Where Dick Smith went wrong

The Dick Smith presented 'Ten bucks a litre' doco was helpful in bringing attention to our energy challenges, but a series of omissions made these challenges appear much harder than the reality.

Last night the ABC aired the documentary, Ten bucks a litre, where Dick Smith sought to explain why our current mode of energy use is unsustainable and outline the alternatives. 

The program was useful in trying to shock viewers out of complacency and provoking them to be more concerned about how we are managing our energy system. But he made a series of omissions throughout the program which made the challenge confronting us look more difficult than it needed to be. 

The most important omission was the failure to look at energy efficiency first.

Early on in the program Smith visited spray painter Brett Narten’s family, based in a newish housing estate in Western Sydney. They, like many other families around Australia, consume around 24 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per day. 

He then outlined how it would be extremely impractical and expensive for this family to supply this 24kWh of electricity entirely with solar PV.

It set the viewers up for a false choice. If he had taken the time at the start to look at how the Narten family could improve energy efficiency, it would have served to make the energy challenge look much easier.

While they draw 24kWhs per day, my four person family’s household draws from the grid between 2kWh in summer to 5kWh in winter with the rest supplied by a 1.4kW solar PV system (significantly smaller than the average installed in Australia now of about 3kW). At the same time we export about 0.8kWh to the grid for every kWh imported from the grid. 

Admittedly, we use a reasonable amount of gas for heating our home in Victoria to 20 degrees Celsius during May to September. This could be done with two energy efficient reverse cycle air conditioner units instead. This would increase our average daily kWh imports to about 7kWh, still 30 per cent of the 24kWh used by the Narten’s. 

None of this involves any kind of rocket science.  

In the Narten family living room was a large portable electric resistance heater, yet they have three reverse cycle air conditioners which would be about three times as efficient at heating. This could shave a few kWhs off their daily usage. They also had a 150cm plasma screen television (a heater in itself), that could be replaced with a same sized LCD LED TV at a lower purchase price. This would cut another few kWhs off their daily usage. Their halogen downlights are naturally another easy target which could save another few kWhs of their daily usage.

In terms of my own home, its floor space is close to the Australian average with three bedrooms and is occupied for much of the day.

The fridge is smaller than the Narten’s but the same size as the one I grew up with in a six person family, including three boys with huge appetites. There’s the usual stereo, modem, two laptops, Bluetooth receiver, television hard-disk recorder, coffee machine and numerous electric chargers for the phones and iPad. Also, there’s not a single expensive LED light in the house (except for in the television).

Lighting is supplied by cheap compact fluorescents throughout the home. This works because the lighting configuration is like that in houses across Australia before halogen downlights became all the rage. So rather than lighting a room with six downlights, you light it with a single fitting that throws light very broadly across the entire room. Additional, more focused beam light is used, but only on the kitchen benches. 

My television has a bigger screen than anything I or my friends grew up with during the '80s and early '90s, although it is small relative to what has now become the norm. Nonetheless if I upgraded it to a 150cm LCD LED television it would still only add about half a kWh of consumption per day.

Once you bother to look at simple energy savings at the demand side it then makes decarbonising our supply sources look so much easier.

In terms of another example in transportation, Smith quite rightly points out that petrol contains vastly more energy per kilogram than a battery. But what he neglects to mention is that an electric vehicle can convert energy into movement at about three times the efficiency of an internal combustion engine, according to the US EPA.

Smith also presented the electricity generation options as an ‘either-or’ choice, when in reality we can choose a combination. Smith tries to suggest that nuclear by itself could be an easy option allowing us to maintain our current lifestyles. But nuclear used in isolation would present a range of significant challenges. You only need to look at the cost overruns and repeated delays with France’s latest nuclear reactor (Flamanville 3) to understand nuclear is not an easy out. 

Once we look at a combination of technologies, starting first with energy efficiency, the challenge of decarbonising energy becomes a far more manageable one.