Electricity revolution: Here comes the sun

by Pattrick Smellie / 10 June, 2016
What customers hate more than high bills is uncertainty of supply.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Think about this: by 2050 – within the lifetime of most 20-year-olds, the sun is predicted to be the main source of the world’s electricity.

Today, gas, coal, oil and a smattering of uranium are the main global fuels for producing electricity. For all the attention paid to solar electricity, its ­contribution is barely 1% of total output.

In New Zealand, however, a renewable electricity future is kind of whoopty-doo.

Compared with most countries – Iceland and Uruguay are exceptions – we’re already there, producing 80% of the country’s electricity from renewable hydro, geothermal, wind and solar sources, and very much in that order.

Hydro dams account for about three-quarters of renewables, with the six to eight weeks of national electricity pent up behind them representing a watery national battery.

As a result, New Zealand’s electricity debate centres on whether we can get to 100% renewable, a goal unimaginable in Australia, which is heavily dependent on natural gas and coal to keep the lights and the air conditioning on.

Electricity companies doubt that 100% renewable is achievable. At some cost to their desire to be liked more, they’ve just taken out insurance by paying to keep elderly coal- and gas-fired turbines available at Huntly until 2022.

The power companies know that even though customers hate high power bills, what they hate even more is not having electricity at all. Security of supply remains front of mind for electricity industry ­planners, even if most cus­tomers have forgotten the “dry year” campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s.

However, the logic of Huntly may not hold for much longer. One day soon, batteries holding big reserves of electricity could replace fossil-fuel power stations to fill in the gaps when it’s dry and windless for much longer than usual.

And when that point is reached, all bets will be off for the kind of electricity market that emerges: low-carbon, ­decentralised and very different from what we see today.

Who knows? Customers might even love their power company, especially if their power company is mostly them.

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