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Old grid, new tricks: Wind power at “bleeding edge” of energy revolution

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If the Australian wind industry seems a bit defensive at times, it is with good reason. For starters, it was effectively brought to a stand-still, as the proudly anti-wind Abbott government put the RET in limbo and a veil of uncertainty over the entire clean energy industry. Then there were the multiple Senate inquiries, the health claims, the state government level planning setbacks, and the seemingly random appointment of a national wind farm commissioner.

Now, with the RET locked in, the wind farm commissioner making sensible noises, and investment starting to take off again, a new hurdle faces the wind industry: how to get all that prospective wind energy capacity onto the grid.

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Indeed, grid integration was one of the major topics at the 2016 Wind Industry Forum in Melbourne on Thursday – the third gathering of the annual event and, according to organisers, by far its most well attended, reflecting the industry’s vastly improved prospects compared to 2015.

The Forum gathers together wind industry players as well as regulators and network operators to map the way forward for wind farm development, as governments meet emissions targets and Australia’s coal and gas-based energy system is gradually displaced.

But it is this last part that is currently causing headaches for both the energy market operator and the wind industry.

How do we integrate thousands of megawatts of wind energy – AEMO in 2015 forecast 6,700MW of additional large-scale (renewable) generation would be added to the NEM by 2020 – into a grid and market designed around centralised “synchronous” power plants?

As far as the wind industry is concerned, this is problem both real and imagined. The real part of the problem – the need for updated market and trading regulations and for upgraded technology and infrastructure – is perfectly doable. The imagined part, however – the public perception, driven by media hype, that wind energy will send the grid into meltdown – will be the hard nut to crack.

In South Australia, for example, the state where the wind industry has had its greatest success to date – wind and solar together have on occasion accounted for as much as two-third of the state’s daytime demand – and where the government is introducing more and more ambitious climate targets, wind energy has been variously blamed for rolling blackouts, major grid outages and rising electricity prices. Unfairly – it turns out.

As Pacific Hydro’s manager of electrical engineering, Kate Summers, put it at the Forum “challenges in frequency control are related to high penetration of wind in SA… according to everybody’s impression.”

But as Summers went on to say – and this has been explained in detail here – the rolling blackouts that hit SA consumers in early November last year happened not due to wind farms, but because “non-scheduled generators” suddenly switched on, chasing frequency regulation prices that went through the roof, and sent the grid “barrelling through” its 50Hz limit.

“When the frequency hit 50.5 Hz, the wind (output) was very stable, and was not contributing to frequency woes,” Summers said.

Meanwhile, as the NEM experiences more and more minimum demand periods, wind farm outputs, with their ability to respond rapidly to demand peaks and troughs, are increasingly being constrained – as was the case with the Oakland Hill wind farm during that November incident, which Summers says was oscillated off for the entire weekend.

“This is lost wind energy,” she told the Forum. “We have a right to be grumpy.”

But if the wind industry has a right to be grumpy, parties like the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) have a right to be cautious about managing large additions of new capacity and controlling grid frequency.

As AEMO principle analyst Rob Jackson told the Forum, this scenario is playing out to some degree or other all around the world.

“South Australia has very, very high penetration of renewables,” he said, which puts Australia on par with markets like Hawaii and Texas – the latter where wind farms recently provided between 20 and 45 per cent of the state’s electricity over the course of one day.

“This (kind of transformation) needs new grid standards, new operating rules, new markets, infrastructure, new technologies,” Jackson said. “We are at the bleeding edge.”

Andrew Jones, energy services manager at LR Senergy, agrees it’s a time of flux.

“The power system is like a large collection of wheels… If something goes wrong, put simply, you either need to pedal faster or put the breaks on at short notice,” he told the Forum.

Jones explained that as large, centralised fossil fuel power plants left the NEM, there was a reduction in “inertia”, and reduction in inertia translates into increasing need for fast frequency response.

“Wind, solar, storage can all provide this,” he said, noting that at a potential cost of around $85/MWh in South Australia, wind solar and batteries could ramp up fast, unlike a synchronous plant, which is comparatively slow to respond.

In this context, he said, it is “hard to see why these technologies would not enter the market once the economic opportunity arises, provided market design is robust and stable.”

When these particular stars will actually align, though, is the big question. Meanwhile Jones says to expect this period in the interim, where we still have large single units in the system, to be one of the toughest for the wind industry.

“The NEM has a history of reactive changes,” he told the conference. “High penetration renewables needs to be considered now – or, dare I say, 10 years ago.”snowtownII20080505_36pm

To Summers, there are a nummber of things that need fixing before the electricity market works like it should, particularly now that large-scale renewables are hitting their stride.

“I don’t believe at this point in time that we have efficient market systems to serve the community and the renewable energy industry,” she told the Forum.

“The fundamental problem is we insist the market drive the power system. Meanwhile, the power system has to operate in accordance with the laws of physics.”

“We need to scrutinise the provision of (frequency control and) ancillary services (FCAS)… What do we get? What do we pay for?

“The market is sending out oscillatory signals. A lot needs to be done to fix what’s going wrong here.”

For Nicola Falcon, AEMO’s group manager of planning, a main focus going forward should be on where this 6,700MW of new renewable energy capacity is built.

She says that, according to AEMO’s reckoning, minimal grid upgrades would be needed to accommodate this amount of new capacity, provided it was distributed strategically.

“That’s the challenge,” Falcon told the Forum. “The problem is if there is an interest in one area – such as there is in north-west Victoria right now – high wind output could start seeing constraint, which could see the system become weaker” and the short circuit ratio increase.

“We can only go ahead and build more capacity if it augments the market,” she said. “Could we displace coal? Coal is so cheap it is very hard to stack up the market benefits.

“Without certainty in policy, it is very hard… We need to add capacity without building out more transmission lines.”

One answer to this problem, however, could be in the development of renewable energy hubs – an approach that TransGrid’s Mal Coble is investigating along with the NSW government and ARENA in the New England region of the state.

“Transgrid is acutely aware of what’s happening in the changing energy landscape,” Coble said, by way of opening statement at the Forum on Thursday. “We think a Renewable Energy Hub could successfully bring more than 700MW in additional connections.

“It’s essentially a common connection point for multiple generators – a more efficient way of connecting individual (renewable energy) projects in an area.”

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