Australian off-grid movement gets a new leader

Living the half acre dream
Living the half acre dream
Tosh Szatow has been campaigning for years in Australia to build systems that can scale and make sustainable living possible.

Tosh recently joined the Cape Paterson Eco-village, near Phillip Island in Victoria, attracted by the holistic approach to sustainability adopted by developers Brendan Condon and Mike O’Mullane.

He said the project aimed to find ways to make clean energy more affordable than the alternative and his hope was that it would “catalyse innovation across the property sector.”

Key features will include large scale revegetation of natural habitat, re-establishing wetlands, new walking and cycling tracks, high performance housing, on site power generation, electric vehicles, community gardens and community workspaces. “Somewhere amongst the site will be 220 residential lots.”

Tosh’s recent report by the “Department of Energy Transition, Efficiency and Enoughness” shows a dramatic shift to localised, renewable energy production, made possible by radical improvements in efficiency. One in every three Australian households supplies its own electricity – whether individually, in clusters or small communities.

“The report highlights three key drivers for change: the affordability and reliability of solar photovoltaic panels and ongoing improvements in batteries; the community campaign to switch from fossil fuels; and the Great Firestorm Summer of 2016. It found that those tragic bushfires were a catalyst for the technology to leap from the fringes into the mainstream.”

It’s a composite of future scenarios imagined by Alan Pears, adjunct professor at RMIT University, and energy consultant Szatow – both of whom are advocates for localised, not centralised, electricity generation.

Szatow, who runs Energy for the People, agrees the trend is towards local generation and storage of power, and more self-reliant homes and communities.

“It was only in about 2000 that the world started taking solar photovoltaic panels seriously. By 2012 in Australia, the price had come down to the point where it was cheaper to produce your energy than buy it from the grid,” he says.

Some households will go it alone. Others – with the help of new energy services businesses – will combine to buy extra storage and back-up generators.

“Change always begins in a niche,” Mr Szatow says. “The niche for small-scale energy generation is where the centralised grid is weakest- for example, in new suburb developments where the network hasn’t been built, or in remote areas where reliability is poor or the servicing costs are high.”

He argues there are several possible catalysts (and timelines) for the niche to become mainstream, including natural disasters, cheap battery technology developed in response to high oil prices, and new energy service models.

While such a rapid switch away from the grid seems hard to imagine, Professor Pears argues the indicators of change are already with us. “There are so many emerging options for distributed energy, smart back-up generators and battery storage, together with efficiency to dramatically reduce our needs, that the old electricity industry can’t win,” he says. “The centralised technology solution they’re offering will be out-competed by these diverse solutions.”

Appliance manufacturers are already prototyping “smart energy packages” for households: a combination of home-scale renewable energy, together with storage, efficient appliances and monitoring systems.

He says big-box appliance retailers will begin selling those packages on a pay-as-you-go, no upfront cost basis.

How will the existing electricity networks and regulators respond? One possibility is that they’ll attempt to maintain profitability by switching to capacity charges – where you pay for the amount of network capacity you need at your peak usage – or by increasing fixed fees.

“Even now my fixed electricity charge is significantly more than half of my bill,” Professor Pears says. “I’m grouchy about that. Fixed charges are regressive – they fall disproportionately on low-income and low-energy users.”

He believes that either way, there will come a time when going off-grid becomes the most attractive option. “People who live simply and have low consumption will be the first to move off-grid in the city,” he says.

4 Responses

  1. I’d love to live off the grid in a tent, with solar panels, compost toilet, rainwater harvesting. Recirculating DWC aquaponics system maybe? It is entirely possible to have a tiny house free of mortgage forever. Tell me more about your eco village and stuff.

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