Energy Queensland is testing a method of using scant available data to better read what’s happening along its poles and wires.

The Queensland grid is assaulted by the elements. Thousands of kilometres of corrosive coastal air and ferocious tropical storms combine to put Energy Queensland’s Energex network (covering south-east Queensland, including Brisbane) and Ergon Energy network (most of the remainder of the state) under strain.

With only about 12% of connection points fitted with smart meters it’s impossible to always know what’s going on.

“You cannot manage what you cannot measure,” says Energy Queensland manager future network strategy Daniel Eghbal. “It means we have almost zero visibility of what is going on on the low-voltage side of our network.”

When something goes wrong, it’s often the case HQ won’t hear about it until the telephone rings.

“Now that customers are installing PV at a very rapid rate – almost 40% on average, and in the very near future they are going to install electric vehicles – for us to not know what is going on is practically very risky. It gets to a point where you cannot operate in that environment.”

The solution would be to install a measuring device on every single house, which sounds extravagant when you have 1.7 million customers. Data is also streaming from 20,000 Luceo devices, installed as part of a separate trial, and some transformers. Eghbal reckons it would take at least five years, perhaps 10, for natural replacement of meters to take care of the problem. Trouble is, the network needs enhanced visibility now.

Fill the gaps

Energy Queensland started working on a cost-effective solution a few years ago with the University of Queensland to develop a state-estimation algorithm, which has since been commercialised by Brisbane-based technology company GridQube. The idea is to get hold of what data is available and the algorithm will “fill the gaps” and cast the network in more light. “With that visibility you can start offering better services to rooftop solar and use it in terms of safety,” Eghbal says.

Instead of installing devices on every single house, he says it could mean they are only needed on every fifth or tenth house.

“With the minimum amount of money you spend by filling the gaps, you get the maximum data you need and you improve safety.”

As owners of rooftop PV systems opt for or upgrade to smart energy management software such as Solar Analytics or similar offerings, you’d hope the network would be able to simply grab those data streams and get an even clearer picture. But it’s not that easy, Eghbal says. “In theory it sounds easy to get the data from multiple sources, but in practice there is not a product that allows to you bring them onto one platform to analyse.”

Not yet, anyway, but it’s being worked on. In December 2020, ARENA announced $2.63 million in funding for Project Shield, a joint effort of Energy Queensland, Essential Energy in NSW, the University of Queensland and GridQube. The $5.7 million project (with the cumbersome full name Synchronising Heterogeneous Information to Evaluate Limits for DNSPs) is aiming to find how data from DER can be interpreted so that networks can determine hosting capacity for rooftop solar.

Ergon and Energex are trialling access to data from smart meters to understand what the platform may be capable of offering. “Not everything is fully automated yet,” says Energy Queensland manager intelligent grid program Beer Opatsuwan. “We still require a human intervention to assess the data, at least from the safety perspective. As the volume of data increases we’ll have to have a more intelligent algorithm to complement that process.”

Rollout targets risk

Measuring devices are being rolled out in what Opatsuwan calls more “high risk” areas, where corrosion can cause problems on lines near to the coast and where there is a greater chance that storms can knock poles over. Without visibility of what’s happening along its network, the operator won’t know when a wire is down. The way it works at the moment is they have to wait until someone calls to tell them.

“If we have a device sending data real time, we can see in that suburb at that location a wire is down,” Eghbal says. “Immediately we can send a crew or remotely we can change the network setting to make sure the public are not exposed to live electricity.”

Another source of risk is “broken neutral” faults, where the earth connection is compromised due to a storm, corrosion or some other reason. If the earth is connected to water pipes, as is sometimes the case, a current can flow through the water and come out the showerhead or taps. That’s not very safe at all, but monitoring would pick it up straight away. “In Victoria they have been using smart meter data extensively to identify those sorts of faults,” Eghbal says.

In 2018, an 11-year-old Perth girl was left brain-damaged after 230 volts was sent into her body via a garden tap. The state electrical safety regulator found a failure of the neutral conductor caused the electrical earthing system, including the tap, to become electrically live. “That’s what can happen when there is no visibility,” Opatsuwan says.