The current bushfire crisis in northern New South Wales and Queensland is a sobering reminder that Australia is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
This means that our energy system is also highly vulnerable to severe weather events – not only bushfires and heatwaves, but also severe winds (hello, South Australia in 2016) and floods.
But there are things we can do to protect our energy supply from some of the impacts – and they don’t all involve the expensive extremes of beefing up the transmission system or going off grid.
A new discussion paper from the Total Environment Centre and Renew argues that local energy (or distributed energy resources, DER) can increase system resilience in several ways.
Energy efficient buildings ensure that energy needs are reduced. Small-scale generation, supported by local storage and microgrids, can help maintain supply if centralised generation is temporarily unavailable. EVs with vehicle-to-home or -grid capability can provide extra flexibility because of their portability.
Demand response can reduce stress on the grid – such as during heatwaves, when demand can exceed supply and place stress on network infrastructure. And where more local energy results in less reliance on poles and wires, this can reduce the risk of blackouts and damage from severe weather events such as bushfires, which are often caused by downed live lines.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this potential role is not currently acknowledged in the way the energy market is regulated.The concept of resilience and how it differs from reliability is not well understood.
There is no recognition of the value to the system of household and local system resilience, for example, for networks to factor in to their future investment plans – or the relative cost of increasing resilience via local versus centralised supply. And there is no accepted metric for measuring household and local system resilience – so we made up our own:
The paper includes the results of a survey of 141 members of Renew and the Facebook group My Efficient Electric Home, and a shorter survey of 1201 Solar Citizens supporters.
These surveys found a high degree of awareness of this issue and the range of potential private and public actions that could increase local energy system resilience. This included such things as a greater emphasis on the energy efficiency and thermal performance of dwellings, solar access rights, prioritising supply to critical infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, support for community microgrids and batteries, and more undergrounding of power lines in some bushfire-prone areas.
Significantly, most respondents considered energy resilience to be a community affair: not supporting individualised solutions such as going off grid, and advocating support for people who can’t install their own energy equipment to help manage the impact of extreme weather on their energy supply.
That said, there are situations where going off grid (individually or in small microgrids) not only improves reliability and resilience, but is also the cheapest solution.
The AEMC’s approach represents a step forward in understanding, and responding to, challenges to Australia’s energy system resilience from severe weather events and cyberattacks. However, its only recognition of the role of local energy in relation to resilience is to view it as a problem rather than a potential solution – so we still have a way to go.