The energy trilemma

Prof Ross Garnaut gave a lecture on the energy trilemma, a term to describe the combination of managing energy security, cost and reducing emissions.  

It was a good lecture and covered a lot of what was in the Finkel Review, the history of climate policy, current issues facing the energy industry, and the potential role of renewables and batteries going forward.

I laughed about his analogy of the Melbourne Cup and battery storage as a fast and nimble energy supplier. That is, it's being handicapped through the system of calculating energy prices as an average of 30 minutes.  Handicapping in the Melbourne Cup is good fun and makes for a closer race, in energy it reduces effectiveness of new technologies.

I tweeted a few of the lines of the speech, see below.

Sustainable schools - our recent pro bono work

Today is World Environment Day and it was good to be part of the local school's World Environment Day Expo. 

We've been working with a local school for a while, along with other parents, with a focus on working on educational and infrastructure issues.  The school has adopted the Resource Smart framework, which provides a roadmap for the school to tick off various initiatives. 

Today we convinced a local bike shop (99 Bikes) to come and show off how electric bikes work. Great insight into another sustainable transport option.  And wow they are so easy to ride up a hill :)

I think the big challenge for schools is to roll out larger projects where they can significantly alter reduce consumption of water, energy, materials, and significantly generate local water and energy for reuse on site.  And do it in a way that enables the kids to be part of the experience and monitor the impact. 

A new venture: a community power microgrid

First published at

I’m pretty excited to say that I started a new project last week.   An interesting mix of innovation, community and climate action, and technology.    

Before I say what it is, let me say why.

Everything that I do with work, and at home, is done through the lens of taking action to reduce energy, waste and water footprint.  The world is warming at an alarming rate, and I think we all have a clear responsibility to take action.  I want to think that I have done everything I can to minimise the world warming beyond two degrees. 

So the story of this new project started at my home.  I’m in the process of putting in a solar and battery array at home.  We are transitioning off natural gas for heating, hot water and cooking.  Yes gas is cheap (now) and easy, but it’s still a fossil fuel.  I want our house to be run purely off electric appliances (the most efficient ones possible of course), and then source that electricity from our solar and battery system.  

But the exciting project is not about my place, but about a local microgrid. So rather than just introducing renewable energy at one house, I thought we could do more than that.  What if we had our own local microgrid that shared the use of solar and battery usage along the street?  It could be more efficient (ie less exporting and importing of electricity), cost less, reduce our footprint, and show that there are new ways of doing things.  It would also contribute to our sense of place and community.  We’d be doing something together. 

So last week I started a campaign along the street to see who was interested.  After door knocking half of the street I have about 85% interest.  People, with and without solar panels now, think this is worth looking at and taking further.   People seemed to be attracted to the concept of buying energy off their neighbours, and doing something as a whole community to transition towards a zero emissions future.

I’m talking about a microgrid that enables a whole series of houses to share the energy they produce.  We have a few different models in the way that could happen, and all of them have regulatory and technical (and financial) issues.  But the point is that until we try it out, we can’t figure out how we’ll solve those issues and what consumers are willing to change or accept when it comes to new electricity models.  And I’m not talking about disconnecting from the grid completely. 

I’m looking at a how we can make this work for people that already have solar, that don’t have solar, that are interested in battery storage, that rent, that own, and that use a lot or a little electricity.   I estimate that collectively this collection of houses spends over $100,000 a year on electricity usage and connections.  But interestingly is the potential for more investment, particularly in more solar panels on roofs.

Now I know some in the energy industry will balk at the prospect of a street (surrounded by the grid) doing something like this.  But I believe the transition of the electricity system is something that must happen within the established areas of the city, as well as the greenfield sites, apartment blocks, the remote communities and the introduction of new large scale renewable projects.  I want to show that it is something that the millions of Australians, that live cities and within the existing areas of the grid, can be part of. 

So we are going to push ahead, and hopefully show that with a strong people and consumer interest, it is possible. 

If you have any ideas or potential contributions then I’d love to hear them. Get in touch.



Top 5 ways to get more out of consultants

First published at

I’ve worked with or as a consultant for over 10 years.  There are many that have worked far longer, but here are my top five ways of improving the relationship between a consultant and a client. 

The answer isn't asking them to pedal harder!  Look forward to hearing your tips.

Thanks, Rob.

1. It’s a social contract.

Firstly to get more, you need to give a little.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but you need to stop thinking of this job as a written contract, and approach it as a social contract. 

When you engage a consultant, you are actually buying time.  And just like you, they have a family, play sport on weekends or at night, dream of their next holiday, probably have an obsession with a show like Game of Thrones, might have a sick relative and will always appreciate, like you, a good night’s sleep. 

So basically this boils down to treating people like people.  Just because you are shelling out some money, doesn’t mean you can buy their weekends or every night of the week in the lead up to a deadline. 

Contracts work best when everyone realises that they are on the same boat.  Would you demand this or a colleague sitting next to you?  Of your partner? 

Everyone has to do a bit extra, and also keep to the script (or deliver on what you said you’d do), but just treat people like people and you’d be amazed at how must better the relationship, and therefore the product, can be.

2. Good and available data

Good data, readily available, makes a huge difference.  You will save massive amounts of times and angst if you have data ready to go.  Ideally you’d do a thorough data review before issuing the brief, and definitely before signing a contract.  Understanding, and then sharing, the data you have enables you to get more out of a consultant.  There is limited skill in reformatting, merging, copying, quality controlling data, and that is where you can save money by doing it within the business, and enabling a consultant to analyse and think about what the data means. 

And good data also includes good metadata (just don’t ask George Brandis what it is!).  The data about the data.  Who collected it?  Who manages it now?  How old is it?  Will it be updated?  What spatial and temporal scale is it at?  What do the codes mean in each of the columns?

Know your data, and be very clear with what data you have and don’t have, and things will move a lot quicker.

3. Sign off

9 times out of 10, a project has milestones and tasks.  What is critical is for all parties, is to agree when each milestone has been met.  Consultants, like all of us really, like to get work done in a particular timeframe, and then move on to the next stage.  They don’t like going back.  So to get more out of them, be very clear (and frequently), that you are happy for the agreed tasks to be signed off, and to move on to the next stage.  

This will also help everyone be clear as to what sign off actually means.  Is it minutes from a meeting, a map, a dataset, a report, a memo, etc?  Either way you will get more from a consultant when you are clear on what needs to get done before it is done.  Don’t assume anything.

4. What exactly is the question?

This may sound a bit simple, but it’s amazing how often I find that the key issue, question or problem someone has, only becomes evident ¾ through a project.  So if your job and your company really needs help, then get a consultant to focus on the big question as soon as possible.  Everything else is just a nice to do. 

If you want more out of a consultant, don’t let them get distracted.  It’s not going to be deliberate, but if the original brief has a lot of tasks to get done (that don’t really help answer the question), then consultants will inevitably follow the script.  Whereas if you want more out of them, then get them to focus on the critical question.

5. Time is everything

Consultants can finish jobs quickly if things are planned out well in advance.  It’s in your interests to have a consultant finish a job quickly because you need all the time you can get to work on implementing new ideas, engaging others within the organisation, developing policy, and acting on the recommendations.  So every meeting you need to schedule, and every review of the consultant’s work, should be planned well ahead.  If you put them in the diary, then you’ll find consultants will stick to the plan and also be most likely to focus on the key question.   

What will help a lot is asking the consultant for their schedule, and also sharing your schedule.  Knowing that you need to do a team update every Monday or a Board paper next month is very useful and will again focus the consultant in getting the work done.


SA power blackout - the Goldilocks problem

First published at

1.7 million people in South Australia were without any power last night: While I'm no electrical engineer or network engineer, here is a very simplistic version of what happened and why. 

A national electrical grid like ours is a bit like Goldilocks. It likes to have just the right amount of electricity flowing through it. Not too much, not too little.   And that ‘right’ amount keeps changing of course, every minute. 

Yesterday afternoon it got too much (in a matter is seconds some transmission lines went down in a tornado, so the supply suddenly exceeded the demand) so a safety mechanism kicked in and shut it down. When you are sending all that power down the line (and from various renewable and non renewable sources - it actually doesn't matter where those electrons come from) and then there isn't a use for it - well we have a problem. 

Within a few minutes the demand for power last night went from 1624 MW to 26MW as the Australian Energy Market Operator determined (or most likely it automatically happened) that it needed to shut off a large section of the grid in that state. 

Fast forward six months and it's 44 degrees with a million air conditioners on. If (or when) the grid doesn't have enough power in that region- it will again shut down. 

If it didn’t shut down yesterday, then electricity flowing through the transmissions lines doesn’t just disappear, and things will blow up (ok I'm being dramatic but the system and electricity doesn't like changes to loads and frequency).  See for some good analysis and commentary on the issue.

What's the answer? Well it isn't an easy fix. More decentralised networks that can connect into the grid when needed would help. And less demand for electricity through efficiency measures helps too. And maybe a greater appreciation that extreme events will happen and we can’t build a system that is 100% reliable!

Do water authorities need a social licence?

First published by Alluvium at

A social licence is a priceless asset. It’s an unwritten contract with society that says (in my opinion) you’ll operate with more than the shareholder's interest - you'll operate also with the community and perhaps even an intergenerational interest at heart.

In May 2014, a large blockade began in the northern rivers of New South Wales to object to the exploration of coal seam gas. After many months the NSW Government referred the approval process that Metgasco had undertaken to ICAC and requested more detail on the community consultation. It was suggested that Metgasco failed to gain a social licence for this work, and had failed to “undertake genuine and effective consultation with the community”. This issue of having a social licence matters simply because it is an unwritten condition to design and construct massive infrastructure projects in line with what the community want. And if you don’t know what people want, you might find out later and it could be costly. 

Let’s now ask - do water authorities need a social licence? Water authorities operate within the laws of the respective jurisdictions, and provide fundamental services to the community in terms of clean drinking water, disposal and treatment of wastewater and support for a range of environmental values. But is that enough? 

The question is relevant for two reasons:

  • We need to be clear on what sort of standards our utilities are currently meeting and therefore, what new entrants to the water market must also met.
  • Water authorities are now being asked to deliver more than pure water services; they are being asked to contribute to liveability. If you operate outside of your legislated operations, you’ll need a social licence.

I can think of the following reasons for water authorities to explicitly gain a social licence:

  • As was pointed out above, it might be a necessary condition to delivering large infrastructure projects – e.g. the North South pipeline ($750 million).
  • As a contributor to liveability in a city, water authorities need to be known as more than just efficient suppliers of goods and services.
  • The rapid adoption of desalination as a water supply source didn’t factor in a mostly negative social response, and as a result the motives of water authorities more recently have been under question.
  • If we expect the likes of Woolworths, Coke, Nestle and Metgasco to gain a social license, why shouldn’t a water authority?
  • In a world of 24 hour media and social media storms, gaining some sort of social licence might be seen as an insurance policy.

And on the flip side, the case for not needing a social licence:

  • It may result in overinvestment – ultimately paid for by consumers.
  • Public utilities should always have a public interest at heart. Therefore they shouldn’t need to go further than they already are.
  • Water authorities might be best served on doing what they do best, and leave the social stuff to politicians and environment groups.

It’s an interesting proposition that the feel good education days, the stalls at shopping centre, the little segments on talk-back radio, and the showerhead give-aways are actually necessary and part of delivering billions of dollars of infrastructure.

Bay sediments: a window into the soul of a city

First published by Alluvium at

Tim Flannery’s article “Bay of Action” in The Monthly describes his experience growing up on the Port Phillip Bay and his disappointment on the current health of the bay. Sydney is described as a shining example of how a city has improved its management of coastal and harbour zones.

I would disagree that Sydney has improved due to the reasons stated. In the 1990s Sydney built offshore sewer outfalls and a massive amount of nutrients are now mixing with ocean currents. However, it’s not affecting the beaches. Sydney Harbour has a very different ‘flushing’ regime compared to Port Phillip Bay. 

But I do wonder if Tim Flannery is on to something here. There is strong public support for healthy beaches in Sydney – evident by Sydney Water planning to use clean beaches as a key pillar for establishing a Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) program across the catchment and embed it within the organisation. Effectively, there is already a social licence in Sydney to do works that link to cleaner beaches.

Are bay sediments a window to a city’s soul? Where will this journey to create a clean and healthy Port Phillip Bay go next and how long will it take us to get there? 

Liveability - how important are waterways in a city?

First published by Alluvium at

The last ten years has seen rapid change in the urban water industry, in particular the way stormwater and urban streams are managed. It used to be about environmental values. That’s exactly how the Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study (CSIRO, 1996) was presented and adopted by Melbourne Water and the State Government. It was purely about protecting an environmental asset (with an appreciation that the bay has a wider social value nonetheless).

But major external and macro changes have changed the argument, or perhaps given us a new argument, about the need to create healthy waterways and cities. The main drivers now include climate change (and how to deal with it), the global financial crisis, ongoing discussion about how best to plan for growth in a city and how to foster communities (mmm, Docklands anyone?). Obama referenced these macro issues in his recent speech calling for action on climate change. 

My three top reasons for change are:

1. There’s an economic return in using and managing water locally. We now appreciate that we pay much more for water and environmental service than we traditionally acknowledged. Every park, every drain, every bin, every water tank, every new development and every roof is part of the water system. These things could all broadly be considered part of the water and city water network but are not usually costed and included in the delivery of water systems. We now also appreciate that there is a large cost in transporting water long distances, and disposing of large volumes of water every time it rains in the city. So there is now a strong economic case for doing things differently. 

2. The social benefits of green infrastructure. There is a growing body of knowledge that open and green spaces provide substantial mental health benefits. We also know that a street tree could be worth $8,000 in terms of shading, cooling, improving soil and improving air quality. We know that waterway corridors are highly valued and seen as essential areas to escape urban living. We know that when people are asked for photos of their favourite place, they often include water. This is in line with other urban planning movements like ‘walkable streets’ and ‘complete streets’. 

3. Communities demand it. In an era of big data and social media, there are now more expectations from the community in having a say and demanding action. There is a body of evidence that the community is willing to pay, but are also keen to ensure a return on investment. Any discussion about liveability or planning (more so high density developments) quickly turns into a conversation about the quality of urban environments and the need for greenery and places for people to connect with each other. In short, communities demand places that include water, good quality open parks and healthy waterways. 

There’s a good case to preserve and improve waterways for their own sake, but in order to develop a stronger case, the economic, social and community benefits are ones I’d use in a conversation with a councillor or a treasury official.

Water sensitive urban design - progress or plateau?

First published by Alluvium at

I attended the 8th International Water Sensitive Urban Design 2013 conference held on the Gold Coast a couple of weeks ago. I have been to a few of these now and it was interesting to observe how water sensitive urban design (WSUD), which I define as distributed stormwater quality assets, is evolving.

My summary is that it is experiencing ‘growing pains’. The initial waves of innovation and early adopter initiatives have been and gone. The constant background noise on why bother with WSUD, is it sustainable, how much does it cost and how will we maintain it continues to be a buzz of discontent across the industry. There are not many examples of WSUD becoming the norm; they remain the exception. Just drive around any city and count how many roads have and don’t have WSUD.

In Melbourne, there is approximately:
• Over 1000 km2 of impervious area
• 450 gigalitres of stormwater generated on average every year that flows to Port Phillip or Westernport Bay (Office of Living Victoria)
• 15,000 tonnes of Nitrogen flowing to the bay (CSIRO)
• And 77,000 more people every year moving into the city (ABS).

The need for WSUD is huge. The need to manage water efficiently, build new houses, retrofit old ones, build new suburbs, shops and employment centres in a way that improves the quality of life for those that live there but also maintains some ecological value of waterways and surrounding environment, has never been greater. In South East Queensland there is forecast to be 754,000 new dwellings built over 25 years, or over 20 km2 of new urban development every year (South East Queensland Regional Plan). Again, WSUD must be embedded in every part of that 20 km2. 

But I’m not sure where the next step change or up-scaling of the industry is coming from, after this latest three day conference. While new projects and research were discussed, particularly around stormwater harvesting and urban waterway/ecological issues, we seem to be having the same conversations as we did five years ago. 

I hope this is about growing pains. There are some regulations across the country that drive better environmental outcomes, but they aren’t widespread, or don’t apply to all types of development. My assessment is that the industry has plateaued, or perhaps even is in decline. I would argue a movement towards stormwater ‘offset’ programs is not a leap forward but a leap sideways (and some I know would argue it is a decline). 

One enlightening moment for me was hearing about the journey that New York City is currently going on. Bram Gunther, Chief of Forestry in their Horticulture & Natural Resources Group, outlined the range of initiatives they are doing: 1 million new trees, wetland reclamation, matching tree planting with published health data, permeable paving and buffering against super storms. The key was that they had a mountain of data and evidence for all of these issues. And now they have a $2.4 billion budget!

To create the next step of change in Australia, the industry needs to get politically savvy. We need to position this type of work at the heart of improving the quality of life for people in cities, that is 90% of Australia’s population, and soon to be 70% of the world’s population. We need to position it so that it means something to a home owner / renter, to the industrial park developer, and to the citywide urban planners. And it has to be delivered to the political leaders. It has got to be a positive message, a dream, and an aspiration. There is limited value convincing engineers, planners or ecologists. They don’t make the big decisions, politicians do. Then the policy, regulation and more importantly the benefits will flow. Just like New York.

China FTA and water - what does it mean?

First published by Alluvium at 

The explosion of growth in China back in 2002 was something to behold. At the time I was hanging out in a central Chinese city called Wuhan, in little laneways and fields, sandwiched between the city and the many lakes. I was doing a little research project on a possible WaterWatch program in the city, with the help of the local university and China’s EPA*. It was a city of 8 million people (now it’s 10.5 million), and the first major city downstream of the Three Gorges Dam and on the fertile plains of the Yangzte River. It had real water quality issues in the lakes too.

With the high profile announcement of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in November, and Andrew Robb explicitly suggesting that Australia can export its water related professional services to China, I wonder if I’ll be back there again soon? 

Before me or anyone else packs their bags, I do remember being blown away when I visited the Chinese Ministry for Water Resources and heard about the 16,000 people working just on monitoring rivers!

The other element of the free trade agreement and one that is closer to home is how it might influence our own water resources, through increased agricultural production – i.e. will we need to use more water to export goods to China?

Not necessarily. I say that on the basis that there is no good estimate of how much the FTA is worth - well covered here by The Guardian - though the most commonly cited figure is $18 billion over 10 years. 

Dairy seems to be the big winner in terms of export potential, and that industry is currently the second highest user of water in the agricultural sectors (consuming 2000 gigalitres a year according the ABS).

If diary production doubled to supply Chinese markets, then yes Australia has to have a serious look at what that means for our water resources and environment. That would be like adding five cities the size of Melbourne (in terms of water used). But equally it could be turned into an opportunity to innovate and become more efficient. Or it might not register in the context of many other economic and environmental changes that happen in Australia! 

What do you get for $15 million of water assets - and can you maintain it?

Water sensitive urban design, or smarter use of stormwater in cities, has been around for 20 years or so.  It creates greenery in the urban landscape, and cleans the water before going to rivers and bays. It's a good thing - but hasn't been adopted as a mainstream design opportunity in any city in Australia. 

And one of the reasons why is maintenance.  Prof Tim Fletcher says he thinks maintenance is the largest impediment to adopting WSUD right now.

Stormwater Victoria ran a seminar on WSUD Maintenance.  Fair to say lots of people are aware of the problem, but we are a fair way off fixing it.  We know more about what good maintenance looks like, and why assets have failed in the past.  

Melbourne Water have spent $15 million on grants with local council over the past 10 years helping them co-fund WSUD assets. So they were very keen to know which assets are still working and why or why not.  Short answer - not as many as you'd hope.

Get the design right, spend more time on hold points in construction, and then put WSUD into a mainstream asset management database and system so that it can be maintained.  

I think the key is simpler designs, and more proactive maintenance, and all couched (as Dale from E2D said), in the language of financial liabilities and community benefits.  We hope to be part of the next wave of WSUD and new maintenance models.  

How households could DOUBLE Elon Musk's battery project

Today Wave Consulting is offering to add a third part of the energy plan.  It will double the impact of Elon Musk's idea - and also harnesses the power of houses to fix the grid and go renewable.  

The first part of the plan was Telsa's and Zen Energy's proposal for a 100 MW battery delivered in 100 days. 

The second was Impact Investment's offer to add 100 MW of renewable energy. 

And our third is that within 100 days, we can run a program to add a battery to 15000 individual houses which will also add 100 MW of distributed storage to the grid.  It means individual houses have their own storage, for their own use 95% of the time, but in peak times the national grid taps into them and adds valuable capacity and supply to the grid.  

100MW now becomes 200 MW!   And power is literally coming from the people.  

Let's go for it!  

Innovation, mapping and big data

Innovation often comes in small packages and it can take awhile to be adopted, it may have in fact been around for a while.

I was doing some mapping the other day, and I think a very clever innovation, that often isn’t used, is the way geospatial data can be accessed and shared across the web.

If you want to talk about big data, then start with geospatial data: it’s terrabytes of data. For decades practitioners have been sending large datasets around. It’s very common in consultancies to be sitting around waiting for a DVD or a CD of data to be sent via snail mail. Even though we only focus on one site or region, we often have large datasets covering the entire state or country. .

A new approach to sharing geospatial data, supplying data through a ‘Web Map Server’, means you don’t have to download that data onto your computer and you can ensure that it is always up to date. You request the layer through the web (you need the URL) and you can then analyse and use the data as it was on your computer. The owner of the original data will update it as required giving you confidence you have access to the current real time data. It can be requested as a WMS (raster) or WFS (vector).

There are 600 or more datasets freely available from Victoria’s website. There are hundreds of simple and clean base maps that the USGS, ESRI and Open GIS provide and by the same standard, they work with any software package. Of course you’ll need a pretty good internet bandwidth!

Victoria's coastline.  A map generated using data from a web map server.

Victoria's coastline.  A map generated using data from a web map server.

So, in summary, it’s more accurate, saves you having to store gigabytes of data on your own system and saves you time. 

Try it out. 


Is a Liveable City boring?

I was at the 9th International Urban Design Conference earlier this month and it was interesting to listen to the way urban designers were critiquing the concept of a liveable city.

I have always had an issue with the way the major international agencies like Mercer and the Economic Intelligence Unit approached liveability. For example, climate is a big factor in the scoring system, but this is something city planners don’t actually do anything about. The purpose is to help large multinationals with their remuneration packages for executives, not to help city planners create better and smarter cities.

I also think that a whole city approach to liveability completely misses the spatial variability and conditions of the place. Cities change dramatically in their characters and amenity in just a kilometre.

But the movement to create liveable cities is a powerful one, and I think at its core is a movement to improve the local amenity and quality of life for residents – a fantastic goal.

The critique that I heard at this recent conference was that this drive for walkable streets and civic squares with cafes is pushing many city planners to the same place. A boring place. Nice, but still boring, or the same. You look around and see the same brand of restaurants and cafes, the same shopping outlets, the same outdoor café style, and even the same fake grass. The key critique is that liveable cities look the same – the look and on ground outcome is the same, and perhaps we are losing the essence of the unique and local. The point is captured in these four cities: Auckland, Portland, Seoul and Sydney.

In my opinion and the approach I take when designing projects is that the essence of maintaining a sense of place and local feel is preserved through the following key design ideas:

  • Use indigenous vegetation species and PLEASE don’t use fake grass.
  • Use dynamic installations i.e. something that changes with temperature or rainfall patterns.
  • Engage local artists to tell a specific story.
  • Think more about the materials. While concrete is a builder’s favourite and glass is a shopping strip favourite, you must include and use other materials to give the place a more local feel.
  • Think vertically as well as horizontally. People don’t’ actually think and interact in a 2D world. Green walls are a fantastic way of expanding the depth to your local activity centre.

You’ll notice these actions don’t involve technology!

I want to acknowledge Stephen Moore (Roberts Day) for his presentation at the Urban Design Conference on the concept of a “Loveable City”, which inspired me to write this blog.