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Australia’s energy future on grid edge – can AEMO give it a push?

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The Australian Energy Market Operator has again stressed the vital role that demand management solutions – and not more baseload coal – will play in the safe, stable and economic running of Australia’s electricity grid, as it transitions away from centralised fossil fuel generation and towards distributed renewables.

Speaking at an industry event in Melbourne on Thursday night, AEMO CEO Audrey Zibelman said that the key role of the market operator was to drive productivity of the system – “and the best way to drive productivity of the system was being able to get demand to participate.”

4_CatBlackPhoto_GreenSync_WEB copy

Image: Supplied, GreenSync

This “demand” Zibelman refers to is the multiple gigawatts – 6GW in small-scale renewables, alone – of energy generation capacity that has been installed by homes and businesses around the country, but that is currently “not visible” to the market operator, and therefore of little use in balancing the grid.

Zibelman wants to change that, and firmly believes that by using non-network solutions to help manage this behind-the-meter capacity, Australia’s grid can make an ‘orderly transition’ to renewables and deliver secure, reliable and affordable energy.

“We’re going to have more and more renewable variable resources come into the system,” Zibelman said, in a keynote address at the launch of GreenSync’s Decentralised Energy Exchange, deX.

This is a platform that – to the AEMO chief’s “delight” – aims to harness Australia’s vast distributed energy resource and open it for trading between businesses and households and communities and utilities.

“AEMO is looking, today, at 20,000MW of connection requests into the NEM, all of it renewables. It’s amazing,” said Zibelman.

“So the question for us, as we consider supply and demand balance, is how do we do it in the most efficient way? And one of the most efficient ways to do it is to make sure we can use the tools that are sitting at the grid edge, as well as we can use the tools on the system.”

AEMO’s June electricity forecast report was dominated by the impact and opportunities of rooftop solar, battery storage and associated technologies and demand controls.

Next week, AEMO is expected to release the latest of its long term opportunities statement, which is also expected to focus on demand-side technologies, and as it looks to guarantee security of supply ahead of the coming Australian summer, while also juggling the political hot potato that is Australia’s inflated electricity prices.

This too, is expected to be the general flavour of any advice Zibelman will give to the federal government in a key document also due next week on Australia’s needs for “baseload” or “dispatchable” generation.

The Coalition’s reluctance to let go of the increasingly outdated concept of cheap baseload energy, preferably fossil fuelled, has frustrated many in the industry, and appears to be behind the PM’s reluctance to categorically rule out government backing for new coal generation on the NEM.

Meanwhile, companies like GreenSync are rolling out the very solutions AEMO has been pushing for – and are doing so with the full support of major industry heavyweights including AGL Energy, Energy Queensland, SA Power Networks, AusNet and EnergyAustralia.

Perhaps most importantly, they are making the market operator’s job easier, both in its efforts to harness the power of demand response, and to bring the federal government over to the right side of the low-carbon energy transition.

“Having an announcement like deX in the market allows market operators like AEMO to make assertions that there are ways to get flexibility into our systems that don’t require spinning, synchronous machines,” GreenSync CEO Phil Blythe said at the launch on Thursday.

“We’re engaging to bring the industry along with us. The power is there for anyone to join these markets. Anyone who wants to get fair value for their assets.”

For Zibelman – who has been on both sides of the fence, having also set up her own demand response company – these sort of solutions tick almost all of the boxes on grid productivity, including energy security, grid stability, while also addressing key economic and environmental concerns.

“I’ve been chasing this concept of demand response probably… since 2005, when I was running the grid operations at PJM (a US network operator with operations across multiple states),” she said at the launch.

“The issue we had there… was that we were seeing prices go up, we were not seeing investment, and there was a whole lot of concern around congestion on the system; and customers were really irate,” Zibelman said.

“So when I look at it now, with Australia, and what we’re trying to do, it’s the same types of issues; we’re trying to drive a very productive system, which means to us that supply and demand need to be balanced out.

“And as we see customer choice changing, and as we see customers wanting to do more around distributed energy resources, what we want to do is use it to create this larger ecosystem, so that we drive productivity in the system and we make sure that as we’re thinking about supplying electricity we’re doing it at the most efficient price,” she said.

“To do that, it’s going to be very difficult for AEMO to have a look at every installation and think about how to use that. So having entities like GreenSync… is going to allow organisations like AEMO to use demand response better. Because you’re helping us solve the problem at the grid edge.

“Australia, by doing what we’re doing… is going to be solving the issues that are going to be taken to Houston, to New York, to Japan, and everywhere else where people are struggling with the same set of dilemmas,” Zibelman said.

For Blythe, who is rolling our four new projects using the company’s deX platform – one of them, announced on Thursday night, is a state-wide operation in partnership with Energy Queensland – the timing is right to show leadership on demand management – particularly with almost 6GW of rooftop solar alone installed on Australian rooftops.

“That’s an amazing change in (energy asset) ownership,” Blythe said on Thursday.

“And the only thing we have in our arsenal to enfranchise millions of participants, is markets.

“We’re engaging to bring the industry along with us. The power is there for anyone to join these markets. anyone who wants to get fair value for their assets,” he said.

“It’s almost inevitable that to plan the future of our grid, we’re going to need to make assumptions about the amount of renewables coming in and where they will fall.

“That’s going to happen with or without policy settings,” Blythe said. “How the government sets those policy levers might change the rate at which things change, but it won’t stop the train.”  

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  • Roger Franklin

    Seems that until we move a few “fossils” in Canberra out of the way – not much is going to change!

    • Durham 52

      Exactly. Sadly there is little or no hope for any realistic and substantive change under this current government. They are so firmly welded to coal and the big power generators that they will fight any and all progress.

      • Roger Franklin

        Durham – yes, no mention either of incorporating EV’s into the solution.
        Including Electric Vehicles into the Grid seems to make sense unless of course you are an energy generator with a business model based on making profit on peak pricing. Let’s watch Europe as they move forward in their energy revolution while we watch our power prices climb at 3-4x inflation. Great Stuff!

        • Durham 52

          Yes, the LNP don’t do ‘innovation’, unless it’s innovative ways to line their and their mates pockets, or find new ways to pork barrel electorates.

        • Tom

          EVs are at around about the “car phone” stage for mobile telecommunications.

          One day soon they will hit the “Nokia 3210” stage – it might be next year, it might be 5 or 10 years away – but when they do we’d better be ready!

          • Roger Franklin

            Love your analogy – top marks!

    • The good news is that it is changing in spite of the Canberra’s fossils and they cannot stop it. “AEMO is looking, today, at 20,000MW of connection requests into the NEM.” That is equivalent to a modern large “base load” coal fired generator and this will increase as costs of renewables continue to fall.
      Clearly Zibelman understands what is required and she has the determination to make it happen.

  • Andy Saunders

    I’m not sure that demand response (which is what she was talking about) is really that related to rooftop solar. Storage, yes, and household energy management controls even more so.

    • Andy Saunders

      And don’t forget that demand management/demand response from industrial customers is typically greater potential than households, especially if direct SCADA connections can be made etc.

  • Cooma Doug

    There are plans by some to initiate the removal of this industry leader. She should go have a beer with Jillian Triggs and have a chat about it.

    • Durham 52

      Interesting. No doubt Fraudenberg and the Sydney shock jocks, supported by Tony “coal is good for humanity” Abbott, will rain wrath and bile down on her if she doesn’t back coal and the current electricity market rip offs. No doubt she’ll be branded “un-Australian”, the rights current favourite accusation.

      • Cooma Doug

        Also the frequency of same sex marriages will affect the controls

  • Cooma Doug

    I think it is simpler to utilise load side energy shifting than has been in the discussions of the last 10 years. I believe that the energy reserve required for system security is already there and not recognised. Many industry leaders are thinking about an enormously complex SCADA technolgy implimentation across every connected customer.

    I cant see any need to have any SCADA real time connection with the entire network. Perhaps a data share every 3 months to balance the books. The reality of a power grid is that we can calculate what is required for security and take action by analysis of voltage and frequency at the load site. With modern technology I believe it could be very cheap to innovate such a system.

    If this is done and response initiated in milli second time, the grid is effectively split up into thousands of units, where action is taken rapidly and power swings are removed. The customer paid when the data annalysis happens at the end of the quarter. If the customer does not want such disruption that is reflected in the price they pay. If the customer has no problem with disruption they are rewarded.
    What would happen in such a system of rapid load response, areas would actually function in a co operative way simply because of the effect on the power swings on the system.

    I believe solutions are emerging now just because they are seriously looking.

    I am cocerned that same sex marriage might effect the system frequency and this could create a need for large clean efficient coal generators.

    • riley222

      Cooma ,please be careful. Don’t give The Australian any ideas for new stories.

  • Ian

    Does no one even consider the biggest single consumer of electricity in their calculations or plans? Aluminium smelting consumes 10 % of electricity, and demands surgical-quality supply but expects to be bulk-billed for the privilege .!

    • riley222

      You’d reckon the way things are going there’s going to be plenty of cheap power when the weathers good, is it possible for the smelters to be more flexible. It should be something that Oz could produce and export very competitively given cheap power. If pumped hydro storage gets going then the smelters could choose their times and still use renewables. Imagine, Oz aluminium, marketed as being manufactured using renewables.

      • Ian

        Well, this industry can use intermittent electricity sources according to a NZ outfit called Energia Portior. Apparently the problem with aluminium smelting is heat management. A lot of the electricity goes to heating the pots and the temperature of the electrolytic reaction must be kept almost constant. In the past ( and to the present) electricity was fed into the reaction in prodigious amounts, constantly, and the heat was just lost through the walls of the ‘pot’. These people have fitted a heat exchanger to the pot and manage heat transfer that way. They can vary the amount of electricity in the electrolysis reaction without worrying about the electrolyte overheating or cooling down too much, in other words they can ‘idle’ the reaction or ‘supercharge it at will. Their site suggests up to 30% variability in electricity supply can be tolerated. Not saying these people’s technology is THE answer to this inflexibility problem, but certainly suggests that a lot more can be done to transform this industry into demand-responsive and responsible member of the electricity grid.

        • Gyrogordini

          @ian, an excellent comment, and suggestions. Would you like think about writing a full article on your ideas, and the kiwi innovation? It is great to see some additional thought being injected into these discussions, rather than we “fanboys” merely complementing, or the Alt-Reich bitching. Great work!

          • Ian

            To see the work that has been done in the field of managing heat balance in aluminium smelting see energiapotior.com ; Trimet , Essen, Germany . Aluminium smelting is a tricky business to be sure. High temperatures, huge currents, low voltages, very narrow operating temperatures, toxic gaseous biproducts, consumption of crucibles(pots) and anodes and a host of other technical difficulties. See http://www.aluminum-production.com/anode_effect.html for some insight. In the past heat management has consisted of a passive heat flow through the anodes and walls of the furnace and the electrical input with its various heat losses has kept the heat production matching heat loss to the environment. If the electrolyte temperature drops then more electricity is pushed through the system and less if the temperature rises. These people have used insulation and a hot gas to control the crucible temperature. This has freed up the control of electricity flow through the electrolyte for other reasons such as variable electricity supply or variable production targets. For Trimet, the active control of heat has allowed electricity variations of about 15%+_ and they are aiming for 25%+_. This is a huge “battery” of demand response.

            The amazing thing about aluminium smelting is the huge amount of electricity needed. Less than half the electrical energy expended in the process is actually stored in the enthalpy of aluminium, the rest is heat production. Of the 13 to 15KWH of electricity consumed per Kg of aluminium, 6.34KWH increases the enthalpy of aluminium and the rest is heat.

            What to do with this waste heat? The heat recovery of Energia Portior’s system is not so great . The gas heat is between 120 to 180’c.

            When you consider solar thermal with molten salt storage, the liquid salt is the heat transfer fluid from solar collector to storage tank. Solarreserve’s salt fluid temperature is 566’c. The aluminium pots in a smelter are at close to 1000’c. Energia Portior use hot air as the heat transfer fluid, solar reserve molten salt. This raises the question. Can you use molten salt as the heat transfer fluid in aluminium smelting and still achieve good control of heat in the electrolyte solution, and use the higher temp of the heat transfer molten salt solution to drive a useful steam turbine power generator? ie marry Energia Portior’s idea of managing aluminium smelter temperature transfers with solar reserve’s molten salt storage technology. This part has not been done. It’s just an idea . How practical this might be is probably worth investigating:

            Imagine if you could get 30% energy recovery from the aluminium smelting process . Per tonne of aluminium 14MWH input, 8MWH lost as heat 2.4MWH recovered as electricity.

  • Hettie

    When, oh when, will the domestic owners of rooftop solar be compensated for feed in at times of peak demand?
    Surely the technology already exists to facilitate this? If the rapacious gentailers can get obscene prices for firing up their gas for half an hour, when it is needed only for a few minutes, so should the home solar owners, absent at work, unable to utilise their precious power, be paid for easing the pressure on supply.
    Then watch the speed with which AEMC adopts 5 minute settlement, so householders can’t benefit from that outrageous rort.