Lately my research has led me to think about the way the community talks about renewable energy, and the way these discussions can influence people’s perceptions of utilities, domestic solar and associated policies. In particular, I’ve been wondering what kinds of metaphors, similes or analogies are used in the world of renewable energy that influence the way people think or talk about energy?
A good friend working in energy policy, particularly in issues around energy affordability and hardship, was using an analogy to describe the purchasing of electricity from energy utilities. He likened electricity to beer, and suggested that sourcing electricity from our state-owned gentailer and network operator was like buying beer from a single, controlled entity. In this case, everyone who purchased beer had to pay whatever price was demanded by the provider for a standard or reliable beer product. Purchasing the beer was generally considered acceptable up to a point where the beer becomes very expensive, and people wonder if they should instead think about brewing their own beer at home (something which is entirely legal in Australia!). Sure, you might sacrifice some of the reliability of the beer, it might not be of the highest quality or available in volumes to have a party, but it would be more affordable. It would also allow you to separate yourself from an entity that seemed to have sole control over your beer consumption. You might have some pride in your home brew, you could experiment with it, and show it off, talk to your friends about it, which in turn could result in your friends deciding to brew their own beer, too.
This is a pretty good analogy. It captures the reason why people might install solar systems, the discussions that people have about solar systems and the need for a response to solar from the utility companies.
However, I had a completely different analogy for electricity supply. I think of electricity supply and networks as being similar to health insurance. In the same way that we pay small amounts frequently for health insurance in the event of a health catastrophe, we pay small amounts of money frequently for electricity so that we have reliability of access – if a line goes down, if there’s a fire, if there’s increasing demand, the network provider steps in and pays for the network. Just like health insurance, most of the time it will feel like we’re paying too much for no service. We don’t think about the people who we are subsidising to ensure they get better service, like underground power in cyclone prone areas or upgrading regional systems to prevent fires. Just like an aging population that requires more healthcare, the aging network requires more maintenance, which in turn is contributing to increasing electricity prices. In response people are choosing to shift off both health insurance and grid-supplied electricity. But the truth is that if these people get ill, or really need to access electricity, there will be a health system and an electricity network they can access. And it will be subsidised by the remaining people who have stuck with the traditional service provision.
I like my own analogy because it reflects the nature of a network system being a shared commodity, with network charges smoothing out the cost impact of upgrading some parts of the network or expanding to new geographic areas. It also reflects that having some people choose to disconnect and take on risk for themselves results in an increased burden for those that remain.
The thing about these two analogies is that they both simultaneously simplify the state of networks and are accurate in their depiction of events. What differs is the position of the utility to the community and vice versa. The first depicts the utility as a price maker, devoid of thought for how people might respond to the rising price of a good. The second depicts the utility as setting prices in response to the activities of the community it serves.
In a policy world that is so heavily driven by political polls and policy making ‘on the run’ the way we talk about electricity, utilities and embedded generation matters. During my interviews people from communities, industry and government referred to domestic solar subsidies as ‘middle class welfare’, of electricity networks as being ‘gold plated’ and of industry members being ‘cowboys’ and ‘fly-by-night operators’. Like my analogies above, all these terms have their origins in some level of truth, but dramatically oversimplify reality. Additionally, the potential for these terms to become an all-pervasive reflection of the electricity industry has its own risks. Consumers are becoming distrustful of governments and industry. Utilities are fighting an uphill battle to make themselves relevant and, more importantly, wanted in a world where everyone wants to go off-grid. My own feeling is that these phrases and analogies can be as damaging as they are engaging. Electricity generation is incredibly complex, and any broad-ranging change in networks is likely to filter through to low income earners via increased charges. There will be an awkward adjustment period as we move towards what I believe is an inevitable and fundamental shift towards embedded generation. The question is, who gets the blame and how will this influence the outcomes for those most in-need of support?
(Clipart from here)