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Putting people back into energy transition

Leading technologist and anthropologist Genevieve Bell has urged Australia’s energy industry to think imaginatively and bravely about the future, and make power bills easier to read.

Professor Bell told energy experts, investors and politicians at the Energy Networks conference in Brisbane on Thursday to identify and get to know early experimenters, and figure out how to encourage them.

The head of the Australian National University School of Cybernetics also asked delegates to think about what other industries will be shaped by the systems and networks they are building.

Opening the two-day conference, CEO of Energy Networks Australia Andrew Dillon said the focus of the last summit four years ago, before COVID-19 disruptions, was on prices and the resilience of power supplies.

“While it does continue to be a bit of a rough ride, at least now the political debate has moved on from ‘should we act on climate change?’ to how best to do so,” he said.

“The recent floods here in southern Queensland and in NSW, and the devastating bushfires, floods and storms right around the country in recent years, have displayed in no uncertain terms that climate change is real.”

Looking back on past challenges, Professor Bell’s props included an old tea towel and the all-electric cookery book compiled by Florence McKenzie in 1949 for the Association for Electrical Development.

Amid a shortage of electricians, mid-20th century British kitchens had tea towels showing electrical diagrams and how to change a fuse with a butter knife.

Mrs McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer and a pioneer of technical education for women, knew the electrification of homes would happen more quickly if recipes for cooking with coal, wood and gas were made electricity friendly.

Showrooms of appliances and cooking classes followed, attracting tens of thousands of Australians.

“I’m not suggesting that the energy transition needs a cook book,” Professor Bell said.

But thinking about how to activate the people and industries, and solve everyday problems, is an important part of the energy transition – along with the influencers needed to help us adapt to change, she said.

Another example of transition was the overland telegraph line that connected Australia to the rest of the world 150 years ago, powered by thousands of beaker-shaped batteries known as gravity cells.

The wire sped up the round-trip transfer of information from six months to five minutes.

“It completely changed the way the world thought about Australia, and the way we thought about ourselves,” Professor Bell said.

“I’m fairly sure (German physicist) Heinrich Meidinger did not think his battery cells were going to end up in Alice Springs, or Barrow Creek or Oodnadatta, but they did.”

She urged energy experts to think about the relationships between people, ecology and technology.

People tend to think about electricity when it’s not working, or when they are trying to decipher complicated power bills.

But bills need to be written for the user, not the energy company, and in a clearer format that reflects how people live their lives, she said.

“In 2022, that probably means an app rather than a tea towel.”

She said Australians also need to think about data collection, amid the rise of smart grids and appliances, before energy regulators become “privacy violators”.

More frequent and more severe disasters have also put the frailty of power supplies in focus.

“Climate change means a serious commitment to decarbonising our country, and not just by 2050,” Mr Dillon said on behalf of the peak body representing electricity and gas businesses throughout Australia.

“The energy sector is already moving faster than that, and energy networks are essential to the net-zero transition of many parts of our economy.”

He said customers are saying they want prudent investment to increase the resilience of supply, and the challenge now is to get the regulatory framework to deliver that investment.

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