The Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Hannam

Encouraging power users to shift their consumption during days of high demand could avoid major investments in networks while also fostering the use of solar energy, the head of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) said.

In Sydney to encourage Australia to match the US target of doubling energy productivity by 2030, NREL director Dan Arvizu also said early gains in efficient power use can come from smarter use of data rather than waiting for advances in technology, such as energy storage.

Electricity users, for instance, should be given incentives to shift demand earlier during summer peak days when supply from solar photovoltaic panels is highest.

“If you can shift the load to that point where you've got the generation, that would give you the same effect as storing that excess energy,” Dr Arvizu said.

The spread of low-cost batteries would in time do even more to flatten demand peaks but major penetration of storage devices is some years off. Mobile storage, for instance, costs about $US400 ($434) per kilowatt-hour of capacity, compared with a target of $US125, he said.

Australia pumped more than $40 billion into new poles and wires over the past five years, in part to ensure summer peak loads would not exceed capacity, forcing blackouts for some users. About half of consumers' power bills is made up of network investment.

However, as Pitt & Sherry noted in research released on Wednesday, none of the states set peak records last summer even as their populations and economies continued to expand. Heatwaves, particularly in late January, failed to set demand records in part because of the spread of solar PV but also as consumers replace energy-sapping airconditioners and other appliances with much more efficient models.

Dr Arvizu said the US is on a similar demand trajectory as Australia's, with use expected to be flat to declining over the next decade.

Investments in the electricity sector will mostly be to replace ageing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy and gas.

California, for instance, has a target of supplying a third of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2020. “Every indication is they are going to get there sooner than that, probably by 2017,” he said.

Big US utilities are focused on data analysis as a key way to boost productivity while also improving grid stability and lowering consumer costs.

Dr Arvizu was speaking on Thursday at the 2XEP Forum at the University of Technology Sydney.

Another speaker, Kateri Callahan, president of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, said the US had taken about four decades to double energy productivity from the late 1970s.

Business-as-usual behaviour would likely deliver another 57 per cent savings by 2030, while bipartisan-backed policies to deliver the remaining 43 per cent, she said.

“We began looking at energy efficiency as an economic development tool” to help drive the US economy out recession, Ms Callahan said.

Reaching the target of doubling productivity would bring savings of $US327 billion a year by 2030, generate 1.3 million jobs and lower annual energy imports by $US100 billion.

Carbon emissions would also be one-third lower than 2005 levels, aiding efforts to slow climate change, she said. 

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald