In this, the last episode for series two of What Happens Next? we’re talking practical steps for embracing renewable energy in our own lives. Two, Faculty of Engineering experts Behrooz Bahrani and Roger Dargaville join Liam Smith from BehaviourWorks at MSDI to offer up their best tips and advice. They'll explain how you can use your vote, voice and wallet to call for more renewable energy.
"There is real value in people switching assets (such as in superfunds) to more sustainable outcomes or sustainable investments."
Liam Smith, BehaviourWorks
"If you're buying electricity, you can talk to your retailer, and you can get a green energy plan where you pay a couple cents more per kilowatt hour and you get green electricity, and that encourages your retailer to invest in renewables."
Roger Dargaville, Engineering expert
Susan Carland (SC): Hi, I'm Dr Susan Carland. Welcome to this final installment on the reality of renewables in the What Happens Next podcast. In this episode our experts offer up their tips for making the best use of Australia's abundant renewable energy. Whether that's joining forces with your community or lobbying government, we’ll have ideas for everyone. Roger Dargaville has some advice.
Roger Dargaville (RD): My name's Roger Dargaville, I’m a senior lecturer in renewable energy in the civil engineering department. My research focuses on designing optimal renewable energy systems, trying to work out how to minimise the variability in the output of wind and solar plants when they are aggregated over very large geographic regions.
SC: What can the average person at home do to improve the situation for renewables in Australia, particularly, if maybe they can't - they're renting so they can't put solar panels on their roof, they can't afford or they have nowhere to charge an electric car or can't get a hydrogen car. What can the average person do in this regard?
RD: Most of the decisions that will be made to decarbonise the energy system were made at the corporate level in terms of investment in new projects and shutting down of coal fired power stations. So, individuals can influence corporate corporations by taking their business away from fossil fuel. So if you're buying electricity, you can talk to your retailer, and you can get a green energy plan where you pay a couple cents more per kilowatt hour and you get green electricity, and that encourages your retailer to invest in renewables. But probably the most important thing is to get the politicians to put the policies in place that really make the corporations make the right decisions, so the way you vote is probably the single most important thing you can do. If you're particularly keen, you can write letters to your local member and say, ‘I'm really concerned about climate change, and I'd like to see more action in that space’. Politicians want to stay in power. If the voters say we want action on climate change, then they will make it happen.
SC: What is one thing you wish, what is one thing you wished the average person could understand about renewables, that there seems to be a lot of misinformation about?
RD: That's a good question. I don't know what people don't understand.
SC: What do I not understand? Look, I don't understand much.
RD: One of the criticisms we have in the renewable energy space is ou can't build a reliable energy system with wind and solar alone because obviously when the sun sets -
SC: It’s night, it’s dark, we’re all going to be in darkness too.
RD: - if the wind isn't blowing, then there's no wind power. The reality is you build solar farms in sunny places which do not tend to get cloud cover, so at least during the day that they're almost always producing power.
SC: And what about at night?
RD: Our power consumption goes up dramatically during the day and actually goes down a lot at night time.
SC: Sleeping right, I forgot.
RD; And at nighttime wind farms tend to produce more power so that the correlation between wind and solar works quite nicely. And while in a particular location it might not be windy. It will always be windy somewhere in Australia. So if we have a large transmission networks, which we actually already do have, connecting the grid together, you can move renewable energy around from the places where it's windy and sunny to the places where it's not. So just because one place doesn't have wind and solar at a particular point in time doesn't mean it's not available somewhere else.
You still need to be a bit clever. You can't run it just with wind and solar, because there still will be times when it's calm over much of the Eastern Seaboard and cloudy. So you need storage and pumped hydro is the best form of storage for bulk-storing energy. We've already got eight gigawatts of conventional hydropower in the snowy scheme and in Tasmania, so harnessing that will be really critical as well. But a cleverly designed, strategic placement of wind and solar farms, energy system, can provide very reliable energy, and it's not any more expensive than the current fossil fuel driven system.
SC: Roger, I have to say you make it sound very easy and realistic. Why does it not seem that way? Why does it feel so hard?
RD: It does involve rebuilding a system in a fashion that doesn't exist yet. So nowhere in the world has a wind and solar 100 per cent renewable energy system. We have countries that have close to 100 per cent for hydropower. Hydropower’s a very well understood and mature technology, so there's nothing dangerous about that, but no one's tried to build a 100 per cent wind and solar system before. So there's fear of the unknown. We're transitioning from a system that's been built over 100 years. It's very well established, and there's a lot of money invested in it, so moving away from that infrastructure is going to be somewhat costly. But in fact, the renewable technologies, and especially solar PV, have come down in cost so much that building infrastructure to make electricity from the sun, and the wind is now cheaper than doing it from fossil fuel. And that's true even for some coal fired power stations that have already been paid for. So just the cost of the coal going into the system is more than what it costs to produce power from a new solar farm.
SC: I guess there's, I think we need to work on the ‘will’ side of things. Roger, Thank you so much. That was really interesting.
RD: My pleasure indeed
SC: Let’s hear from Liam Smith.
Liam Smith (LS): I’m Liam Smith, I'm the Director of BehaviourWorks Australia. BehaviourWorks Australia is an applied behaviour change research unit working with government and private enterprises to change behaviour for individual or social good.
SC: Liam Smith. Welcome.
LS: Great to be here.
SC: All right, let's have a think about what individuals can do. What can we do to make a change? So what role do you think an individual has to play in making Australia you know, 100 per cent renewable power?
LS: There's there's certainly a few things, and then I guess you can divide them up into different types of behaviour. There was a really interesting work done, actually, in Townsville probably close to a decade ago now, where there was a question of what can individuals do in their homes to try to reduce energy consumption and reduce carbon emissions. And there were 240 identified behaviours, 240 different things. And the question is, well which one do we target. Because, as behavioural scientists or applied behavioural researchers, we typically like focusing on one thing, not 240. And in fact, we know if you tell people 240 things that they get choice overload and don't do much at all. If you give people too many choices they get stagnated, they get stuck. The best example that is Netflix, you know, cruising and choosing nothing.
So the top behavior they arrived at, and this was done in the city of Townsville, was to paint their roof white.
And that was chosen on two grounds or two criteria. The first was, what impact does it make and there were various estimates, but certainly a few degrees cooler in your house if you have a pale roof rather than a black or dark roof. So there was clearly a benefit to it. But also the likelihood that people would do that behaviour because it’s a relatively cheap, one-off behaviour, then it was seen as a fairly high-priority behavioural choice. But I guess in your household - in Victoria we might be a little bit different. So I'm not sure we might need this changing colour roofs here because sometimes we need white and sometimes we need black and certainly the cool of winter is quite problematic, although with climate change, clearly, we're gonna get more heat. So that's one thing. But I would also argue there are some other types of behaviour, not just household, and particularly, more advocacy behavior. And I think cAnd I think that there is real value in people switching assets to more sustainable outcomes or sustainable investments, sorry, and I think from those, there will be two things that I think of immediately that people can do now and can start to make a difference is to send signals to the policy makers. I guess the question is longer term - yes, there are lots of different things we can do and we've talked about some of those already in terms of battery storage and the use of energy.
SC: I love the idea of painting your roof white. I think as soon as you gave that example, I remembered when I was traveling through Morocco. And there's this little town called Chefchaouen, where the entire town is blue. By decree, everyone has to paint all of their house, all of their fence blue. The entire town is blue. It's phenomenal to go to. And so I remember when I went there, my husband and I are like, ‘could we ever have anything like this in Australia?’ Would people do it? What if we made, as an environmental statement, Melbourne or Sydney or whichever city - it’s white city for an environmental reason. You’d get heaps more tourists, because the Instagrammers come to have their photos in front of all these white buildings, and it's an environmental statement. You can have that idea for free, actually, Liam, for your next study. Check out Chefchaouen in Morocco and make it happen!
Liam. And why blue? Why blue?
SC: What's really interesting is it wasn't always blue. For a while, it was a different color, but for some reason it became a thing that the city did. And now it's so important for tourism. It's the only reason people go because it's not like the other bigger cities, like Marrakech or Casablanca or Fez. But because everything's blue, it's this iconic place to visit. It brings in a lot of tourists and now you have to, everyone has to, have a blue house. So, I think we should look at it. I’m gonna send you pictures.
LS: Certainly in Townsville, now it wasn't compulsory, I suppose you could make it more compulsory. But if you fly over town now, and I have been on Google Earth and taking snapshots from, of, Townsville and, particularly new developments are all white roofs, or mostly white roofs. Even existing developments, a lot of them are white or pale colours, so I think there have been quite successful, actually convincing people to do that.
SC: All right. It's happening. I'm sending you a photo right now. So what do you think the governments or institutions could do to make it easier for individuals to take action? Should there be subsidies, for example, like if you paint your roof white, I don't know, 50 bucks off your tax bill that year. Something like that. Or free … the paint itself would be a tax write off.
LS: Yeah, well, certainly there are incentives options, and they’re typically one of the tools that policy makers use. I always worry a little bit about incentives and there’s this term used in behavioural economics called money for nothing, which is that would people have done it anyway? Or indeed, could we have convinced people to do it for non-financial reasons. And there is a bit of an issue with motivating people for financial reasons, which is that if you if you take, for example, you put solar panels on your roof to save money, then in many ways it might predispose you to do other things that are in line with saving money and given another environmental choice, one that costs more - sorry, another situation where an environmental choice costs more and a less environmental one costs less it may be not the environmental consideration, but rather the cost that factors in your decision making. And so we call that crowding out or extrinsic motivations around the desired behaviour. So, yeah, the preference would clearly be to avoid incentives if we possibly could. They can work and they certainly do work. But equally, I'd be thinking, can we even be a bit more targeted in who they go to so that it’s more just trying to convince the laggards to get them across the line rather than getting it to everybody.
SC: So the more powerful message is ‘do this because it's the right thing to do environmentally’?
LS: Yeah, there's a lot of work in the behavioural sciences that target, you know, how do you convince someone - and often there are divisions between left wing and right wing or individualist or more collectivist viewpoints - how do you convince them to act in favour of say, climate change, or to do an environmental action that would support climate change mitigation.
And you know there are ways to do that, and particularly speaking to social norms or speaking to community based activities can be quite a powerful way of you know, ‘everyone else in your local community is doing this’ or ‘do it for your local community’. Those sorts of messages can often work on both sides including for people that don't even think the climate is changing. So yeah, I think that message targeting is key.
SC: Liam Smith. Thank you so much for your time.
LS: You're welcome.
SC: Joining us now is Behrooz Bahrani
Behrooz Bahrani (BB): My name is Dr Behrooz Bahrani. I'm a lecturer in the Electrical and Computer System Engineering Department at Monash University. My main field of research and expertise is renewable energy integration into the grid, converters, power electronic converters and their control and their application in the wider area of the grid.
SC: Behrooz Bahrani, welcome.
BB: Thank you so much.
SC: What can the average person at home do to improve things in terms of renewables?
BB: Well, living green. And living green has all sorts of, actually, aspects to it.
SC: Do you have solar panels on your house?
BB: I unfortunately don't because I am renting at the moment, but this will be one of my priorities as soon as I buy a house, that I can do that.
SC: But I think you probably touched on something there a lot of people feel. A lot of people are renting, so they can't put solar panels on. Is there anything else, in terms of renewables, people who don’t own a home can do?
BB: Well at the moment, for individuals one way, as you mentioned, would be solar panels. Another way would be driving an electric car, but unfortunately, electric cars are pretty expensive at the moment. But it will change.
SC: Actually, can I bring it back to me again? I would love to get an electric car, but I live inner-city where no one has garages and everyone has to park on the street. Is that viable, for someone like me to get an electric car? Because don't you have to plug it in overnight?
BB: You have to plug it in overnight, correct. But that is only if you want to charge it with your own electricity at home, and that is called slow charging. But there are fast charging solutions for electric cars that you can, for example, charge your car in 15 to 20 minutes, or at least got from 10 per cent state of charge to 80 or 90 state of charge of your battery, which is good enough for your day to day travel of course.
SC: So where do you do that?
BB: Well, yet the infrastructure is not there. So that's another thing that government could do to expand the infrastructure for electric vehicles, because, for example, what do you do for your normal petrol car? There is a gas station. You go there, you don't have gas at your home, you go to a gas station, you actually have access to gas. You could have charging stations, fast charging stations. And that would require a lot of infrastructure, a lot of, actually, investment from the government, to have fast charging stations so you don't have to wait more than 10-20 minutes. Now that we mentioned electric cars, let's mention another technology here which can hopefully be, also some sort of alternative to petrol cars, and that would be hydrogen cars.
Hydrogen cars are actually - because many people have this ‘range anxiety’ with electric vehicles, and they say ‘what if I don't have access to any charging point’ -
SC: Do you think that comes from our phones? We're always so worried about our phones going flat and needing to charge them that we kind of think of rechargeable cars as like big mobile phones with terrible batteries?
BB: It's a good analogy, and I think many people, yeah, because they're very much actually concerned about the cell phone, this is more or less the same thing because ‘what if I don't have access to a charging station every day?’ and that's actually a legitimate concern. If, for example, as you mentioned, if you live in a city and if you don't have access to charge or you are for example, renting an apartment and cannot actually charge it there, it's difficult and it adds to the problem. So one solution would be hydrogen cars. The way they work, imagine that you've got exactly like a petrol car. But instead of gas, it has hydrogen as the, instead of electricity or anything else, it’s just hydrogen, and you probably can charge them in a matter of minutes similar to a gas station. But again it requires a lot of investment and infrastructure and investment from the government, or different developers, or car manufacturing companies to come along and install these things, so we're yet not really ready for hydrogen, at least in Australia. Some other countries are doing much better when it comes to hydrogen. Japan, I think, is the leader. When it comes to hydrogen cars, fuel-cell cars, they’re great. But that could be another solution. And the way I see it, s because you know that you've got access to a station, you know you go in and get it charged. Another good point about hydrogen cars is that - well, let's talk about the problem of electric cars and charging stations, because if you want to, for example, charge a few cars simultaneously in your charging station, that high speed or fast charger, it requires a lot of, it puts a lot of burden on the electricity grid.
SC: We've already talked about that struggling so…
BB: Exactly. So the good point about hydrogen is that it is disconnected, right? It is like a hydrogen liquid hydrogen. Probably you actually go to your station and hydrogen stations -
SC: Your local hydrogen dealer?
BB: Exactly, And then you don't have the problem. Don't have that impact on your electricity grid. So that's another good point about hydrogen. Another, actually, good point is that hydrogen can actually be mixed with renewable energies. How? Well for hydrogen generation you need energy. You need energy for the chemical reactions to actually generate hydrogen. That energy could come from a solar farm in the middle of the desert without any access to any transmission line or anything to transmit power to the city. You can use energy locally in the desert, where it is the perfect place for a solar plant, solar farm. Generate electricity there, use electricity to generate hydrogen and then bring hydrogen to the city and use it for the fuel for your car. That could be a very nice use of renewable energies, and that can actually help us a lot to combat climate change and the problem we have with conventional combustion engine cars
SC: Behrooz, reassure me that this is not a hydrogen bomb because as you’re talking about hydrogen and generating hydrover, that’s all I’m envisioning! Tell me how it's different.
BB: It's actually, well, I'm not an expert in that field so I don't wanna talk too much about the way hydrogen cars work, the fuel cell works, but no, it's totally different. Totally safe. A proven technology, already. Some manufacturers -well, I don’t know if we can say..
SC: No, we can say. This isn’t the ABC, you can say whatever brand you want.
BB: Ok, so I think Hyundai, and if I'm not wrong, they already have a fuel cell vehicle or FCV. I think some of the Japanese manufacturers are actually very much into that. And as I told you Japan is the leader in this field at the moment.
So it is a very proven technology. Very safe.
SC: No one’s exploded. Good. Okay.
BB: You know the beauty of that, is that your combustion engine cars, the output of your exhaust system is CO2, here the output of your exhaust system is water - H20. That's the fantastic thing about your FCV.
SC: Does it just come out as vapour? Not like a hose?
BB: No, it's just fantastic and clean. Clean. Imagine that. Imagine that solar farm in the middle of the desert generating, with solar energy, with renewable energy, generating hydrogen for you and that hydrogen you use it, and it turns into water.
BB: So I see that as the future. So again, I see a mixture of electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles, but I see a higher chance for fuel cell, although they're not yet very much common in many countries. But when you look at it, if you put all of these pieces of the puzzle together, because it doesn't put any burden on your electricity network, that is actually fantastic. And you can very easily achieve retiring combustion engine cars by fuel cell cars. So I see those as the future. I cannot predict 100 per cent, but I think that in probably 10 to 20 years, we'll see a massive shift towards fuel cell and electric vehicles in many countries. And I hope we see that in Australia sooner than that.
SC: As do I. Behrooz, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much for your time.
BB: No worries, thank you so much for having me.
SC: Some really practical advice there from all our experts. Thanks to all our guests today and that is it for this topic. More information on what we discussed can be found in the show notes. We'll catch you next time in Series Three of What Happens Next, where we will be exploring space, the future of healthcare, higher education and research and a lot more. Make sure you subscribe, so you catch the new series when it drops, bye!
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