delivering the real-time, accurate and comprehensive energy information that individual consumers, householders and businesses, and their local communities need.

Technologies like Wattwatchers are enablers for better energy. We’re part of the digital revolution that is reaching energy and changing this industry dramatically, just like its done to so many other sectors starting with telcos.

Acquiring the data is one thing, It’s crucial to all that follows, but mainly energy monitoring devices are not what the end user sees. What they interact with are the apps, the smart tools that are enabled by the data from Wattwatchers, mainly operating from the cloud via the Internet.

Wattwatchers is already working with several of these consumer interfaces and management tools developed in Australia – covering home energy management, small business, solar performance monitoring, and energy budgeting – and we are aware of many more that are on the way.

Key takeaways for regional Australia

The new, emerging era of energy will give towns and regions more choices and better energy, which is smart too! These are my key takeaways:

  • Regional and local communities can be big winners in a clean, distributed energy transition
  • This “story” of change will be driven primarily by technology and data, not by politics and policy
  • Many of the hardware and software tools required are already available and affordable, with others coming fast
  • Distributed, clean energy enriched by data is much more than an environmental slogan, it’s better energy
  • Better economics, greater self-reliance and adaptability, and more resilience in a climate changing world

Murray Hogarth is director – community energy networks for Sydney-based digital energy company Wattwatchers.

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