March 27, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

Why bang our heads about baseload?

On a sunny autumn day in Canberra, it is gratifying to see that our solar panels have already produced 5.56 KW. Working out exactly what that means in terms of light bulbs, computing power and our 20 year old electric cook top is a bit beyond me. All I know is it sounds good.
Queensland and South Australia are legislating for feed-in tarrifs. This would pay direct producers of renewable energy at a multiple of the retail rate. A German 3.8 rate got feed in has apparently spurred a solar insurgence, the kind we like to hear about.
But John Stanhopeless, the ACT Chief Minister, is dragging his heels, and going for a feasibility study for a solar farm outside Canberra. This would keep ACTEW AGL, that oligarch provider of cable TV, electricity, gas, water, Internet and telephone, in the control position. If they could, they would bottle the air and charge by the month for that, too.
The solar farm could power 10,000 houses, just a small glow on the Canberra night sky. However, to do this, prices for all consumers would have to rise, to cover the infrastructure costs. So far, the story is plausible, since we are being primed to expect dearer electricity by Garnaut and the feds.
What doesn’t add up is the reason the ACT gov has given for hesitation about the feed-in tarrif: Stanhope says it is inequitable, as all consumers would be paying for a benefit to a few.
But how is this any less equitable than the higher prices for the solar farm? To me, this is neglecting the holistic view of energy generation, along with a wider economic and social perspective. Not even sure if, from a triple bottom line perspective, a solar farm will address the environmental issues, as power is lost quickly when sent over distances.
Surely a significant issue for the transition to a low carbon society is to build the skills and awareness that are needed. This means moving away from megalithic centralised providers to more localised production, not just for energy, but for food and all other goods and services, where possible. This is neither obscure nor new, just common sense.
If households are incentivised to provide their own energy they will learn, as we are in my household, about the pros, cons, costs, benefits, and other issues associated with this technology. How to read the bill, how to reset after power has gone off, etc. There is a learning curve, as with computers, although in the case of computers it is more like a Sisyphean escalator that speeds up and lurches backwards.
As households learn, the techos who can help with the installation, the better business models, the inevitable Chinese copies, etc will emerge from the woodwork, as they did with computing. And we will all become more aware of the things we now need to measure, conserve, produce, etc. Kilowatts for everyone, shocks for some.
It’s now about moving along, as quickly and as efficiently as possible, so that our standard of living can adjust. Or perhaps ‘shake down’ is more the term, as what gets most valued will stay and some of the changes will be surprisingly pleasurable.
Who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that I would have a cute little external 120G hard drive, that plugs right into my USB hub, like a power board for gadjets? Although technology is often frustruating, who would ever give up any of it? Other changes that lie ahead will most likely take society in a different direction, and I predict that these will be welcomed as well, once we get used to them.
Ronda’s crystal ball, half insight, half wishful thinking, places rows of edible landscape such as fruit trees along the main roads, where people instead of cattle will graze in the long paddock. New social and economic structures will arise, perhaps along the lines of sporting organisations, to manage this production. An active exchange of produce, products, and services will spring up to help us learn how to grow and preserve locally. Solar panels will become cheap as silicon chips. The new skills revolution won’t be limited to offices and businesses.
But back to baseload. My long-suffering spouse was heard last week to mutter ‘I HATE being an early adopter!’. Poor soul, his electric bike had just given up its battery charge after just about 10K, and it is supposed to go for 40. Not only that, but I had led him down a dirt track behind Mt Taylor, and he fell off and is still aching. My bike has no extra power, and I was fine. In the endless ballet of the driven and the dragged, he knows all too well where he stands (or tumbles).
The point is, baseload solar becomes the source of transport energy, in little ways like bikes and eventually cars. Just wait until I get my hands on a VAT, or vertical axis turbine, when they have them in 240v. Then, when the sun ain’t shining, maybe the wind will be blowing, and I’ll be whistling.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 12:52 pm | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. It is our misreading of our history that is a significant contributing factor to much of the discussions about baseload.
    We appear to have forgotten that industrialization was ushered in by the steam engine. That technology lead to the development of factories and away from cottage industries. When Faraday came up with his technology there was a need to convert these large factories from steam to electricity for which you needed large power stations – domestic electric power was essentially a sideline; a useful way of increasing the income for the power generators.
    Much of the thinking about our power needs assumes that we will continue to need to have a power grid when for the majority of domestic consumers the technology exists for them to generate most of their own power.
    There is also the possibility that many of our industries could revert to a cottage style production process further reducing the demand for centrally generated power.
    Of course the real problem is that the power dinosours are not ready to become extinct.

    Comment by John Tons — March 28, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  2. interesting reminder of the history of baseload.
    China is trying to stamp out cottage steel production, because it is so dirty, but things like furniture could perhaps become more cottagy, and soak up excess employment along the way.
    Big obstacles include the obsession with large-scale corporate type growth, and, as you point out, the power hungry power generators, who like having their spot in the sun, and in our pockets.
    Diffused energy (and other) production is inherently more democratic, and this is why it is opposed in principle.

    Comment by ronda jambe — March 28, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  3. Anyone interested in how ‘affordable’ grid PV installations can become if the benefits of bulk purchases are passed on to the end user, have a look at and For example, I have ordered a 1kW system from the first listed crowd and outlaid just under $500 (now increased to $895). Taking into account the increased feed-in tariff recently announced in Queensland (from 15 cents per Kwh to 45 cents) then payback should be about 12 months! Of course, this also assumes the $8,000 rebate from the federal government and the cashed-in value of the REC. Cheers!

    Comment by Ross Kelso — March 28, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  4. Whoopee! That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. The See-Change group in Canberra
    is also looking at bulk purchasing these cheaper solar panels, and that will bring the price down further.
    How does the Qld feed-in tariff relate to the retail price per kw?

    Comment by ronda jambe — March 29, 2008 @ 5:55 am

  5. “How does the Qld feed-in tariff relate to the retail price per kw?” Examining my electricity bill shows I pay about 15 cents per KWh (ordinary domestic tariff) and about 10 cents per KWh (controlled supply) If you go to about the Queensland feed-in scheme you will note mention of 44 cents per KWh!

    Comment by Ross Kelso — March 29, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  6. If the price of petrol keeps rising, you won’t have to worry about how much the government will or won’t subsidise your solar power. Renewable power already costs less that 1/4 than the equivalent in petrol.
    The thing that makes electrical vehicles uneconomic right now isn’t the price of the power – its the price of the batteries. The arithmetic isn’t that hard. A quick search of the web reveals that most batteries cost around $1 per watt hour of capacity. Multiply that my the number of times you can recharge the battery and you get a cost for the total amount of energy a battery can store in its life time. Eg Lithium Ion can be recharged about 500 times, so it can store around 500 watt hours for $1 over its lifetime. It takes about 20 KW/hour to push a car at 100 Km/hour, so an hour of driving you will use 20000/500*$1 of battery capacity, or $40. If you were to drive that same distance using petrol, it would take about 10 litres, so cost of these batteries is around $4/litre. It doesn’t look so good – which is why no-one is running about in electric vehicles.
    However things have changed. Lithium Ion (aka Lithium Cobalt) batteries are so yesterday. LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphorus) emerged from development in 2005. They are just entering mass production now – which is why you have never heard of them. They are somewhat more expensive than a normal battery – this place is retailing them for $1.6 / watt hour: They can be recharged 2000-3000 times. Plug those figures into the equation above and you end up at these batteries costing you $1.60 per litre. You can expect the retail price of these batteries to drop to the typical $1 / watt hour (in line with other Li-X batteries) over the next few years, so that works out to $1 per litre for battery cost.
    Renewable power costing 1/4 of what petrol does (eg $0.40 / litre) applies to mass produced renewable – eg wind power now. Your house setup costs much more. At $10 / installed watt, and 5 hours of sunlight per day, a solar system will produce 36 kilowatt hours over its 20 year lifetime. (The figure $10 / watt becomes $24 / watt if you allow for interest at 10%. But then it becomes rubbery, as the system will probably last 40 years, and interest rates won’t be 10%.) Ie that 36 kilowatt hours cost you $10, not including interest. Using the same figures as above, that same 36 kilowatt hours will drive you 144 Km’s. That translates to about $0.70 / litre. Cost of batteries + your roof harvested power right now is $2.30 / litre, probably dropping to $1.70 / litre in a couple of years as the batteries are mass produced. You can muck about with interest, government subsidies and what not, but the end result is that when petrol reaches $2 / litre it is cheaper to drive your car using sunlight harvested off your roof. At that point who cares what the government will pay for it?
    Electric cars aren’t available now. At least not for real. But then they aren’t cheaper than petrol – yet. At least they aren’t if you cost power in how produced renewable terms, at $0.70 per litre. Coal power retails at 0.15 / Kw hour, which works out at $0.30 per litre. It looks like the cars will be commonly available at around 2012. I am a bit puzzled by the delay. An electric car without batteries should be cheaper to produce than a petrol car. A petrol engine has around 2000 parts – an electric one a factor of 10 less, and much simpler and smaller to boot. That would not be true if you included the batteries – but the batteries belong with the fuel cost, I think. So its seems like electric cars will be cost effective long before they are ready. One answer may be the current electric grid simply could not handle us all plugging in our cars. The power lines would burn, literally.
    But back to your article. So what that does this have to do with “Why bang our heads about baseload?”. Answer: absolutely nothing. That is the beauty of it. Batteries are storage devices. They happily charge when the sun is shining, and store the energy until you need to drive your car. Here we are banging our heads about base-load, and yet I think the most likely use for your solar power in 5 years isn’t base-load. In fact, if we went to electric cars in 5 years we would have to build new coal fired power plants to handle it. That doesn’t seem likely. Perhaps powering your car from your roof won’t even be optional.
    PS: what sort of electric bike does your husband have? 40 Km’s seems an long way for an electric bike. (I have one.)

    Comment by Russell Stuart — March 31, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

  7. My partner doesn’t know what kind of bike he has, he got it off E-Bay.
    good clarification of the battery issues, and their economics. ride on!

    Comment by ronda jambe — April 3, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

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