On 31 August 2018, three public advocacy groups wrote to the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) asking it to change the rules governing how the Australian electricity market works. Their request? Allow consumers to be paid for electricity they avoid using.

The concept may sound bizarre, but in simple terms they were calling for the creation of a “two-sided market”, an idea as radical as it is logical. Last Thursday, the AEMC granted their request, and in doing so has paved the way for a revolution in the way Australians think about and use electricity, one that is likely to cut the cost of energy for households and business and accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon electricity grid.

Why is change necessary?

Since Thomas Edison’s time, electricity supply systems have slavishly adhered to the laws of physics and the rules created by regulators insisting that electricity must “flow” from generator to consumer.

But while the laws of physics are constant and immutable, labels like “generators” and “consumers” are losing their meaning. Consumers can be generators. They can store electricity in batteries. And they can shift and shed demand.

Technological innovation is making the relationship between generation and consumption of electricity dynamic and that is why the AEMC accepted the argument of the PIAC, TEC and TAI: that archaic rules should not be allowed to hold back the emergence of an efficient and dynamic electricity market.

Over recent years, the reliability and security of Australia’s electricity supply system has been in decline. And as Australia’s Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction remarked recently, it’s “no secret that the National Electricity Market (NEM) is under pressure”.

Peak demand has been rising, minimum demand has been falling, and operational consumption growth has been slowing. Similar patterns have been observed in many industrialised economies due to the growth in renewables, retirement of carbon-intensive baseload power stations, improvements in energy efficiency, and increasing demand for airconditioning under extreme weather conditions.

What will the rule changes mean in practice (besides more acronyms)?

The NEM consists of two markets: a wholesale market and a retail market. The wholesale market is where participants, such as electricity retailers and large generators, as well as some very large industrial users, buy and sell electricity.

The retail market allows consumers (for example, households and most businesses) to choose which retailer they want to purchase their electricity from.

From October 2021, the wholesale market will include a new class of participant called a Demand Response Service Provider (DRSP) and by virtue of a wholesale demand response mechanism (WDRM) these DRSPs will be able to bid wholesale demand response units (WDRU) into the market as a substitute for electricity generation. All of this is laid out in detail in a “high level design” document published by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to accompany the AEMC determination.

Demand Response (DR) is the widely used term for the voluntary reduction or shifting of an electricity demand profile. Examples of DR include adjusting temperature setpoints for airconditioning systems, rescheduling the operation of plant and equipment to move load away from peak periods, and the charging and discharging of batteries.

DR is routinely deployed to keep peak demand below a maximum level and, increasingly, DR is also being used to ensure networks have sufficient load during times when renewable energy generation exceeds network demand.

AEMO expects most DRSPs to function as aggregators of WDRUs created by energy users through their individual DR activities. DRSPs will be paid the difference between a user’s baseline and actual consumption multiplied by the wholesale spot price.

The average spot price over recent years has been less than $100/MWh (10¢/kWh); however, during periods when the network is under strain, spot prices can rise to $15,000/MWh ($15.00/kWh) making DR activities potentially a very lucrative option for energy users.

It will be up to individual energy users to negotiate commercial agreements with DRSPs and they will be able to do so without the involvement of their energy retailer.

What are the opportunities for the property industry?

For most building owners and operators, the prospect of being paid anything that even approaches $14,900 for moving a megawatt-hour of load will be very appealing, especially if it can be done regularly and with minimal inconvenience. But whether payments approach these sorts of figures, or not, is beside the point.

Until very recently, energy efficiency and demand response were considered different disciplines with different benefits. Energy efficiency was all about reducing consumption, reducing costs and reducing emissions. DR was all about optimising infrastructure use and avoiding network disruptions and penalty charges.

Energy Star and NABERS Energy measure the energy intensity of buildings as a proxy for efficiency. Currently, there is no equivalent rating for demand.

But as the California Energy Commission has pointed out in its Energy Efficiency Action Plan, when outlining California’s vision for evolving energy efficiency from kWh-based reductions to demand flexibility:

 … it is no longer sufficient to utilise energy efficiency only as a static resource. Energy systems – new homes, replacement heating and cooling equipment, industrial processes and the like – must be both highly efficient and flexible to the maximum extent possible. Flexibility means interactivity with the grid: the ability to manage energy usage, proactively and situationally, to minimise both its cost drivers and its carbon content.

These ideas are captured in the recently coined term “active efficiency” that describes the integration of time-dependence and performance benefits from energy savings, including economic productivity, resilience, health, and emissions reductions.

For example, it is common practice for large commercial buildings to limit the intake of outside air to reduce energy consumption during periods of warm sunny weather – exactly the time when PV systems are generating maximum output.

An active efficiency approach that utilises the benefit of the WDRM might instead take up some of that excess power generation by opening outside air intakes to provide fresher indoor air and greater thermal comfort. This creates a market for the solar power that only needs to be trimmed back when the price signal from the DRSP suggests there is a shortage and the building owner/operator can be paid.

Crucial in all of this is reliable information. Markets only function efficiently if participants can anticipate movements in supply, demand and price and are able to adjust their actions accordingly.

With accurate demand forecasting to the building level, and clear timely feedback supporting the adoption of sophisticated active efficiency strategies, building owners and operators will be able to not only dramatically reduce their operating costs, they may also provide better indoor environments and actively support the transition to a sustainable energy system.

Craig Roussac is chief executive officer of Buildings Alive. 

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so-called because it’s at the “spikey” end of sustainability, focused on the more difficult or challenging issues that we need to change to create a more sustainable world. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together in a hostile environment. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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  1. Thanks Jo – excellent questions! You’re right, large commercial buildings are usually leased to tenants who control the light and power used in their tenancy spaces. Building owners generally control the ‘base building’ services such as air conditioning, vertical transportation etc. and depending on the lease arrangements the tenants can pay for that energy as well, or it may be paid for by the owner. The owner-tenant consumption split is typically about 50:50.

    In recent years peak demand on electricity networks has been moving later the day – close to the time when office workers start to knock off. With the new rules, owners will be able to benefit from actively shifting load from the last hour or two of the day to earlier, when the grid is not constrained. They can do this by using thermal capacity in building systems. Owners will either keep the savings or pass them on to the tenants, depending on the lease structure. After a year or two it generally all comes out in the wash when tenants evaluate the total cost of occupying a building. So i think it’s fair to say there is always an incentive for commercial building owners to keep operating costs down.

  2. Your article is interesting though presents me with questions. I can understand householders gaining price and supply control, but high energy users in commercial ‘buildings are not often owners. They are most often renters aren’t they? There is no particular incentive for the owners to consider this shift, as the operational costs are the renters.
    There is no incentive either for builders to shift is there?