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University of Otago research associate professor Janet Stephenson told a seminar this week comprehensive information was available about national energy production and how electricity was spread throughout the national grid.
By contrast, little had been known about the mysterious "black box", which was exactly how electricity was used in households throughout the country, and how this contributed to major national energy demand peaks in the morning and evening.
The University of Otago Centre for Sustainability director said the centre and the Otago Energy Research Centre had been investigating household energy demand in more detail, including how the use of domestic hot-water cylinders and heat pumps contributed to peak demand.
New Zealand's overall electricity system had been developed around a "simple but now outdated concept" - that electricity companies generated power, and consumers bought it, Prof Stephenson said.
But in the 21st century, that picture had changed, and home-owners were now installing rooftop solar panels and selling the surplus back into the grid, and rapid growth in electric vehicle ownership also posed "new demands for electricity".
Care was needed to avoid disaster, in which "the peaks and troughs in electricity flows could become even more extreme, making power more expensive and less reliable".
She was optimistic smart new ways could be developed to smooth the peaks in energy demand, and to avoid major problems before they arose, she said.
Prof Stephenson and energy centre co-director Dr Michael Jack addressed about 20 people at the seminar about the Otago research, undertaken as part of a Canterbury University-led "Green Grid" project.