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Confusing self-sufficiency with sustainability

By Jemma Green
Chair and Co-founder, Power Ledger Pty Ltd


More and more we hear about people longing for the day solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and batteries are cheap enough for them to “get off the grid” and be completely self-sufficient.

On the face of it, it seems a worthy aspiration; relying solely on renewable power generation reduces our carbon footprint and limits our individual contribution to global warming.

But don’t confuse self-sufficiency with sustainability.

Self-sufficiency is easy to get your head around – you look after your own needs without relying on anyone else for support.

Sustainability is a little more complex.

It requires an understanding of the economic, environmental, social and cultural impacts of decision-making.

Sustainability requires a long-term, multi-generational view and it requires the recognition that we’re all part of a living system – everything we do impacts the world around us.

So how can getting off the grid be anything but sustainable?

Well to answer that we have to understand what getting off the grid really entails.

Going off-grid is what it sounds like; disconnecting from the network and relying on your own generation to see you through.

Because you can’t rely on the grid for those few times when your demand is greater than the capacity of your solar PV system, you need to install a lot more solar PV to see you through.

And because you’re off-grid, you can’t sell your energy when you have more than you need.

It’s an economic versus environmental trade-off.

And what about the social impact of going it alone? When we “go off-grid” the through-put of the power network falls.

So what? The revenue of billion-dollar network businesses falls by a few hundred dollars…

Well no, that’s not how it works.

Many regulated network businesses, like Western Power, have their annual revenues set by a regulator, meaning they can collect no more or less revenue than will make them a reasonable profit.

Therefore, if revenue falls because consumers are going off-grid, the network business collects more revenue from the people that are left. Prices go up.

Roll that forward a few years as more people go off-grid and power prices continue to rise, the people who are most severely impacted by the decision of others to go off-grid are the ones who can least afford it – the financially and socially marginalised.

Hard to get your head around but the decision to go off-grid and rely on no-one else actually has an impact on vulnerable people.

So what’s the answer?

We as a community have to take serious action to reduce our contribution to global climate change but we have to maintain a fair and equitable society. The answer, strangely enough, is right in front of us. It’s the network.

Staying on-grid means we can install solar PV panels to reduce our reliance on non-renewable generation but we can share that energy via the network when we’re producing more than we need and use from the network when we’re not.

Using the network means we have to pay for it but we’ve already saved by not having to install much more solar PV than we can use for 90% of the time.

And continuing to pay for the network means that the cost of maintaining it is shared and doesn’t just fall to a group of people who are least able to afford it.

That’s sustainable. 

Jemma Green is the Chair and Co-founder of blockchain-based energy trading company Power Legder Pty Ltd and a researcher at Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP).

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