USQ Professor on Earth Hour, energy policy and politics

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Save now, pay later: the hidden costs of lower electricity bills

By Ian McPhail, University of Southern Queensland

No lights, no power, no internet – and no easy solutions.

Fumbling around in a middle of a blackout, hoping to find a torch or some spare batteries, I was struck by just how utterly dependent most of us in Australia have become on low-cost, easy-to-use electricity.

My home on the Gold Coast was one of 283,000 homes and businesses – nearly one in four across south-east Queensland – to lose power during the Australia Day weekend storms, as wild winds and flood waters toppled power-lines up and down the coast. In modern cities, our reliance on “the grid” – for power, water, sewerage and food – has made us immensely vulnerable. But is there any alternative?

As someone who has worked in sustainability policy for state and federal governments for the best part of four decades, I’ve spent countless time considering how we can better power our lives in future, particularly in an age of climate change.

Yet I was still surprised by how uncomfortable it felt, sitting in the darkness, unable to flick a switch for lighting, cooking, cooling or heating – let alone charging. If we had been facing an emergency, our landline phone, mobiles, tablets and computers were only as good as the life of their batteries.

Vulnerable convenience

Electricity is a convenience that we all take for granted; only when the lights go out do we stop and think about how extraordinarily reliant on it we have become for almost every part of our daily lives.

There is no doubt that electricity grids offer some major advantages. For instance, if we were still burning coal and wood in our homes for heat and light, many our cities would be shrouded in a deadly smog haze, similar to Beijing’s today, or London’s pea soup fogs of the past.

The same grid principle has been applied across all kinds of other urban infrastructure, such as the introduction of modern reticulated water and sewage systems, which introduced odour relief and massive disease reduction.

But many of us have also experienced systems failures. For instance, the recent floods shut down Brisbane’s main water treatment plant, leaving authorities scrambling to keep water flowing from alternative sources – a situation that many residents did not help ignoring pleas to conserve water or risk their taps running dry. Clean drinking water was an even more significant problem after the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.

Our road and transport systems share these vulnerabilities; just-in-time supply practices at retail outlets compound those risks. Many of these distribution chains have taken weeks to be restored after Queensland’s recent floods and storms.

Being locked into grids creates dependence on systems outside human control. When everything is working, it’s seamless. But when it goes wrong, many of us wish there were real alternatives.

Going off-grid

There are entirely off-grid ways to live as illustrated by Frederick Trainer. And there are countless incentives for us to change our wasteful ways: doing so would save us money, reduce our need to work such long hours, and help in addressing global problems like climate change.

But as Trainer points out, shifting to genuinely sustainable ways of living would demand a radical reduction in economic growth and personal consumption, rather than just adopting the odd “green” habit – a prospect guaranteed to prompt instant popular, political and industry protests.

Emergencies bring home the vulnerabilities of our current system. They also highlight that the system – much of dependent on the burning of fossil fuels – only adds to the potential for future emergencies.

The price of change

There’s no denying many of us want change. But are we prepared to pay for it?

Judging from the furious public reactions to any price increases, the answer appears to be that we’re not.

For instance, the Queensland government is now considering whether to reduce its requirement to build duplicate backup infrastructure as a way to curb surging power prices. That may sound good to many Queenslanders in the short-term – but as long as we remain grid-dependent for our electricity, cutting back on back-up systems is a risky long-term strategy.

Brighter ideas

There are alternatives to continuing to make power policy on the run. Smarter solutions have been canvassed in countless official reporters, including parts of the 2012 federal White Paper on Energy, as well as from advocates of much bigger change like Dr Mark Diesendorf.

Ideally, we should be encouraging more diverse supplies of energy that would feed into an upgraded “smart grid”, while also backing more sustainable housing projects, such as WestWyck in Melbourne and the new zero carbon Cape Paterson Ecovillage in country Victoria.

The cost and timing of making such a significant shift in how we power and live our lives is critical – but as developments like Westwyck show, it is possible to live well, with less environmental impact.

Save now, pay later

But based on my experience of advising and working for governments over many years, it is difficult to see politicians leading the charge for transformative change.

I was reminded of why when I found myself in the dark. All I wanted was the power back on, fast – and so did everyone else.

Politicians respond to public demands, especially in a crisis. So if most of us seem happy with quick-fixes, nothing will change.

So the next time a politician promises to cut your power bills by cutting back on energy security, renewable energy or the carbon tax, it’s worth pausing to ask: how much will I save, and at what long-term cost?

Ian McPhail does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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