Consumers can score an easy goal against polluting generation by aligning demand for energy with supply from variable renewable sources, writes Steve Hoy.

The release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has been a jolting reminder that we have no time to waste to decarbonise the grid to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

We need more renewables in the grid, fast. But we’re facing an inflection point in which the success of renewables is threatening to undermine their continued rollout.

At the moment, with just over a quarter of Australia’s energy generation coming from renewables, the grid is flooded with solar in the middle of a sunny day to the point that wholesale prices sometimes dive below zero and solar farms need to be switched off. If you are a solar energy generator, this is not an attractive environment to be boosting capacity and bringing more projects online.

Meanwhile, windfarms are turning under a variety of conditions, hydro power is generated and batteries are starting to discharge into the gaps, but energy consumers have no idea when, and no clear way to send their buying signal to these renewable sources.

We need to be smoothing out these peak loads by shifting the bulk of energy use to the time our renewables are generating. This will improve the utilisation of renewables – and subsequently their business case – so that clean energy sources can muscle fossil fuels out entirely.

Nudging people towards new habits

What we need is energy users making small changes in their daily electricity consumption habits to allow solar and wind energy to find a home. However, delivering widespread behavioural change is notoriously difficult.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This isn’t the first time we’ve asked energy users to change their consumption patterns. Before renewables started penetrating the grid at scale, the goal was simply to reduce consumption of energy, because the bulk was fossil fuel-generated. This triggered experimentation to discover the best methods for changing energy users’ behaviour.

The Home Energy Report, developed and championed by US-based software provider Opower, represents one such breakthrough. The company experimented with providing feedback in the form of energy reports to encourage households to use less energy. It found that while simply presenting households with their energy consumption data was a strong motivator to use less energy, it was more powerful to tap into our competitive nature and compare the energy use of each household with their neighbours’.

It’s these sorts of insights that, when combined with technology that traces energy from source to socket, can be used to coach and incentivise a broad customer base to move their electricity load to match the clean energy generation that they have specifically contracted to purchase.

Rooftop solar owners have a head start

Some 2.68 million Australian households with rooftop solar are already in a position to start shifting their consumption patterns and soaking up their own excess solar. In fact, many homeowners have already started shifting their energy use to the middle of the day in response to falling solar feed-in tariffs.

Simply by waiting until the morning to turn on dishwashers, washing machines and pool pumps, these savvy households are taking full advantage of the cheap, abundant clean energy generated on their rooftops.

But this strategy is out of reach for people who don’t own a standalone home in a sunny spot. For everyone else – renters, apartment dwellers and homeowners with shady sites – there hasn’t been a way to tap into cheap, abundant clean energy at the moment it’s being generated.

This won’t be the case for much longer. Digitalisation is enabling the transformation of Australia’s electrical grids with fine grained data available from all connection points. This sets the stage for software that traces electricity and reveals exactly where your energy is sourced from – especially when it’s from a solar farm, hydro or wind – so that customers can adjust their activities accordingly and reap the benefits.

For households without rooftop solar, these smart software solutions mean they can match their energy consumption to when a solar farm 300km away is generating electricity. In practice, this could be a two-part energy plan where consumers see the lower price of, say, solar farm power compared to the firming generation that fills in the gaps.

Consumers will be able to see exactly how much of their energy is being purchased from each renewable generator, when and at what price. The user experience will be enhanced with proactive information and advice that not only saves money, but shows how such consumers can directly do their part – buying renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint.

The IPCC report has made it abundantly clear that we need to move fast. What’s left unspoken is that the future can be one of abundance of energy, not scarcity, if we get this right.

Steve Hoy is CEO of energy software firm Enosi and a former leader of IBM’s Global Smart Grid Systems consulting team.