The role of the grid is changing and the way that change is managed will ensure whether or not the rollout of renewables will be easy, Dr Alex Wonhas of engineering and consulting company Aurecon tells EcoGeneration.

To borrow the slogan used on Telstra vans, the electricity grid is “how we connect”. For most consumers that means huge coal-fired generators sending power one way, along with a bill. For some others, it also means sending surplus solar energy the other way, in return for a measly discount on billed usage.

The grid has become a two-way connection, and as solutions are found to cutting overall energy use and sewing more and more clean energy into the system the demands on the network that connects consumers with generation will become far more complex.

The role of the grid is changing and the tenets of electrical engineering dictate that change brings trouble.

“Electricity grids now are more important than ever because they are a critical enabler for system reliability and stability,” says Aurecon managing director of energy and resources Dr Alex Wonhas.

Aurecon managing director of energy and resources Dr Alex Wonhas. Photo by Sarah Keayes/The Photo Pitch.

Renewables are the cheapest forms of new-built generation in the country, and a well-planned network will unlock new precincts of supply of wind and solar. The only reason the electricity price differential between states such as NSW and South Australia is so wide, he says, is the lack of interconnection. “Planning provisions outlined by Finkel might actually enable us to access that.”

Strong direction

The government’s adoption of 49 and the 50 recommendations in the Finkel Review finally provides some strong direction and the industry has been given the green light to not only get on with the job of matching supply with demand but to also unlock opportunities in demand side response, Wonhas says.

As more coal plants are retired and the surge of solar and wind plants is completed and commissioned, the grid will become less stable. How will that be managed? “That is a very good question,” Wonhas says, “and I am glad that officially AEMO is now going to answer exactly that question in detail – which I think has been long overdue.”

There won’t be an easy answer, he says. Instead, the solution is likely to include a combination of building new interconnection, utilising new battery technology (“which is coming in at a price point that is starting to be commercially viable”), using Snowy Hydro as a back-up capacity and working out optimal back-up to complement generation and provide regional system stability.

…or go it alone

There’s a whole other movement in the air, of course, which says electricity users are taking matters into their own hands and that the emergence of markets for peer-to-peer trading of energy from rooftop solar and stored solar will see the load on the grid naturally fall away.

Wonhas says West Australian utility Horizon Power is showing the way this can be done using microgrids in remote communities, including one which saw electricity costs drop 30%. “That shows the power of utilising the full potential of distributed energy resources.”

Electricity demand has been dropping slowly, and some forecasts say it will begin to rise again whereas others see self-consumption picking up and the downward trend continuing. The CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia’s Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap released in April says two-thirds of customers could be using onsite generation by 2050.

“There’s a real choice here that we can make,” Wonhas says, “which is why policy and regulatory certainty are absolutely fundamental, because I suspect greater degrees of uncertainty will drive people to take energy matters into their own hands.”

Bigger is better

If the job of providing generation is left to the big end of town then everyone will benefit from greater efficiencies of scale and projects will be built in the windiest and sunniest parts of the country, providing the transmission is there or plans are in place to build it.

“Given the scale of the transformation we need to put our skates on and make sure we have all of the options available to manage the system … and unlock what is now cost-effective low-emissions technologies, which is already a fundamental change compared with 10 or even five years ago when people said renewables are fine but they’re too expensive,” he says.

“We’re now at the point where renewables are the cheapest form of energy and … all we need to do now is find efficient ways to liberate them in the grid in a reliable way, which is a much smaller challenge than battling on the cost of the technology.”