Policy, Renewables

Murky communication won’t help the clean energy cause

In order to win hearts and minds the renewable energy industry needs to shift from describing technologies to illustrating the benefits they bring, writes Dan Cass.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put innovation on the national agenda when he defeated Tony Abbott in the leadership spill in September 2015. Turnbull said: “We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”

Then at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015, Prime Minister Turnbull had Australia sign up to a side agreement with the EU and 21 other nations called “Mission Innovation”, which promised to double government funded R&D into clean energy within five years. Turnbull said: “We do not doubt the implications of the [climate] science, or the scale of the challenge” and professed Australia’s “great optimism and faith in humanity’s genius for invention”.

Unfortunately, after the Coalition’s poor showing at the 2016 federal election it was noted that working class voters fear change to the status quo and so the Liberal leadership moved on. But innovation should be front and centre of the Liberal Party’s approach to energy, because it brings consumers lower bills and more control.

Innovation has always been necessary to solve the technological hurdles of energy transformation. But it is increasingly clear that innovation also helps with the politics, because it lowers bills and appeals to consumers. The energy consumer wants cheaper power and the only way to get it is with new technologies and business models and the market reform to allow them to compete.

Techs and specs

Australian companies and inventors are leading the charge already. Reposit is proving a new distributed storage model, Greensync is expanding into Singapore, the Wattwatchers smart energy Auditor is in 10,000 homes and Solar Analytics is selling to the huge US energy market from Powerhouse, a solar incubator and accelerator in Oakland.

The way to inspire Australians to get behind energy market reform is to promote stories of success like these companies and show how new technologies have benefits for the economy and the environment. Coal and gas generators are the same as incumbents in any market; they use lobbying to protect themselves from competition. In order to get political support for opening up the NEM to proper competition, energy innovators have to show how they are commercial winners and how they are helping consumers.

Readers of this journal would be advised to learn well the lessons of Australia’s decade-long carbon price debacle. The main lesson is marketing 101: sell the benefits, not the features. Only a small, well-educated minority are interested in innovation per se. The features of battery storage are interesting to us, but the consumer wants to hear about the benefits: lower bills, more control, social esteem, zero emissions.

The message

In order to keep winning hearts and minds and maintain the overwhelming popularity of renewable energy, we have to innovate in how we communicate. We should shift from describing technologies to illustrating the benefits they bring.

We can also use innovation to fight back in the war on renewables. The South Australian blackouts on 28 September 2016 were used as evidence to make a scapegoat of wind farms. The fact of course is that renewable energy, storage and smart grids can deliver more reliability and long-term resilience than fossil fuels.

Peter Fairley, writing for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, points out that networks have been using wind turbines to stabilise electricity supply for more than a decade. Back in 2005 Quebec’s grid manager started to require wind farms to provide grid security, through “synthetic inertia” services.

One of the core stabilising functions of baseload thermal plants is to provide inertia to energy supply, smoothing out fluctuations. The physical inertia of the turbine is synced to the frequency of the grid and resists deceleration.

When wind turbines are paired with clever inverters and related smart grid technology, they can provide a suite of services that enhance security of supply, including a synthetic version of inertia. If our politicians really want energy security, rather than making uninformed slurs about wind farms they should be asking the Australian Energy Market Operator and Australian Energy Market Commission how best to regulate wind farms so they provide a range of energy security corrections during times of grid instability, from fast response (less than a second) to slow response (many seconds).

Australia’s synchronous, centralised, baseload electricity network is a marvellous technical achievement, but we can do better now. When the COAG Energy Council provides a responsible long-term vision and directs the regulators to implement it, then we can invent the secure, affordable, decentralised electricity grid we need.

It pays to be flexible

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s ESCRI-SA project shows how innovation can transform the grid. AGL, ElectraNet and WorleyParsons are working together to see how to deploy a large (up to 20MW, 200MWh) non-hydro storage facility in South Australia’s grid, to increase energy security. It would be funded by selling diverse services to the network and the energy markets.

Interestingly, the study found that 40% of the income for a big storage installation could come from market trading, including during high price events, and roughly another 40% from delivering “unserved energy revenue”, covering for grid failure when the local network islands from it. But the big wave of storage innovation will only come if the playing field is made level, so storage and demand management can compete fairly. And that will mean less wasted investment on gold plating and lower bills for all energy consumers.

The low-hanging fruit for Malcolm Turnbull and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is in delivering these multiple, or “stacked”, services, which will be profitable when energy market rules allow them to be monetised fairly. Emissions reduction and energy productivity will follow, as day follows night. Innovation and competition – what could be a more perfect, honest Liberal Party policy than that?


Dan Cass is a strategist at the Australia Institute and an honorary associate at Sydney Business School. He is on the advisory board of Solar Head of State and provides independent strategy and policy consulting services.
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