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Decarbonising Grid without Gas

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

When Sally Hunter called me asking me to join Geni.Energy’s Board, I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved. Geni.Energy has always had a soft spot in my heart, probably because Narrabri is fighting the same fight that my hometown Lismore has previously fought.

I’m forever grateful for the community spirit and the support of people from all over the country, which took the big developers by surprise and forced them to abandon their plans to frack in the Northern Rivers.
Headshot of Virpi Barrett
Geni.Energy director, Virpi Barrett

The aftermath of the fight gave birth to Enova Energy, the Australian first community-owned electricity retailer and perhaps the only retailer ever that people have actually loved. The idea was to give people an alternative to fossil fuels, particularly gas, and I was proud to be part of Enova’s journey, as I am proud to be part of Geni.Energy now.

While it is important to fiercely oppose new gas and coal developments, we must remember that opposition to the status quo must come with alternative solutions. Gas has made its way into our homes, businesses and electricity generation, and unless we change our ways, there will always be big corporations willing to risk our soil and water while making a buck. Thankfully, these days ‘change’ doesn’t mean ‘sacrifice’, but rather investment in a better lifestyle.

While Sally has written a number of great blogs about the choices you can make in your home or business and about electrifying everything, I’d like to focus on electricity production and how we can decarbonise our grid. I will also point out a couple of ways for you to support that work.

I tend to frown when I hear a fossil fuel called ‘natural gas’. It almost sounds green – it is a natural product, right?

And to be fair, it is part of our natural environment, just like coal and oil as well. I actually love seeing coal mixed in the sand on a beach and like to remind people that it is a wonderful material… for storing carbon. Just let it be and do not burn it.

However, in electricity generation gas is burned, primarily during peak hours. The gas-fueled power plants are often called “gas peakers”, because they can start and stop generating within minutes, which is an advantage compared to “baseload” generating coal power, which takes several hours to ramp up and down. Gas peakers have played an important role in balancing the traditional energy system whenever consumption suddenly increases, like when everyone starts cooking their dinners.

Some voices in the community – generally the same ones who have spent decades fuelling climate denial and slowing down the transition to renewables – now call gas a transition fuel. ‘Gas-led recovery’ represented a regretfully missed opportunity to invest COVID-19 stimulus into those industries that sit on the right side of history.

We could have invested in renewable energy or batteries, that would do the same job as gas peakers, but in nanoseconds instead of minutes.

The modernised version of the old message is that gas is a necessary pathway and an enabler of a low-emission electricity grid long into the future.

Group of directors standing near the mock community battery
Geni.Energy directors at recent board meeting

Well, I don’t buy that, and let me tell you why. In my current day job with Sunshine Hydro we are developing an asset ecosystem called Superhybrid. In short, Superhybrid takes renewable energy, like wind and solar, and turns it into usable end products, primarily 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) and green fuels, like hydrogen or methanol. 24/7 CFE means that electricity is delivered as “baseload” and the supply is matched hour-by-hour to local and “additional” (i.e. new) renewable generation.

There is increasing demand for such products, as large global corporations are making commitments to decarbonise their operations and supply chains, to satisfy the expectations of their customers. This demand and the related commercial contracts enable the development of assets such as Superhybrids by providing long-term reliable revenue streams and making projects “bankable”, i.e. attractive to investors.

So, as a consumer of any possible product from digital services to consumer goods, please do not accept ‘net zero’, but ask for your product to be ‘true zero’ or 24/7 carbon-free.

But wait, what does this have to do with gas? Bear with me, it’s a bit complicated. The way Superhybrid works is that it buys huge amounts of renewable energy and stores a big part in long-duration storage, like pumped hydro stations or 12-hour vanadium flow batteries. Additionally, it uses electrolysers and other processes that use a lot of electricity to create hydrogen and – depending on the customer contracts – to liquefy it or convert it into methanol or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The point of producing these green fuels is that they soak up the excess electricity and this electricity demand can be turned on and off very quickly, responding to changes in the wind generation. There is even a fuel cell that can be used to convert the hydrogen back into electricity, but that is rarely needed.

Sunshine Hydro has developed optimisation software, that considers the weather forecasts, market prices and many other things to decide how to run these assets each 5-minute period on the electricity market. While it ensures that the electricity customer receives their 24/7 baseload just like a coal-fueled power station would it also keeps hydrogen or other fuel storage level high enough to provide a steady supply to the fuel customer. But that’s not all, it simultaneously also trades on the electricity market and effectively does the job of a gas peaker (one that meets peak demand) – without the need for fossil fuels.

So, effectively, one Superhybrid can replace one coal-fired power plant and one gas peaker, while providing some green fuels as a bonus.

This is a novel concept, but we know that it works because we have been running digital twins for some of our development projects for several years now. These simulations use real-world data from existing wind farms, and they show us exactly how Superhybrid assets would perform each 5-minute period on the market. It has been gratifying to demonstrate that the objective of not wasting renewable energy is actually generating very encouraging financial returns.

One of the things that inspired me to join Sunshine Hydro was that their values aligned with mine – not just around decarbonisation, but also their genuine connection to the communities of the project sites. As part of our commitment to the wider communities, Sunshine Hydro is currently accepting community investment via crowdfunding platform Birchal. An opportunity to invest directly into a developer of large-scale assets, rather than an individual community-scale project, is quite rare, so I would encourage you to check it out. (Always consider the general CSF risk warning, and the offer document before investing)

The final action you can take to support this solution that provides an alternative to coal and gas, is to spread the word about the crowdfunding campaign among your friends and family.

Such community investment opportunities strongly rely on word of mouth, and it really does make a difference.

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