by George Jones
If for some reason someone wished to delay the introduction of solar panels into New Zealand, here are some ideas on how to do it.
1. Insist that the electrical industry eliminate any incentives that might inadvertently have been imposed in the past. Make sure that the Electricity Authority stamps out these incentives where it can, by saying that the supply authorities are doing so within the rules.
2. Add a shaming promotion that makes sure that it is known that anybody leaving the grid will have the stigma of being seen to be anti-social, as all other users on the grid, especially the poor, will have to shoulder the costs, to guarantee the profitability of the industry.
3. Insist that the profitability of the electrical industry is dependent on an increasing electricity usage, and that this is wrapped up in the law, so that big business always trumps the interests of the consumer.
4. If a city council works out that their street lighting would use half the electricity if the lights were changed to LEDs, then insist that if they did that then the price would double, to maintain the electric supplier’s guaranteed profit margin.
5. Never use the word e-democracy, meaning energy- or in this case electricity-democracy, as that would give far too much power to the people. Make sure they never hear that ‘government for the people’ is followed by ‘by the people’.
6. Make sure that the Electrical Authority overseeing the industry is stacked with pro-industry professionals. In this way the rules of the game will be stacked in the industry’s favour. Make only a token gesture that the people have some say, by calling for submissions, so that they can then take no notice of them, but still be able to say that they consulted with the public. Make sure that the illusion is there by including ‘for the longterm benefit of consumers’ in the Authority’s reason for existing.
7. Make sure that the background papers for such submissions are filled with highly technical words, and are always based on the most pessimistic forecasts that the consultants can find.
8. Advise the industry to look carefully at ways to bill electricity to try to keep the impact of this disruptive technology to manageable proportions, like a maximum of 5 percent market penetration.
9. Insist that only professionals install solar panels, as the arithmetic required would be too complex for ordinary people, and the installation too hazardous.
10. Make the approvals sufficiently complex and onerous that the ordinary citizen cannot understand them, so have to call in professionals. Never mention that any handiman with number 8 wire experience is capable of installing panels and laying the cables ready for the electrician to connect.
11. Make sure that the installation rules include special protection for solar electrical wiring to clearly differentiate very lethal from merely lethal mains wiring. Insist on laying the cables in plastic piping clearly labeled as ‘solar’ every metre or two so that anybody in the roof space is more likely to be killed by the loosely bundled mains wiring without such protection.
12. Have a list of approved electrical hardware, and keep it as close a secret as possible. Make sure that only locally sourced steel is used, and that the aluminium industry is subsidised so that only locally sourced aluminium is used.
13. Accident Compensation Commission must insist that only professionals install solar, so that in the event of an accident the compensation comes from the bin of money paid from employer/employee levies and not from general taxation that would cover ordinary people.
14. Insist that the safety requirements are tightened so that very few are allowed on a roof, the most dangerous place in the country.
15. Insist that DC is much more dangerous than AC, in spite of the close connection of the two in music. Therefore insist that Thomas Edison was not as bright as Nikola Tesla.
16. Insist that batteries are far too expensive to use as storage, and only last three years anyway. Use as an example the fact that cellphone batteries last only this long. Do not tell the public that that is because they are almost always overcharged. Never mention that with proper charging, batteries will last for at least two decades. Never admit that the price of batteries will be less next year, falling very rapidly over the next few years.
17. Quietly welcome the introduction of electric vehicles as this will mean usually overnight charging, so with minimum impact on the electrical system, but more industry sales income. Never mention that electrical vehicles’ batteries can fill in the evening peak of electricity usage, further relieving the pressure on the system. That would diminish the need for building more infrastructure, with its guaranteed return on investment. Make sure that the public never considers using a vehicle’s battery for over-night consumption as they might then decide to go off-grid.
18. Make it known that the life of an essential component of the installation will last only a few years and will need replacing often. Never say that the electronic technology will likely outlast the panels, and that the panels are likely to last three or four decades. Quote highly inflated figures on the degradation of the panel output, and do not mention that the addition of an extra panel a decade will compensate.
19. Never mention that the price of solar is coming down in leaps and bounds each year, mainly from the reduced price of the panels, inverters and improved mounting technology. Keep the permitting costs as high as possible.
20. Never mention that the price of solar is already lower than the price of every other form of electricity generation in especially sunny countries. And that dozens more countries will be added to this list in the next year or two.
21. Hide the fact that new solar installations world-wide are doubling about every two years, amounting to 320 GWp this year 2016, over thirty times New Zealand’s installed capacity. This is the equivalent of about eleven times the amount of electricity New Zealand uses, measured in kWh units. Next year expect a 40 % increase, the year after another 40 % and so on.
22. Never consider that the electrical industry as we know it is a sunset industry, with all assets correctly valued at the scrap price, less the cost of retrieval.
23. Make sure that neighbour-to-neighbour electricity sales are illegal, so that the monopoly local grid is the only option for sales. Keep the price of export to the local electricity supplier as low as possible, preferably free, to discourage investment in solar.
24. In this way the profitability of the local grid is maintained, especially as the cost of transmission from the other end of the country can also be billed, even though not used.
25. Change the name of net-metering to own-use, as the former implies that the subtraction occurs at the meter, whereas it really is net-billing. Steven Strong’s concept in 1979 is no longer acceptable: it implies export at the same price as import.
26. Keep implying that our electricity is mostly renewable, so we do not get any advantage from solar when considering global warming.
27. Spread misinformation about embedded energy in solar panels. Tell people that there is more energy in its production that you get from the solar panel over its lifetime.
28. Keep emphasising the front-up cost of solar, and never mention that the economics are very good indeed if considered in the longer-than-election-cycle time frame.
29. Instill into the banking industry the certain knowledge that financing solar is a very risky business and requires a specially high risk-based interest rate.
30. Promote that the added value to the house will likely increase its value, increasing the city rates demand. At the same time, promote the fact that the resale value of the house will fall because nobody wants solar.
We’ve tried them all to some degree!
Our electrical industry in collaboration with the government has tried most of the above, in parallel with what is happening in some other countries.
So maybe it is time to try something else. It would be an ugly demise if the industry is allowed to collapse in a series of death spirals. Shades of Solid Energy, eh? Maybe the government would then buy back what it does not already own of the industry for a dollar, with its accumulated debt, like the railways. But can or should the taxpayer afford it?
Learn from history, otherwise the same mistakes are likely to recur. Learn about the sailing ship effect, when sailing ships first had competition from steamships. Instead of taking four or five months to travel between England and New Zealand, the clipper was developed, so the journey then took only six weeks. The same thing happened in New Zealand when ninety years ago science was applied to farming. Understand “The significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s exploding trousers: Reflections on an aspect of technological change in New Zealand dairy farming between the world wars” that earned its Massey author an Ig-nobel prize. Note the effect on Air NZ when competition with Australian airlines first appeared – air bridges were promptly built. Look up the history of the development of wool as a fibre when synthetics were first introduced.
In a 1918 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein, after relating a story about the first demonstration of a locomotive by George Stephenson: “And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”
Ignore the fact that solar engineer Steven Strong was named by Time magazine environmental “Hero of the Planet” in 1999, the closest thing we have now to monuments.
The lesson to be learnt is that the introduction of solar as a disruptive technology can be delayed only by being such a good industry that the people love the companies so much that they will be very loyal to the brand. Think “it’s the putting right that counts”. In spite of the significant economic advantage of solar the people will not abandon their loved electricity supplier.
To do this the first thing is to abandon the attitude that it is a God-given and government-given right for the companies to receive a guaranteed return on investment.
So, recognising the true value of the infrastructure, parts of which will have negative value, lower the electricity price perhaps to a half or a quarter of its current value. Recognise that the whole system really is a computer, add considerable control software to easily integrate distributed and sporadic generation, thus abandoning the concept of base load.
Become a lean and friendly industry, and there will be no need for call centres, except to accept accolades and congratulations from the people.
There is another way. Proudly accept the future is renewable energy, especially solar. Develop the required software to integrate all renewable energy and storage systems, including ocean, run-of-river, wind, solar, battery, vehicle, pumped storage. Collaborate and incentivise the public to help build a secure reliable electrical system that has minimum cost. Perhaps close to zero for energy.
Only then will we be able to hold our head up in the international community and say “We are a small country in the Southwest Pacific that has done it right yet again, and we are now in a position to help you”.
George Jones is a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, retired scientist and adventurer. He lives in a small village in the southern island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, where he is building a solar array to supply renewable energy.