Loaves and fishes
It seems bizarre that a First World country would limit an essential resource, but Australia does. Wes McKnight explains.
In considering a title for this article I couldn’t go past a Biblical tale.
Our industry is constantly being required to do more with less. In this case I mean the limits on the total amount of electricity that distributors are setting as their ‘base’ or normal supply to dwellings Australia wide.
In my time in the industry we have never been in a more vexed position – due to housing growth, lack of cohesive state and federal policy on energy, and a booming population.
Then we have grid owners setting their own rules, and end customers who want every room in their house equipped with a big TV, air-conditioning and USB chargers on practically every power outlet.
Small-scale roof-top solar can only do so much, and it’s now essentially standard in new housing. However, the sun is usually going down when most of the load is consumed.
So how to make the allowable supply work for our customers?
For the long term we all hope that sanity prevails. All levels of government must get serious and strategic. They need to lead and assist energy generators and end users to a place where the monetary load is shared and a stable, national grid with multiple supply points is functioning efficiently.
But we live and make a living in an environment that’s less than ideal. Home builders constantly offer buyers everything – cramming the house or ‘model’ with every conceivable convenience.
Yet in most housing estates that I know of, the supply is limited to 40A single phase.
I don’t think I have been in a new home lately that doesn’t have an induction cook top, which typically needs a supply of 35A.
In most cases home-owners are able to apply for a increased supply (at a much greater cost), if the electrician is engaged early enough. How many times have we been the bearer of bad news, telling the home-owner that there’s not enough power for the new air-conditioner, cook top, etc, they have bought?
We simply need find a way of doing more with the limited supply.
In the short term the easiest and most cost-effective way of managing the larger load profile is to connect a simple load control device. This might be a small programmable logic controller or series of time clocks that allow loads to operate at various times, or when the measured house load is sufficient to allow an appliance to operate.
Clever electricians will design these systems to have minimal effect on the way the occupants live. But ultimately there will be times when the occupants want to use an appliance and the installed control system won’t allow it.
For home-owners, the fact that they have to live with this inconvenience is frustrating and hard to understand.
Now for the kicker. It is in the interest of the distribution companies to limit their base supply to 40A single phase – more upgrade requests, more multi-phase requests, more premises connected to existing infrastructure.
They can let our industry improve their bottom line by finding ways of getting more from less.
It could be argued that limiting the total supply to consumers will make them use energy more efficiently. However, the cost per kilowatt/hour will do more to promote consumption management than any total limit they might not understand.
Limiting the household energy supply is only one way to manage energy use.
As an industry we want our customers engaged and interested in energy use. Comfortable living in homes that are safe, secure and able to connect new technology will ensure our industry remains highly valued and considered essential.
Flattening out the total load across the grid has been a goal for the entire industry for as long as I can recall.
Four cents a kW/h for electric hot water and electric storage heating was a real thing not that long ago. A reduced cost at night tempted consumers to load up after hours and reduce their daytime load. This same tariff concept is still relevant, and most retailers offer a full ‘time of use’ tariff.
So a technical system of load profiling, in conjunction with a full ‘time of use’ tariff may well be a relatively simple solution that can help with the load and the cost.
And, of course, the medium-term solution can be led by our industry – using supplementary energy supplies in the household, such as solar, generators, batteries, etc.
There is a greater cost with these systems, and customers will still be paying for the mandatory distribution costs associated with having the house connected to the grid. However, these systems can play a big role in allowing home-owners to connect the appliances they want.
Ultimately the grid needs to be enhanced with multiple entry points of supply, and multiple types of generation connected, in order to catch up with demand.
This will allow home-owners and developers willing to pay for it to connect the load they want or need without major upgrades and major costs.
This utopia will not remove the need for household supplementary energy supplies. These systems will always play a large part of our industry. The grid needs help and it needs to grow quickly.
New age energy ‘billionaires’ are rushing to fill the current void in the grid with all sorts of ideas and concepts (think towing icebergs to the desert to provide drinking water).
Mature industry-led discussion needs to occur soon to make sure grid enhancement investments are long term, sustainable and flexible, and provide a secure return.
This will be the role of successive governments. Investment will not flow until there is no risk that a change of government means a complete policy change. A policy must be a commitment for 20 to 30 years.
As an industry we have a voice in this matter, and we need to force our way to the policy table to provide ‘on the ground’ experience for the macro energy future.