A local revolution

Working together gives the community the power to make decisions based on their values. Photo:...
Working together gives the community the power to make decisions based on their values. Photo: Gettty Images

Making connections, in a very literal sense, is the way of the future, writes Scott Willis.

Scott Willis
Scott Willis


Imagine if, out of the blue, your long-term electricity retailer suddenly offered you $150 off your next bill, with cheaper electricity rates and double the discount for on-time bill payment. Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?

But that’s not the way it usually happens. More likely, you’ve changed provider, and suddenly all the above is on offer, but only if you reverse your decision to change retailer. A bit cynical perhaps?

Well, the free market mantra is that competition drives down cost and increases efficiency, so why do we sneer at insulting offers? Some of us play the game and play off providers against each other to get the best deal. But others want more than just a cynical relationship with an electricity provider.

Evaluating the local network prior to the deployment of the Blueskin Energy Network. Photos:...
Evaluating the local network prior to the deployment of the Blueskin Energy Network. Photos: Supplied

Jeremy Rifkin, an American author and academic and proponent of the "Third Industrial Revolution" argues that as we embrace a more dynamic, flexible technological basis to our activities based on electricity we’ll also stimulate a new economic system. What I take this to mean is a more participatory, sharing, service centric society. The huge developments in digital technology, the assets people own, such as smart appliances, solar panels and  electric vehicles and the social aspirations of society to reduce emissions and consume local and green are opening  doors for innovation in the energy sector and in society in general.

My hope is that we have the imagination and motivation to break free from the status quo of being passive consumers of electricity. My hope is that we create a community-led energy revolution, starting with our electricity network. And this is where things get really exciting and personal. On Friday, April 6 the Blueskin Energy Network went live. Full disclosure: I am the project manager for Blueskin Energy Ltd (BEL), which is behind the Blueskin Energy Network (BEN).

This is a community-industry collaboration that we believe is highly innovative. We (BEL) are working with P2 Power to develop and deliver the Blueskin Energy Network service: P2 Power is the retail division of emhTrade, a licensed electricity retailer and a member of the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner (EGCC) Scheme. Does that sound complicated? Well I haven’t finished yet, as this whole thing is taking place within the OtagoNet Joint Venture electricity distribution network, owned by PowerNet.

That’s a lot of detail and now you can safely ignore it, because the big point is that by working together, rather than competitively, we can have a win-win-win-win-win situation.

People are increasingly taking action in their lives to get better outcomes and not just the cheapest headline price. We look for local, healthy or ethical content in our food. When money is tight we don’t starve our kids, we change our buying habits for lower cost food, whether seasonal fruit and veges or home brand. When we have surplus produce we share it with our neighbours. Electricity should not be any different. People can and do make choices. Germans collectively accepted higher bills to close nuclear power plants. Folks with solar panels change a lot of little things to use more of their own solar power. Working together we want to help people know when power is cleaner, cheaper or more local (or vice versa), what they can do to use power to suit their personal needs and values, and, where they reduce the costs of supplying power, share in the rewards that follow.

Residents win by being able to participate in a local smart grid to use more local, green and/or cheaper energy in a sharing economy. BEN helps people share power, peer to peer within the community to increase resilience.

The community wins by collectively reducing household emissions through greater efficiency and through enabling the installation of clean tech such as wind turbines, solar panels, and grid-tied electric vehicles to aid the democratisation of the electricity network.

P2 Power and emhTrade win by demonstrating today’s digital and data techs, which means retailers and energy communities can engage with people on values and give a real choice  about when to use power,  allowing people  to save money, support their community and drive better climate outcomes.

PowerNet wins by being able to better balance the grid as more renewables come online or, if we use less power during exceptional peaks, defer installing more capacity.  The national grid operator Transpower is looking to do this also.

Evaluating the local network prior to the deployment of the Blueskin Energy Network.
Evaluating the local network prior to the deployment of the Blueskin Energy Network.

Ultimately, this is a local smart grid development that is all about optimising efficiency, flexibility and resilience. We gain by reducing carbon emissions, by building community resilience and by reducing cost as well. We address climate change and fuel poverty through doing things differently.

And doing things differently is disruptive. Disruption is a natural consequence of the move to the Third Industrial Revolution. No revolution has ever occurred without some sort of fundamental reform and "To get the speed of the emissions cuts we need, we’re going to need to build the new on an unprecedented scale, in ways that intentionally alter the fundamental workings of older systems, foreclose high emissions choices and tilt the economics of pollution everywhere" says Alex Steffen, a "future thinker".

Peer to peer trading of electricity (you buy solar power off your neighbour), "gaming" the use of electricity to lower peak demand, and being able to walk the talk on our values ...  This is the revolutionary journey we’ve embarked on.

In a shameless piece of promotion I invite you all along to the Waitati Hall on the evening of Thursday, May 24 to find out about "Democratising our energy network", a TechWeek event, and to Otago Polytechnic on Saturday, May 26 during TechWeek where we’ll be giving a talk and hosting a stand.

Some years ago the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment issued a report called "Get smart, think small: local energy systems for NZ". That report focused on "methods for providing energy services without depending on remote large-scale electricity generation" to "displace a significant proportion of the future electricity demand that would otherwise require investment in a new large plant". The Parliamentary Commissioner argued that "to be successful, the users of these systems have to be actively involved in their design and operation". This is what the Blueskin Energy Network is all about: a community-led deployment.

To quote Alex Steffen again, "[This] build of the new is not a trend that will influence the economy of the future, it is the economy of the future" and we want community values in the driving seat for a change.

- Scott Willis is the project manager of Blueskin Energy Ltd. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.  



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