Three months ago I received a phone call from my father in San Francisco. He was standing outside of Costco, the only place that had back up power following the catastrophic wildfires across California. His entire community had been without power for three days. Torches and portable cookers were sold out and there was a line out the door for pre-cooked chickens. He said, ‘this feels like Cold War Russia, people lining up for their piece of bread’.
Fast forward three months and we’re having eerily similar conversations in Australia. Whole communities blacked out, shopping centres looking like something out of an apocalypse movie and many more scheduled black outs on the horizon. Entire states were urged to actively reduce their energy usage, asking us to forgo our air conditioners and fans in the middle of a heatwave.
If you were miles away from the nearest fire and wondered how cutting your energy usage could possibly have helped – the answer is simple, the fires forced closure of Australia’s ‘energy highways’ which put us at real risk of running out.
Australia’s ageing energy network is highly centralised. Power is generated at a few main points and distributed via huge power lines that run through the bush and into our cities.
Our states are connected via a main ‘power highway’, providing the option for states to share power when needed. During the bushfire crisis, our interstate power highway was closed.
Powerlines are shut down to mitigate against them igniting and subsequently spreading fires. New fires can also start when trees brush up against live lines. When the main line from a centralised source is shut down, countless communities are affected.
This is nothing but a Band-Aid solution to a much wider problem. The decentralisation of Australia’s energy network is urgently needed and the solution lies on our rooftops.
Household solar and battery technology is rapidly on the rise. For individual households, there is of course great security knowing that you can be largely energy self-sufficient during times of crisis and blackouts. But, beyond that, solar batteries are the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective means in which Australia can decentralise its energy network.
Solar batteries are basically a reserve of renewable energy that can be deployed at any time. When power is shared within local communities it doesn’t need to travel through the big energy highways, but rather through the local network called the ‘low voltage network’.
If main lines are cut during times of crisis, the lights stay on in local communities. Radios can share emergency information, food can remain cold and phones can be charged.
A network of household batteries is called a ‘Virtual Power Plant’ (VPP). VPPs tap into existing infrastructure and connect household batteries via The Cloud.
For households fitted with solar and battery technology connecting to a VPP can be as simple as downloading an app and roping in cash each time their battery is used. This is a total win-win way to solve Australia’s centralised energy crisis.
The good news is, VPPs are starting to pop up all over Australia with a few key players in the energy space taking the lead. But, in order to fast-track the mass adoption of VPP technology, government support is vital.
South Australia is a perfect example. Having thrown its weight behind a number of different VPPs, South Australia is the only state in Australia that is rapidly decentralising its energy network. ShineHub’s VPP in South Australia alone is made up of over 1,000 households, the equivalent of two gas power plants.
These are troubling times we’re living in – water is sparse, lights are going out and people are being deprived of basic living necessities.
Australia’s centralised energy network has been ticking time bomb long before the fires brought it to light. It shouldn’t take a national crisis for us to finally see what was already broken, but now that it has, we have a duty to fix it.
VPPs are a solution we can take into our own hands – as businesses, as individuals and hopefully with the support of government. It’s time to rip the Band-Aid off and turn the lights back on.
Alex Georgiou is the CEO of ShineHub