A senior executive at Western Australia network operator Western Power says that high levels of renewable energy pose no great technology challenges to the grid, although it may change the way that networks are managed.
Sean McGoldrick, the head of asset management at the state-owned Western Power, which runs the grid in the state’s south-west corner, says the utility has looked at the rapid changes in the uptake of rooftop solar and wind energy, and concluded that there are no insurmountable problems.
Western Power has one of the highest penetration rates of rooftop solar in the country, with 550MW installed and growing at 50MW a year.
“Our penetration levels, while they’re very high, we’re accommodating it,” McGoldrick told the Local Energy & Microgrids conference in Sydney last week (co-hosted by RenewEconomy and One Step Off The Grid).
Western Power also has a growing contribution from wind energy, including the 207MW Collgar wind farm and several other smaller projects both built and in the pipeline: “It has its challenges, and it’s not only from a community point of view,” McGoldrick told the conference is response to a question.
“Western Power is a traditional company, and while it’s on the path to change, there are also a lot of engineers valiantly defending the old model, when they should be changing.”
McGoldrick’s comments are particularly relevant in Australia, where the debate over renewable energy is likely to intensify in the upcoming election campaign, and as South Australia looks to shut down its last coal-fired generator, leaving it with nearly 50 per cent of its supply coming from wind and solar.
Western Australia, like South Australia, is expected to meet all of its daytime demand through rooftop solar on some occasions, a development that will bring massive changes to the way it manages the grid. It is a transition that is now being actively supported by state energy minister Mike Nahan.
McGoldrick told RenewEconomy later that that the transition was entirely achievable. A former senior executive at the Irish grid operator, he said scepticism was being steadily removed as countries and grids – like those in Ireland and South Australia – increase their level of variable renewable energy to 40 per cent of more.
The operator of the China state grid said a similar thing in the US last month, suggesting that adapting to high level of renewable energy penetration was more of a “cultural” issue than a technology one.
Indeed, McGoldrick said the biggest threats to grid reliability were the potential sudden loss of large, centralised generators.
Much of the grid back-up and redundancy had to be built to cater for such sudden outages. Indeed, the UK’s National Grid CEO made a similar point about large centralised power, saying it was “outdated” thinking, and said the ongoing cost of providing back-up to the proposed massive nuclear plant at Hinckley Point could run to $12 billion over the life of the asset).