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Save now, pay later: the hidden costs of lower electricity bills

No lights, no power, no internet - and no easy solutions. Fumbling around in a middle of a blackout, hoping to find a torch or some spare batteries, I was struck by just how utterly dependent most of us…

Blackouts remind us what life was like before cheap, readily available electricity - but it’s time to think about the true price of our power. Candle in the dark image from www.shutterstock.com/Ronen

No lights, no power, no internet - and no easy solutions.

Fumbling around in a middle of a blackout, hoping to find a torch or some spare batteries, I was struck by just how utterly dependent most of us in Australia have become on low-cost, easy-to-use electricity.

My home on the Gold Coast was one of 283,000 homes and businesses - nearly one in four across south-east Queensland - to lose power during the Australia Day weekend storms, as wild winds and flood waters toppled power-lines up and down the coast. In modern cities, our reliance on “the grid” – for power, water, sewerage and food – has made us immensely vulnerable. But is there any alternative?

As someone who has worked in sustainability policy for state and federal governments for the best part of four decades, I’ve spent countless time considering how we can better power our lives in future, particularly in an age of climate change.

Yet I was still surprised by how uncomfortable it felt, sitting in the darkness, unable to flick a switch for lighting, cooking, cooling or heating - let alone charging. If we had been facing an emergency, our landline phone, mobiles, tablets and computers were only as good as the life of their batteries.

Vulnerable convenience

Electricity is a convenience that we all take for granted; only when the lights go out do we stop and think about how extraordinarily reliant on it we have become for almost every part of our daily lives.

There is no doubt that electricity grids offer some major advantages. For instance, if we were still burning coal and wood in our homes for heat and light, many our cities would be shrouded in a deadly smog haze, similar to Beijing’s today, or London’s pea soup fogs of the past.

The same grid principle has been applied across all kinds of other urban infrastructure, such as the introduction of modern reticulated water and sewage systems, which introduced odour relief and massive disease reduction.

But many of us have also experienced systems failures. For instance, the recent floods shut down Brisbane’s main water treatment plant, leaving authorities scrambling to keep water flowing from alternative sources - a situation that many residents did not help ignoring pleas to conserve water or risk their taps running dry. Clean drinking water was an even more significant problem after the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.

Our road and transport systems share these vulnerabilities; just-in-time supply practices at retail outlets compound those risks. Many of these distribution chains have taken weeks to be restored after Queensland’s recent floods and storms.

Being locked into grids creates dependence on systems outside human control. When everything is working, it’s seamless. But when it goes wrong, many of us wish there were real alternatives.

Going off-grid

There are entirely off-grid ways to live as illustrated by Frederick Trainer. And there are countless incentives for us to change our wasteful ways: doing so would save us money, reduce our need to work such long hours, and help in addressing global problems like climate change.

But as Trainer points out, shifting to genuinely sustainable ways of living would demand a radical reduction in economic growth and personal consumption, rather than just adopting the odd “green” habit - a prospect guaranteed to prompt instant popular, political and industry protests.

Emergencies bring home the vulnerabilities of our current system. They also highlight that the system - much of dependent on the burning of fossil fuels – only adds to the potential for future emergencies.

The price of change

There’s no denying many of us want change. But are we prepared to pay for it?

Judging from the furious public reactions to any price increases, the answer appears to be that we’re not.

For instance, the Queensland government is now considering whether to reduce its requirement to build duplicate backup infrastructure as a way to curb surging power prices. That may sound good to many Queenslanders in the short-term - but as long as we remain grid-dependent for our electricity, cutting back on back-up systems is a risky long-term strategy.

Brighter ideas

There are alternatives to continuing to make power policy on the run. Smarter solutions have been canvassed in countless official reporters, including parts of the 2012 federal White Paper on Energy, as well as from advocates of much bigger change like Dr Mark Diesendorf.

Ideally, we should be encouraging more diverse supplies of energy that would feed into an upgraded “smart grid”, while also backing more sustainable housing projects, such as WestWyck in Melbourne and the new zero carbon Cape Paterson Ecovillage in country Victoria.

The cost and timing of making such a significant shift in how we power and live our lives is critical - but as developments like Westwyck show, it is possible to live well, with less environmental impact.

Save now, pay later

But based on my experience of advising and working for governments over many years, it is difficult to see politicians leading the charge for transformative change.

I was reminded of why when I found myself in the dark. All I wanted was the power back on, fast - and so did everyone else.

Politicians respond to public demands, especially in a crisis. So if most of us seem happy with quick-fixes, nothing will change.

So the next time a politician promises to cut your power bills by cutting back on energy security, renewable energy or the carbon tax, it’s worth pausing to ask: how much will I save, and at what long-term cost?

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Once we've 'trimmed the fat' of electricity consumption it's difficult to see how we can cut further without physical or economic hardship. No doubt bill shock has been a factor in recent reductions, that bill shock being a mixture of carbon tax, RET and network increases. However we've lost manufacturing industry such as Kurri Kurri smelter. I know of frail elderly people who refrained from using air conditioning in 40C+ weather so these cuts are not necessarily all for the good. If our aluminium industry relocates to Asia but uses Australian alumina and energy fuels (coal, LNG, uranium) the whole exercise is an own goal.

    Many factors may require an increase in future electricity output. These include desalination in extended dry spells, making hydrogen for chemicals and synthetic fuels and charging traction batteries for electric cars. If long term electricity output falls it's hard to see how we can maintain a society which is equitable while still being frugal.

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  2. Ben Neilson

    Marine Engineer / Farmer

    I guess we're currently 'paying later' to cover neglected grid maintenance and capital works. I suppose we could in turn defer a few costs to our kids. Must admit I'd rather sort things out now if possible!

    I was reflecting recently on what single technology or product would make the biggest difference to my vulnerability to loss of availability of electricity or diesel. Given most of my machinery and cars are diesel powered I figure I need a substitute that I can make at home on the farm.

    What I would dearly love would be the ability to produce a diesel substitute by 'growing it' in something like our large poly water tanks. I don't have time to collect waste from every local fish and chip shop! The independence from supply grids would be largely complete given existing rainwater collection and septic/evaporation pit disposal.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Ben Neilson

      Don't know about growing it in your large poly water tanks Ben but I suspose you could with the right climate look at crops, soy, corn or even palm oil trees or start looking at alternative fuels for all your gear, ethanol for instance or even set up your own hydrogen generation plant and convert to hydrogen.
      Whichever way you go, it'll be big bikkies.
      And then I read of a vehicle, I think in the UK it might have been and they had like a big cow dungs container and a methane generator and you could…

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Ben Neilson

      Secondary Bio diesel made from plant waste has been around for a while.
      And primary diesel production for direct use, thereby avoiding Howard's fuel exise, is being undertaken by many in the community.
      They are all self funding, including the secondary diesel being produded by the same process in Australia, using coal, at a cost of 30c/litre.
      Local government might get in on this act but would all above would be shunned as too controversial for most of these conservative regimes.
      The Lord helps those who help themseves, for it seems the devil is in charge of all the other systems of supine, slave-like dependency (as one might surely expect).

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  3. John C Smith

    Auditor

    If we are really concerned about the future due to burning carbon, U2, Wind mills, Sola etc. We have to reduce consumption and waste. I have no control over the street lights and I do not need them as I dont have a car. The shopping centere is artificial climate, charge them more for power.

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " As someone who has worked in sustainability policy for state and federal governments for the best part of four decades, I’ve spent countless time considering how we can better power our lives in future, particularly in an age of climate change. "

    Sometimes I think Ian that not enough livability is being considered in this age of climate change promotion and the practicalities that are needed for livability to prosper.
    Is that an outworking of politicians, bureaucrats and academia being too…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      There is no alternative to the continent wide destruction to be wreaked by the imminent Abbott Anarchy.
      Climate Change will pale in comparison.
      Necessity will be the mother of invention in the subsequent ruins.
      Every cloud has silver lining, as the populace of necessity, and freed from slavish dependency upon ramshackle and unsustainable centralised service systems, take matters into their own hands.
      Tracking down and dealing directly with pervert priests, for instance, will be a popular vigilante sport.
      People will learn to love the coming Abbott Anarchy, if they survive.
      A World Turned Upside Down!
      Apocalypse Now! The Saboteurs of Democracy have won!
      The discussion was becoming somewhat complacent, demure and therefore unreal under our pressing circumstances, don't you think?

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      James, do you have somewhere to recommend so I can get more excited with the nature of preaching you exhort and will there by any chance be a guy called Ronnie I can get a lift with?

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      Try the Book of Revelations, Greg.
      There has to be something in the art of prophecy.

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  5. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    I think it is the financial inertia, the momentum of existing investments which is frustrating change.
    The technical solutions have been around for some time now, but the money is already tied up and it is not for turning,
    With religiously inspired conservative regimes set to take control across the continent we seem to be on the brink of a new dark ages where the collapse of precarious systems can be packaged as a punishment from god for sinful, secular democrats who will, for the good of their…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      Yes James, God has new hardware and software at his disposal to ensure that no sinners escape their due punishment.

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  6. Garry Baker

    researcher

    A well written plea - though it was composed after a mild electricity drought. Nevertheless, perhaps one area the author needs to focus on is "bottling electricity". Added to this, the building of houses, etc, that don't need air con or very much heating, and such. Indeed, the old line of pensioners suffering from lack of aircon in the summer heat is a mere product of our stupidity in the first place. Government's really need to address efficiencies with the latter, because it is quite evident…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Garry Baker

      Keep up that great research Garry and we ought to have some of that bottled electricity in no time at all, just a case of having a super duty battery in a bottle and while we are at it the heat generated could be put to use in heating or cooling via an absorption cycle refrigeration system.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Garry Baker

      A well written plea yes, but an even better reply, especially the transformative, (Schumpeter storm perhaps?), concept of bottled electricity.
      Something Australia could produce, without that China scale, is compressed air storage delivered by domestic scale, roof top?, windmills. (plenty more wind in a greenhouse world as many are noticing)
      Compressed air, as most are aware, already is used widely in workshops using compressed air motors.
      Wind Power varies as the cube of the velocity of the wind…

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  7. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    A somewhat vacuous article that nevertheless makes a serious point. Most people do not understand or appreciate the technology that sustains their lives and most would be crippled if it failed for a significant period. That in itself raises many questions.

    The rest is a nest of motherhood statements.

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    1. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Ian McPhail

      Maybe I was a bit blunt Ian, but fundamentally I accept your point. I worked for 11 years in the water supply industry. It taught me how little citizens in our modern Australian society understand the engineering technology that sustains them. More importantly it also taught me how ignorant our politicians are also.

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  8. Joan Bennett

    logged in via email @aetlimited.com.au

    If it was really about "human" emissions, they would be trying to stop population growth. Policies that encourage less children or childlessness are nowhere to be seen, though...

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  9. Kevin Smithson

    logged in via email @tag.eml.cc

    interesting article at <a href="http://grist.org/climate-energy/countrys-biggest-utility-power-provider-gets-into-the-distributed-energy-game/">Grist</a>; about NRG (huge US utilities provider) selling solar panels direct to homeowners, and intending to couple those with fuel cells and micro-turbines to run on natural gas when the sun isn't out.

    “The individual homeowner should be able to tie a machine to their natural gas line and tie that with solar on the roof and suddenly they can say to the transmission-distribution company, ‘Disconnect that line.’”

    Seems to dovetail with Frederick Trainer's article.

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