Last Friday I joined 50 experts from various industry and government groups – utilities, finance, property development, business and research – at a workshop to discuss and provide insights on the future of sustainable cities. In this case the role of distributed energy (DE).

Cities of the future will not be like our current cities. This is due to new emerging technologies and business models which could create DE – which is precinct-based electricity generation, use and trading of low-carbon energy through a mix of renewable sources and energy storage.

Professor Deo Prasad
Professor Deo Prasad

With this in mind the CRC for Low Carbon Living and the University of NSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering are working with key sector stakeholders to evaluate the potential deployment routes for this distributed energy sector, which will revolutionise our cities. In addition the CRCLCL is developing a National Distributed Energy Policy Paper. Discussion outcomes from this and other forums are vital in helping to write and deliver the paper.

The workshop – held at UNSW and co-organised by CREST at Loughborough University in the UK (part of European Energy Research Alliance) and the Australian PV Institute – was therefore key in helping bring issues and ideas on DE to the fore.

Dr Paul Rowley from CREST helped guide workshop discussion and provided an important international perspective while expert facilitation was provided by Collabforge, who have a lot of experience working in this space.

As highlighted recently by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, sustainable cities can provide great benefits to Australia, and it is government priority to invest in making this a reality. However before this can occur it is vital that decision-makers at all levels are equipped with the necessary information to create the optimal outcomes.

One of the key discussion points that stood out for me was the importance of stakeholder groups working together and not in isolation. Everything that happens in a city or precinct is interlinked as part of a greater system and we need to work together to get this correct from the start. Planning decisions will need to be based on a number of desired outcomes that must be agreed to by many parties, including citizens, who do not have much of a choice at present to voice their preferences.

So appealing to community vitality and those who reside and work in a precinct and city is a must. All in all sustainable design is likely to be most successful in the long term when it prioritises building community and sustainability over other considerations.

One of the biggest limitations in regulatory reform or sustainability planning noted was short-term thinking. Long-term planning is required and this is a key focus of the work of the CRCLCL and its research partners.

Most at the workshop agreed that the easiest part of the transition to a DE model is the technology itself, but it is the planning and regulatory frameworks that are the biggest hurdle. Dealing with the red tape can hold up what can ultimately change the sustainable future of our cities if it is not managed properly from the beginning.

Already DE has changed households from being passive energy consumers to being actively engaged. Eventually, with the correct regulatory support, it will be possible for consumers to buy and sell their own energy in the national energy market. This will need legislative adjustments, for example, in shared energy generation between consumers within a specific precinct, adapting existing strata law will help manage common assets while creating a new electricity retail model for “consumer energy”.

Overall the workshop provided a strong stepping stone towards policy development as well as valuable data for all involved. It also achieved its goal of bringing expert stakeholders relevant to PV, distributed generation and energy storage to explore and prioritise important aspects of precinct-based DE. Finally it has also created a relevant stakeholder network to participate in a forthcoming CRCLCL-led Australian National DE Forum where the CRCLCL’s DE Policy Discussion Paper will be tabled.

Professor Deo Prasad is chief executive of the CRC for Low Carbon Living.

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  1. One of the elements that might be of interest is defining what the city is in totality and its component parts such as high and low density areas and the energy requirements and production options for these. It might also look at the current and future cities and how these might differ. It would be good to see a lighthouse model or project which can illustrate what the energy sector would look like and operate in a decentralised model of electrical power generation.

  2. The first step in getting DE feasible is making the utilities pay a fair feed in tariff. Till this happens the small scale producer is at the mercy of the utility. Individual rooftop PV power producers have no organisation negotiating on their behalf.