How do you know how to fix the grid?
In the 1980s, Ian Rose would walk into the Queensland Energy Commission offices and look at the weather forecasts. He wasn’t wondering whether he’d need an umbrella for the commute home or if his children’s soccer match would be cancelled. He was in charge of the state’s entire energy system – determining how much fuel would be shovelled into the enormous boilers; how those miraculously created electrons would course through the transmission system to power air-conditioners or ovens or factories or streetlights or cash registers.
Rose and his colleagues used similar-day weather scenarios to estimate the energy needs they had to meet through their generators. Now, life is a lot more complicated. “The difference is that, in the '80s, the control centre was operated on a command-and-control basis, and the generators had to do what they were told, while still leaving the safety of the plant in the hands of the power stations,” Rose, EY Oceania Associate Partner, Energy Market Modelling, says.
“Now, if the generators don’t like their level of dispatch – how much coal goes into the boilers, for example – they can simply change their bid, or the amount they’ll receive for sending energy into the grid. At the same time, large wind-and-solar generators can’t control their inputs – the wind and sun – so they’re naturally trying to produce whenever possible.
“It means that when you add up both bidding by fossil and hydro, with the weather conditions affecting renewables, there’s a major impact on the flow of power throughout the grid. This is all while maintaining the grid within the stability envelope where it can instantly recover from any and all disturbances thrown at it, such as heat, snow, lightning, fires, storms, generator breakdowns and human error.”
And this is why determining what the grid needs to transform into – as distinct from who will coordinate it – needs the kind of data from the household level that is only just now becoming available through smart meters. At the same time, the high-voltage grid is going to need greater oversight of renewables, as happens already in Ireland and South Australia, where the proportion of production by wind, solar and batteries is limited to a value that maintains the stability of the grid.
“The value might be 70 or 80 per cent, depending on complex engineering assessments of stability,” says Rose. “But it won’t approach 100 per cent until the grid is entirely re-engineered in ways that are not yet identified, but are the subject of worldwide research and development, particularly in the US and Europe, with significant contributions from Australia and other advanced countries.”
The path of least regret
This re-engineering of the grid is also undergirded by some seriously mind-bending maths. It’s not good enough trying to figure out what might happen one day in the future. It’s about forming up and understanding all those micro and macro decisions along the way – from mega-scale battery tech advances to Jane Smith installing three panels on her suburban rooftop and plugging in her new EV. “One of the really significant challenges of the energy transition is understanding what’s happening every five minutes of every day,” says Ben Vanderwaal, EY Oceania Partner, Energy Market Modelling.