Earlier this month in Queensland, the price of electricity dropped below zero – well below zero.
It’s not all that unusual for negative pricing to occur in the middle of the night when demand is almost nil, but this drop in Queensland was noteworthy, as it happened around 2pm.
According to reneweconomy.com.au, it was a “combination of low demand and strong output from Queensland’s 1.1GW of rooftop solar”. It was a warm, sunny day in winter, so it was not hot enough for Queenslanders to be running airconditioners, nor cold enough for them to switch their heaters on.
Free energy sounds like a dream for all Australians – unless you own shares in a company that trades in coal-powered energy.
And it’s likely that as more and more Australia hook up with solar, these negative pricing moments during peak times will increase in frequency and length.
For a number of complicated reasons, proponents of both coal and solar aren’t as happy as you might think at the prospect of that happening.
In a nutshell, solar power in Australia relies on infrastructure that was built for traditional energy purposes. If solar power starts to make coal power unviable, the infrastructure that supports it could also become unviable.
And even if that situation changes, whichever power supply you choose, you will still have to pay network and retailer charges to have it delivered.
But there’s one way you will always be able to guarantee free power for your family – take them and your home off the grid.
Doone Wyborn is a retired scientist with a PhD in geothermal energy who 10 years ago bought 800 acres of land in northern NSW.
With the help of 3.45-kilowatt array of solar panels and water from a nearby mountain spring, Wyborn and his wife Carol cut themselves free of all dependence on water and power providers.
They’re releasing their land in 21 lots for like-minded citizens to form an eco-village – the Bindarrabri Co-Operative Village – but Wyborn told Business Insider that the off-grid dream was within reach of all Australians, wherever they lived.
We asked Wyborn to give us his thoughts on a few of the more common concerns anyone considering a full alternative energy lifestyle might face:
1 – It’s too expensive
“Up until recently the cost of all the equipment needed for independent power has been the main problem, but the costs of solar panels and inverters have plummeted in recent years thanks to the China miracle. Batteries are now the biggest problem for off-grid systems, but billions of dollars are being spent each year on battery research and the price of lithium iron phosphate batteries has also come down to the point where they are now almost competitive with lead acid batteries.”
2 – Solar panels “wear out” and need to be replaced before you can get your money back on them
“The only issue was what system would be the most cost effective and have the longest lifespan. I own a solar panel date-stamped May 1979 which has the same output today as it had in 1979. That’s what I call reliability.”
3 – Solar panels look ugly on your roof and have to face the sun
“We actually had our system installed before our new house was started. At the time we decided that we would have a ground mount system rather than roof mount. This also meant that we could put in a solar tracking system which is not much more expensive that the ground mount frame. The tracking system gives about an extra 25% output relative to a north-facing fixed roof mount system.”
4 – Going off-grid means you have make lifestyle compromises
“No compromise as our household has always been as energy efficient as possible. We have all 240-volt appliances such as efficient fridge, front-load washing machine, LED TV, electric toaster, electric kettle, and electric oven (but gas cooktop with backup wood fired stove).
I would not call it compromise, rather we select energy efficient appliances by choice. For example, all our lighting is 12-volt LED downlights.”
5 – You can’t live a solar-powered life in an urban location
“We do not have to skimp on electricity consumption, though we have to be a little careful during consecutive days of cloudy conditions. We may not use the washing machine on those days, nor the electric oven. Nature (the sun) is in charge, not the other way around.
There are many city solar installations which are generating much more electricity than the household requires. These installations use the grid as their battery bank. However the utility dinosaurs are fighting to slow down the inevitable march of solar by imposing excessive service fees to solar houses and lobbying to reduce the feed-in-tariff from grid-connect solar. This will only mean people will more quickly disconnect completely from the grid in the city when battery prices retreat a bit more.
This is all inevitable and the utilities business model will soon be dead, as will any utility that does not embrace solar.”
6 – You have to manage moments when you run out power
“We are never without power. Our system is much safer than the grid during bad weather.”
7 – Some appliances don’t run properly off solar panels
“We had no teething problems with the solar system, but our inverter was a new type (made in Queensland) whose electronics did not like some variable speed electric power drills. We actually had to send the inverter back for refurbishment and an older inverter was loaned to us during part of the house construction. There is now no problem with the new inverter.”
8 – Going solar takes ages to pay for itself
“We all have a duty to take more interest in reducing our energy consumption. Currently installing a grid-connect solar system in the city will give a pay back in around 5 years. That’s a 20% return on investment, better than almost all investments. Within a few years adding batteries and going completely off grid will give an even better investment return.
It’s a very satisfying lifestyle.”