The outgoing head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman, says Australia needs to deal with the “facts and the reality” of the changing energy system, and not get bogged down by the politics of energy that questions whether the grid should be transitioning or not.
In her first interview since announcing her end-of-year departure from AEMO – to return to the US where she will take up a position with Google’s “moonshot initiative” known simply as X – Zibelman tells RenewEconomy’s Energy Insiders podcast that technology change is unavoidable, not political.
Zibelman also reveals AEMO’s key role in a new global partnership – the Global Power System Transformation Consortium – that brings together six leading energy system operators from Australia, the US and Europe with the aim of “fomenting a rapid clean energy transition at unprecedented scope and scale.”
Zibelman says the sharing of knowledge and experience was the key goal of the new consortium that includes independent system operators (ISOs) from Australia, California, Texas, Ireland, Denmark, and the UK, all of whom are at the leading edge of the clean energy transition.
It also involves key global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as research groups such as Australia’s CSIRO, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, Imperial College London, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US. It intends to share its information with grid operators in developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
“It’s actually a collaborative that’s made up of five of the six of the power system operators around the world to have more than 50 percent renewables in their mix,” Zibelman tells the Energy Insiders podcast.
“We’re looking at these issues around how do we integrate these resources better …. so that we can work together and solve these problems.”
Zibelman did not say much more about the Global PST Consortium, before its official launch next week, but its website shows that it appears to be more than just a collaboration and sharing of information. It describes its “visionary goal” as:
“Dramatically accelerate the transition to low emission and low cost, secure, and reliable power systems, contributing to >50% emission reductions over the next 10 years, with $2 billion of government and donor support for technical, market, and workforce solutions that unlock $10 trillion+ of private sector investment.”
And it describes its “mission” this way: “Our Mission is to bring together key actors to foment a rapid clean energy transition at unprecedented scope and scale by providing coordinated and holistic “end-to-end” support and knowledge infusion to power system operators across the 5 Action Pillars.”
The first pillar is focused on providing the tools and information to support system operators in achieving very high penetrations (i.e., more than 80 per cent) of inverter-based variable renewable energy resources (wind and solar) on their power systems over the next decade.
“The concern is …. how do we adapt in an environment where things are happening under Moore’s Law … around the speed of change and the regulatory and market environment is still stuck in another age of really slow moving change,” Zibelman says in the interview.
“And so that’s where I think the tension has been, is where AEMO is seeing things occurring quickly and having to intervene. And we need to think about how do we move from a reactive state in energy to a proactive state, where we’re building ahead of the change as opposed to trying to catch up all the time.
“And I think that’s a real tension that regardless of the structure, when you have incumbents who have settled expectations and newbies are coming in and we’re not ready for them, and we’re kind of in the middle. And when I talk to my colleagues or other system operators, we’re all in a position where we feel like the arrows in the front and the arrows in the back are equalling out. We just need to keep them equal so we don’t fall over.”
Zibelman says one of the observations from her talks with system operators in Europe is that the whole issue of the energy transition has been de-politicised in Europe, something that has clearly not happened in Australia.
“It’s not a political issue …. (the debate) is more in terms of the how versus the whether,” Zibelman says.
“And I think what I’m hoping, because the economy’s changed, the economics of renewables have changed so much, and if you listen to industry, it has crossed the Rubicon and everyone’s largely recognising the system’s changing, and we need to accommodate it. The focus needs to be on how do you do that most efficiently versus whether you’re going to go there.
“The reality for us is that the power systems is changing,” Zibelman added. And that means having to ensure that the market signals, and the infrastructure were keeping pace.
“People are making investments in renewables and rooftop solar. And we as a system operator have to operate the system that has that change occurring and make sure that the rules are such that the market is such that we can best accommodate that so we don’t have to intervene.
“Those interventions are increasing as the share of renewables grows. Last weekend, solar power alone delivered more than 100 per cent of the local demand in South Australia.
“We continue to break records in terms of minimal demand because consumers are making choices around putting on rooftop solar, which is fantastic,” Zibelman said.
“But we need to make it work. We want the markets to work with the change in technology. And so certainly what sometimes I do get concerned (about is that) when I say that people interpret that as a political or a policy aspiration versus a reality that we just need to deal with.
“I always would prefer the conversation to be … ‘how do we do this most cost effectively for consumers’? Because that’s what we should be doing, versus … having to worry about stepping in some sort of political landmine that people are going to think I’m siding with one side or the other.
“And that’s I think I’ve done that largely successfully. I know that there are always people who would like to say, I didn’t. But, you know, that has been my my focus, which is what’s best for consumers here. And how do we make this work.”
In the Energy Insiders interview, Zibelman also speaks about:
The growth of rooftop solar: “We are concerned about the issues of under frequency load shedding when we have minimal demand issues and the ability for the system to respond when when their demand is that low … Is there a way that we can modulate (rooftop solar) through optimisation, virtual power plants, storage, those types of things, so we’ll get better use?
The growing connection issues: “We have a very long queue of people wanting to connect …. which is why we want to move on the ISP (Integrated System Plan) and the REZs (renewable energy zones). We need a power system that has the hosting capability to integrate the level of renewables we project to have to have and build it at the locations that are best for the renewables so that it reduces the costs.”
On why she is leaving AEMO: “This was a really difficult decision for to make it for me to make. Australia’s become my second home. I even have an Australian husband now. But X is very much focussed on the type of issue that I’ve been really keen on … which is really understanding that we have to start thinking about how does the digital economy enter into the energy sector, and the importance of decisional tools that we’re going to need and capabilities and information, transparency and availability to be able to support this transition to low carbon resources.”
And on her successor and AEMO’s future: “So this is not a change in strategy. It’s a continuation of the strategy. I do think that the board recognises and I think everyone recognises and has said that given the challenges associated with this transition, it’s going to be a great opportunity for someone to come in and take it to the next level.”
You can listen to the full interview on the Energy Insiders Podcast here.