This year marks the third year of the Gill Owen Essay Prize – a prize for young Australians who seek to build on Dr Owen’s legacy by discussing changes to policy which could improve our future outlook for energy efficiency and social equity – two areas in which Dr Owen campaigned tirelessly.
The Gill Owen Essay Prize is supported by AGL Energy, Uniting Communities, the Association for Energy and Environmental Equity, Renew Economy, and the Institute for Sustainable Futures of the University of Technology Sydney.
Elise Wood is the overall winner of the 2019 Gill Owen Essay Prize, announced on 25 February 2020. Her essay, reproduced below, explores the barriers faced by apartment tenants to accessing distributed energy resources like rooftop solar – and the consequences of those barriers.
Note: the views expressed in the essay are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of AGL or any of the other Gill Owen Essay Prize partners.
To Prosume or Not to Prosume – 2019 Gill Owen Essay Prize winner Elise Wood
A decade ago, less than 100,000 rooftop solar systems were installed in Australia. Today, there are over two million systems, and a host of other small-scale, modular devices for storing and managing energy used by Australian households1. If the last 10 years have demonstrated anything, it is that the transformation of our energy system from a highly centralised model to a decentralised model will be swift.
Much of the focus of our energy transformation has been on technology. Distributed energy resources (DERs) like rooftop solar have enabled just about anyone to generate electricity, rendering the grid a plug-and-play platform for users to configure. Getting new technologies to work with the existing system and keep the network operating is an engineering feat that needs critical attention. However, an equally important consideration in discussions about our changing energy system is the changing relationship between service provider and consumer, and the implication this has for social equity.
Dr Gill Owen recognised that energy policy is social policy, and that the application of new technologies in the energy market had implications for fairness. Her thought leadership on the adoption of smart meters speaks to this. Owen outlined how smart meters and dynamic pricing could benefit consumers and reduce peak demand, but could also disadvantage lower-income households2. She knew that a one size fits all approach to energy policy was unjust, and advocated for targeted policy responses that accounted for social differences3.
Rise of the prosumers
A lot could be gained today by applying Owen’s insights to the rapid growth of DERs and the rise of ‘prosumers’. Prosumers are a new actor that both produce and consume their own energy, and they are most clearly represented in Australia by households that generate electricity from rooftop solar panels. A staggering 20% of households in Australia are prosumers, using locally generated electricity in their homes and feeding excess energy into the grid.
For the most part, prosumers and their uptake of DERs are positive developments that are supporting our transition to a low-carbon energy system, reducing the cost of electricity for many households, and demonstrating opportunities to curb peak demand. By generating and using energy locally during peak periods, costly grid upgrades can also be avoided4. However, when we look closely at who prosumers are and who they aren’t, and their distribution across the network, there are some emerging inequalities which need to be addressed as the transformation of our energy system scales up.
Solar haves and have nots
Overwhelmingly, households with rooftop solar are made up of people that own and live in a detached or semi-detached house. Statistical analyses by Newton and Newman (2013) and Sommerfield et al (2017) in Australia both found that dwelling type and tenure significantly affected prosumer activity, with home ownership and living in a standalone house positively influencing the take up of rooftop solar.
In contrast, places with high concentrations of people who rent and live in apartments were found to have lower rates of solar installations. The inequitable rates of participation in prosumer activities like installing rooftop solar were noted in the Australian Government’s 2017 Finkel Review, which stated:
[Some] consumers have limited opportunities because they rent or occupy high-density buildings. It is important that these consumers are not excluded from the possible benefits of the energy transition5.
Renters and apartment dwellers haven’t been intentionally excluded from prosumer opportunities. In principle, these groups could have applied for rebates and taken advantage of the generous feed in tariffs that stimulated and supported the growth of small-scale solar. However, in practice, people that rent and live in apartments aren’t on an even footing with owner-occupiers of houses. They face a range of regulatory and market constraints, from bureaucratic strata committees to information asymmetries.
While government does fund innovation projects and trial programs to support the development of new business models, these rarely scale up as a result of the prevailing constraints. An example of this is the uneven power dynamics between landlords and tenants in the rental market. Without market pressure through mechanisms like a disclosure scheme, action will only be taken if a landlord is personally motivated to install. Broader reform is often needed to translate pilots to practice and, in turn, facilitate prosumer opportunities for people that rent or live in apartments.
Generating inequality, producing inefficiency
Perhaps the undemocratic nature of prosumer incentives and activities could be overlooked if their overall impact had resulted in a cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient energy system for all. Rooftop solar is certainly contributing to a cleaner energy system, meeting a quarter of the National Electricity Market’s net demand in optimal conditions.
Unfortunately, many of the efficiencies of decentralised energy production are being undermined from a mismatch of where energy is generated and where energy is consumed.
By and large, rooftop solar is concentrated in outer suburbs where there are far more detached houses are far fewer apartments and renters. Mapping the Clean Energy Regulator’s postcode data for solar ‘small generator units’ in Sydney below, we can see is that that postcodes with the largest generating capacity (those dark blue and light blue areas, which represent the top two quartiles) are largely in the outer suburbs.
Moreover, if we combine this with census data and weight generating capacity by population, the spatial pattern of rooftop solar is strengthened - nearly all areas west of Parramatta are in the highest two quartiles of generating capacity, and most inner and middle suburbs make up the lowest two quartiles.
Figure 1: Capacity (kW) of Small-Scale Solar PV Systems in Greater Sydney by Postcode – 2018 (Author’s analysis using CER, 2018)
While it’s great to see such strong uptake of rooftop solar in the outer suburbs, this pattern means there is typically more energy generated where there are less people to use it – particularly during the sunniest parts of the day when the bulk of the population is concentrated in jobs hubs like Parramatta, Chatswood, and the CBD for work. As a result of the mismatch, ‘solar spill’ events can occur, where too much energy is generated in a local area and it floods the grid.
There are emerging opportunities to trade this energy between households. However, it needs to be transported to the right parts of the grid. The network benefits of DERs come from when energy is generated and consumed within a local area. If energy needs to be transmitted to other side of the city, it’s got to be transformed from low to high voltage and this puts a strain on the network.
As a result, in solar saturated areas, systems can be switched off when there is too much energy being produced, and longer term, costs are incurred by the need to upgrade the network. All the while, renters and apartment dwellers are supporting these activities through paying taxes and energy bills, but are not necessarily recouping proportionate benefits.
Figure 2: Weighted Capacity (kW/1000 People) of Small-Scale Solar PV Systems in Greater Sydney by Postcode - 2018 (Author’s analysis using CER, 2018 and ABS, 2016)
Of course, batteries are presenting opportunities to store excess energy and trade it locally when there is demand. Many government initiatives are now supporting the uptake of household batteries, such as in NSW where no-interest loans are being offered6.
However, the equity lens is again missing in the policy approach to utilising this new technology. While a household battery may provide opportunities for an individual prosumer to store and use energy later, it has little benefit for the broader network. Put simply, distributors can’t depend on household actors ‘behind the meter’ to trade their stored energy rationally and provide supply when needed. Furthermore, without considered planning, the location of these batteries will likely be ad hoc and result in an uneven geography, much like rooftop solar.
Planning for prosumers
Looking forward, we need to recognise that prosumer activities inherently have a spatial impact as they decentralise the production of energy. At the same time, population trends have a spatial relationship, and so naturally energy and social issues intersect.
To address inequality and emerging imperfections among prosumers and their use of DERs, we need to draw on the some of the lessons that Dr Gill Owen championed. As a starting point, we should identify barriers that inhibit participation in prosumer markets, and advocate for differential policy responses. Improving minimum energy performance standards, establishing a national residential disclosure scheme, and introducing incentives that target renters and apartment buildings would be good first steps.
We should also plan for and support an approach to utilising batteries that increases the flexibility of the grid rather than the individual household. This could be achieved through community and district storage solutions that enable prosumers to feed excess electricity into the communal network and have that managed in a local area for the benefit of all.
And, if we’re going to get really radical, we could integrate social and environmental policies with local network planning. The UK’s Energy Systems Catapult’s recent pilots in ‘Local Area Energy Planning’ provide a good blueprint to build on.
1 Clean Energy Regulator, 2018a, ‘Postcode data for small-scale installations – SGU Solar’: http://www.cleanenergyregulator.gov.au/DocumentAssets/Documents/Postcode%20data%20for%20small-scale%20installations%20-%20SGU-Solar.csv
2 Owen, G., 2012, ‘Will smart meters benefit consumers?’, The Conversation, 6 Dec: https://theconversation.com/will-smart-metersbenefit-consumers-11119; Owen, G., 2013, ‘Beating the peak without punishing the poor’, The Conversation, 9 May: https://theconversation.com/beating-the-peak-without-punishing-the-poor-13313
3 Owen, G., 2013, Addressing peak demand: the opportunities and risks for vulnerable households Monash Sustainability Institute, https://www.monash.edu/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/293379/addressingpeakdemand-oppsandrisks.pdf
4 Parkinson, G., 2018, ‘City of Sydney buys into Ausgrid network’s push for more solar’, Renew Economy, 8 March: https://reneweconomy.com.au/city-of-sydney-buys-into-ausgrid-networks-push-for-moresolar-73061/
5 Finkel, A., Moses, K., Munro, C., Effeney, T, O’Kane, M., 2017, Blueprint for the Future: Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market, Commonwealth of Australia, p145: https://www.energy.gov.au/sites/default/files/independent-reviewfuture-nem-blueprintfor-the-future-2017.pdf
6 NSW Energy, 2018, ‘Clean Energy Initiatives’, State of NSW: https://energy.nsw.gov.au/renewables/clean-energy-initiatives