FEATURE: Free energy is closer than you think
As renewable energy becomes more abundant your electricity bill could change forever.
Last year energy giant EnergyAustralia offered its New South Wales-based customers “free” energy. They call it “Free Saturdays”, and if it sounds like the kind of marketing you’ve seen from your phone company, that’s because it is.
Five years ago UN Environment Program director Achim Steiner predicted electricity generating companies would no longer be charging for electricity by 2050.
In the same way your smartphone made mail, video conferencing, GPS, cameras, voice recording and even books ‘free’, the electricity grid of the future has the potential to deliver you renewable energy at no cost.
It all comes down to the rapid lower-cost path renewables have been taking around the world, delivering energy at zero marginal cost.
You only have to glance around you to see the huge amounts of infrastructure required to deliver you your electricity - hard to imagine this ever being free. But as the grid evolves from large monoliths to smaller community networks we’ll see far more efficiency.
Energy companies are already toying with new fee structures to deal with this changing grid, says Tony Wood, Energy Program Director at think tank the Grattan Institute.
“There are lots of things in our lives where the marginal cost is close to zero - like the last seat on an aeroplane, renting out a house that was going to be empty, and yet markets still deal with those situations because the price builds in the capital cost.”
But unlike in energy markets, says Wood, hoteliers don't charge you a fee for the hotel being available and then extra for when you turn up to use it
“If people disconnect from the gas network do they still have to pay for the gas system being there?
“You can imagine a world where all the fixed costs and capital costs, opportunity cost of the investment and then a relatively small part of the maintenance cost make up one flat fee, and then you can use as much energy as you like.”
It’s the way telcos have been selling data for some time, albeit without the need to ‘store’ that data somewhere before you use it.
The real game changer
In a truly connected society, however, we will move far beyond all-you-can-eat energy plans.
Breakthroughs in storage or solar cell technology could change the economics entirely.
“The pace is accelerating way beyond anyone expected,” says futurist Ross Dawson.
“A lot of current debates on energy efficiency are almost irrelevant if you start to look at how distributed energy production and storage will become.”
Think energy in place with every device. (LINK to smart communities article) Your appliances connected to spare energy from your car, which in turn got its spare energy from trading energy independently with your neighbours. Buildings operating as power plants.
“And blockchain or distributed ledger - these are enabling technologies for shifting paradigms from centralised energy production to distributed energy production and monitoring,” says Dawson. The energy distributors we know today likely replaced by a series of smaller companies helping you trade energy, and helping the large energy generators recoup capital expenditure in an entirely different way.
It took little more than a decade for renewable energy to move from a marginal investment option to 90% of new electricity generating infrastructure worldwide this year. Now it’s just up to innovators to step in and deliver the kind of services we saw with our smartphones.