Transforming our electricity networks

Facing rising demands with limited resources, we’re being forced to become more clever with wired energy. [8 January 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Fire near Forcett on 6 January has reduced electricity lines to burning wood and tangled wire. PHOTO SHANE HUMPHREYS / ABC

It’s in the air, in the ocean, pretty well everywhere. It’s part of nature’s fundamental forces, as old as the universe, yet it’s become a symbol of modern life. That’s electricity.

The word carries a sense of mystery and drama. We used to marvel at stage tricks using electricity, and we continue to be awed by its spectacular displays in stormy skies. When we want to convey tension, we talk of the air being electric.

We sometimes consider it dangerous, even deadly, yet it’s part of our life support. In our bodies it’s constantly at work, carrying the signals that keep us ticking over.

Nowadays it provides life support to more than just our bodies. Without it our homes, workplaces, transport systems and communications networks — our whole modern civilisation — would cease to function. Witness a dark and silent New York just 10 weeks ago, when Hurricane Sandy blew in.

Here in Tasmania, residents with homes to return to in the wake of Friday’s firestorm will have to make do for weeks without power as Aurora Energy completes the mammoth task of replacing over 600 poles and many kilometres of line.

Our reliance on networked power today is close to absolute. Since 1950, when households used electricity to power just lights, radiators, stoves, refrigerators and radios, its uses have multiplied many times over.

Much of this is due to our natural inclination to avoid labour when possible. We once used our muscles to mix the batter or clean the floor, trim a beard or a hedge, or clean our teeth; now we often take the electric option. As for households, so too for business, but much more so.

The list should also include transport. Electrified public transport has been with us as long as mains electricity, but now we can fairly confidently assume we’re also getting electric cars, which may lessen our fossil fuel use, at least in Tasmania, but won’t do a lot for power bills.

Another item on our electric list might once have been thought of as a minor power user, but no longer. Via a vast and increasing array of applications, the electronics revolution has given us multiple tools for calculating, creating, referencing, communicating and navigating.

Electronics is also taking up a bigger proportion of our power bills. It’s a classic instance of the “Jevons Paradox” at work, whereby greater efficiency drives new and increasing usage. It includes the world’s millions, possibly billions, of individual charging devices, but it doesn’t stop there.

Corporate bodies around the world, relying increasingly on computing and networking systems, are finding that electronic systems are starting to become the big-ticket item in their electricity costs. Google is a case in point.

Google’s global pre-eminence in internet traffic owes much to massive banks of linked data storage and computing devices at various locations around the world. About a year ago its electricity consumption was estimated at more than 260 million watts, continuous. That’s more than enough energy to power all Tasmania’s 200,000-odd households.

All this requires electricity to be generated. Many companies including Google are buying energy from renewable sources, but the major energy source for power generation around the world remains fossil fuels, mainly coal, and that means carbon emissions.

The take-home message from current electricity use around the world is that it’s headed in only one direction — upward. Current systems that generate and deliver electricity to homes and businesses will have to continue to work overtime, beyond their designed capacity and their use-by date.

For many reasons, governments have to find ways to get people to use less electricity. Coercion is one way, but that takes government courage which is in short supply. A more likely option is to inform people about their consumption so they can see how to save both electricity and money.

Late last year the government released a discussion paper on “smart networks”. Combining energy and communications networks, this new technology is aimed at putting downward pressures on prices by achieving much more efficient deployment of electricity by and between the state’s different energy users.

It’s part of a wider electricity reform program that includes merging transmission and distribution functions and giving customers a choice of retailer (meaning other retailers besides Aurora Energy) and more refined electricity service products that can be tweaked to meet individual user needs.

The reforms have big ramifications for Tasmania’s current sole domestic electricity retailer, Aurora Energy, which only last week got a bit of media stick over indications that it would have to get tougher this year on people who don’t pay their bills. (The company says 2012 was an abnormal year because the billing system was being bedded down; 2013 will be a return to normal.)

The company has a 10-year plan for implementing a smart power grid aimed at putting Tasmania at the forefront of electricity market innovation in Australia, on which it will spend over $10 million over the coming two years.

Its plans include setting up remote-area power supplies with stand-by generators in places such as Strahan and Zeehan, developing a more self-sufficient Bruny Island network, and deploying smart metering and other technologies to improve the efficiency of power delivery.

It’s even pursuing the idea of paying customers for reducing electricity usage to better manage peak demand and gain some leeway for deferring or avoiding significant capital expenditure.

The company will soon start a state-wide audit of commercial and industrial customers to gather information for a “demand management program”, and it plans a similar program for households, targeting electric hot water storage systems and heat pumps.

Current research by CSIRO and the University of Tasmania will inform a decision on demand management, expected to get under way next year. I think I speak for all Tasmanian electricity consumers in saying it can’t happen soon enough.

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