How tech can help create a sustainable renewable energy system in Australia

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Alan Gooding, co-founder and executive director at Smarter Grid Solutions explores what lessons can be learned from other sectors to help Australia towards a more sustainable energy future.

The energy system is changing as countries around the world seek to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  For most, the fastest and most immediate response is to decarbonise the electricity generation sector before the more challenging heat, transport, industry or agriculture sectors. 

Originally backed by government incentives, and increasingly viable on a standalone commercial basis, renewable energy now produces close to a quarter of the electricity consumed annually across the nation. While this percentage is still relatively low in the context of reaching carbon neutral, the pace of change continues to accelerate as the Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) from renewables is falling below the most efficient coal generators.  For this reason, fewer utilities are now investing in fossil fuel generation, as the risk of falling profitability throughout the project’s lifetime is greater.  With global agreements to comply with climate change goals, the political will to underwrite greenhouse gas emitting generation development is falling.  The consequence is that renewable energy and further growth in the industry is here to stay.

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Australia has unique geography, which frames the challenge to create a sustainable renewable energy system. Many areas of the country are very sparsely populated, while the populous areas are strung around the coast with vast distances between cities. The system is relatively small (peak demand is 13 GWs) with limited inter-connection to help stabilise during unplanned events. This creates material differences from many other power systems with remote communities being powered by long radial distribution feeders, high-voltage circuits running very long distances, and less inertia to manage frequency.  

Renewable energy exacerbates the challenge, as large-scale projects tend to develop on low cost land away from urban centres and thus require infrastructure upgrades, while small scale projects / residential PV cause voltage problems in ‘stringy’ distribution feeders, and for the system operator (AEMO) balancing the system is harder with ever-increasing ramp rates.

The consequence of these challenges is that network companies and system operators have to invest vast sums of money building and maintaining sufficient infrastructure to meet regulatory standards designed to keep the lights on. This increases the cost of energy, and makes the payback for domestic scale PV and batteries more attractive, fuelling a cycle to a much more distributed and renewable based system.  To manage all of these challenges a new breed of technology, called a Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS), has emerged. 

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DERMS monitor and control different types of distributed and renewable resources to help route power flows through the voltage levels, balance energy, manage voltages and optimise the system. With reduced inertia from thermal plant and more variable renewable input, the DERMS orchestrates hundreds and thousands of these distributed resources against all of these needs in a timescale that a traditional control room operator cannot respond.  The DERMS can run everything from a microgrid with localised energy balancing and voltage mitigation, to low and high voltage power flow management, coordination of flexibility markets, and market participation.

The Eurofighter jet plane, which cannot be flown by conventional means, was designed to be intentionally aerodynamically unstable to provide extremely high levels of agility. In a similar way, DERMS solutions provide the automated control systems of the inherently unstable power grid of the future. So, just as aviation has evolved to adopt technology to improve the capability of their systems, the time is now for utilities to make similar investments and adopt the new technologies that will make the renewable transition possible.