INTERVIEW: From his all-electric home in the hills overlooking Hobart, James Allston is at the forefront of the global energy transition
Since founding New Energy Ventures in 2016, Allston and his team have played oracle to some of the biggest local players in the energy and property game.
At just 37 years of age, Allston’s background includes degrees in engineering and physics, an extended stint working for Siemens including helping launch the company’s energy efficiency portfolio, and time with local giants OVO Energy and Jemena.
Having worked for Siemens in Germany, Allston returned to Australia with an extensive knowledge of sustainable technologies and a belief in their power to shape the future.
Despite landing a job with a major local energy supplier, Allston’s pursuit of what comes next would not be contained and seeing a gap in the new energy market where businesses were flying blind, he grasped it with both hands.
“There was an opportunity to help a whole bunch of different people get into new energy and New Energy Ventures was sort of born out of that,” Allston told The Fifth Estate.
The new energy boffin recently found himself in celebrity company, taking part in the New Joneses’ sustainability road trip series in which he discussed the benefits of living in an all electric house and the importance of similar initiatives in Australia’s energy transition.
According to Allston the merging of behind the meter and in front of the meter, in the way that businesses and households are now able to engage with the energy market, is one of the most exciting aspects of the energy space currently.
However, he explained that from where we are in the midst of the transition, exactly what that will look like is still in the process of being decided.
“We’re in the middle of the transition where it’s super interesting and lots of different ideas and stuff are coming to the fore.”
Guiding the transition
Helping guide businesses through the transition has seen New Energy Ventures create heavy demand for their services over the past five years, with its five-person operations split between Hobart and Melbourne.
The company is primarily a management consultancy, helping businesses understand how to get the most out of new energy from a “technology, regulatory and commercial perspective.”
“We work a lot with property developers and large energy users kind of helping them understand ‘integrated energy strategy’, as we call it.”
“So, it’s thinking about how you connect to the grid, how you buy energy. As well as all the stuff that you can do behind the meter, so solar and batteries and demand response and all that kind of stuff.
“And thinking through, how you bring all those different strands together to actually do really interesting stuff in the space.”
Recent projects include major new developments across Victoria, such as helping establish an embedded network at the 2500-home Moonee Valley Racecourse development and helping craft an energy strategy for Intrapac’s new Kinley development in east Melbourne
“What’s particularly exciting about that project is we’re helping Intrapac implement a 100 per cent solar strategy at that site. So every home will be required to have solar on the roof. So people are buying lots of land, but they’re going to have to put solar on their roof at the end of the project,” Allston explained.
“That comes with like a whole set of opportunities to create finance offerings, but also challenges around the network design and working with AusNet, who is the DNSP and getting AusNet’s head around, what does it mean to have a network where every house has solar on the roof and those sorts of complexities.”
The other major aspect of the company is working with energy companies, and some property developers, to establish new energy sales models, such as solar PPAs, embedded networks and virtual power plants (VPPs).
Allston said by combining new energy offerings like solar PPAs and embedded networks he was able to decapitalize projects, saving money for the developer and ultimately the consumer as well.
“The developer can sell the benefits of the energy system to the end customers, which increases their ability to sell the product, and then the end customers ultimately benefit from a much better designed energy system.”
Having found another gap in the market, in the area of battery feasibility, Allston also revealed his company was exploring possibilities surrounding batteries and VPPs with an eye to leverage its experience over the past five years.
Bringing it all back home
Allston doesn’t exclude himself from benefiting directly in the new energy market, creating for his Hobart-based family an all electric home with EV capabilities that he believes represents the future for all Aussie households.
With the easy availability of electric appliances, for Allston going all electric was a no-brainer.
“If you go and install a heat pump hot water system for your hot water, solar on the roof, and an induction cooktop for your cooking, you’re nine tenths of the battle to living a sustainable life from a home perspective,” he said.
The home is powered by rooftop solar during the day and in the evenings draws power from the main grid. Living in Tasmania, Allston and family have the luxury of purchasing renewable hydro power right to their door.
He said while it’s more economically viable not to have a battery installed in his home in Tasmania, this may vary in different parts of the country where the price of electricity can be widely different.
“We’re on a two rate tariff where we pay 31 cents for peak and 16 cents for off-peak which is pretty bloody cheap,” Allston said.
“That would be comparable to what you might get in Victoria, but way cheaper than what you would achieve in New South Wales, Queensland or South Australia. And so in those states that’s where batteries start to stack up.”
Despite the apparent appeal of going wholly self sufficient, most people in Australia, for example in the major cities, don’t need to consider going entirely off grid for their power supply, Allston says.
However, those in rural areas where the cost of infrastructure is high compared to the number of people being serviced, should not be connected to the grid and are extremely expensive to maintain as such.
Using WA as an example Allston said there had been studies done showing vast swathes of the grid there should essentially be removed and replaced with standalone power systems, relatively sizable towns should be served by microgrids, and just Perth should remain on the grid.
By and large, Allston said there was a major push across almost the entire industry to decarbonise and decentralize power generation that is defining the foreseeable future.
“The obvious transition right now is we’re all trying to decarbonize, pretty much the entire energy industry other than the people that own coal assets and gas-fired power stations, and even those that do are investing in renewables as well,” Allston said
“The only real way that we’ve got to properly decarbonize Australian Homes is by making them all electric.”
However, there remained work to be done in encouraging the remaining portion of the community that gas really was an inferior power source.
“Gas companies have done an extremely good job of continuing to remind people that gas cooking is good. It’s all just romantic nonsense, it’s not founded in reality, it’s all just marketing and smoke and mirrors,” Allston said.
Induction cooktops are safer, more reliable, easier to clean and importantly -–achieve a consistently cooked pancake.
“When we’re making pancakes on our cooktop, we know that if you get the frying pan out, and you put it on that frying pan on the stove and set it to seven on the power settings, you will get a perfect pancake every single time.”