Less than 24 hours after giving notice as the CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman has warned that Australia has a lot of hard work ahead of it as the electricity market undergoes a “massive transition” that in many ways – including its speed – leads the world.
Zibelman, who late on Tuesday announced she was leaving AEMO to take a job at Google’s X “Moonshot initiative” back in the US, said on Wednesday that the market operator had made a “very significant amount of change” over her four years at the organisation, in a bid to keep up with the rapid pace of change.
“For AEMO, we’re looking at by 2030, we could be managing a system that has 70 per cent of the energy provided by renewable energy, regularly,” she told the Smart Energy Council’s online Global Smart Energy Summit.
“And more importantly, a very significant increase in distributed solar – the fastest in the world. And that change is happening so quickly that, for us, in Australia, we’re finding that we’re leading in many respects. And how do you manage a power system with these changes in technology?”
One of the key tools that will be used to manage these huge and break-neck changes is AEMO’s Integrated System Plan – a 20-year energy market transition blueprint of which Zibelman said on Wednesday she was particularly proud.
“What we’ve been able to do is apply engineering and economics and cut through the politics and really just talk about it in terms of what is actually happening on the power system using a collaborative process,” she said.
“And I think it’s …sort of a vehicle that’s going to continue to provide value as we get better at it, as people understand it, and we think about how to implement it. So that’s something I’m very proud of.”
As many admirers have noted since yesterday’s announcement, Zibelman has lead AEMO not only through a time of great systemic and technological upheaval, but at a time of great political turbulence, as well.
While state governments power ahead on renewables and emissions reduction, the lack of leadership from the federal Coalition government, now in power for seven years, has allowed reluctant regulators and rule-makers to drag the chain on vital market reforms.
Meanwhile, Australia’s energy and emissions reduction minister for the past two years, Angus Taylor, has applied the brakes to the transition to renewables using a cunning mix of obfuscation and a lack of communication.
But Zibelman has always managed to keep her head above the political waves, and tell the energy transition story straight – it’s happening, ready or not. And not being ready is really not an option.
“This is not a policy choice,” she reiterated on Wednesday. “[Coal] generators will retire because they’re getting to the end of their useful life, and they may even retire earlier than planned just because of the difficulties of operating in this environment.
“We have to build ahead of time; we can’t sort of wait. And so thinking about that will be important.
“And while we have a lot of noise around the edges and a lot of noise around policy, in fact, from an operational standpoint and from a change standpoint, we’re moving very quickly and the discussions in the industry are in many ways in just the right spot,” Zibelman said.
“Look, it’s a difficult time. It gets frustrating at times, but we’re really trying to work to change the culture at AEMO to be outwardly facing, commercially oriented and, really working with our members.
“And, you know, it’s a work in progress. But it’s something that I think, you know, I’m hoping will be enduring because, frankly, the complexity of these issues are huge,” she said.
“And when I … talk to my counterparts, internationally, they sort of shake their heads sometimes, at what we’re trying to do in Australia. But they also marvel. But it’s also recognising that we can’t do this alone. It has to be done in a collaborative way.”