A panel of experts at the CEC’s Wind Industry Forum in March tried to find strategies that may ease the industry through the connections bottleneck.

The panel (above, from left):

  • Winodh Jayewardene, technical executive network connection and performance, WSP
  • Dennis Freedman, head of infrastructure development, AusNet Services
  • Rachael Cox, project engineering manager, Pacific Hydro
  • Rajesh Arora, technical director power and industrial, AECOM

The temperature is rising around the negotiation tables where wind developers and networks meet to talk about the prospects of connecting new generation to the grid. It’s not that tempers are frayed but more a case that the builders eager to press ahead as fast as they can, while the people who pour the foundations have to make sure the ground can take the strain.

A panel of experts at the Clean Energy Council’s Wind Industry Forum in March addressed the issue from both sides, and tried to isolate areas and strategies that may ease the industry through the bottleneck.

The connection process involves inquiry stage, application stage, details of design, construction and commissioning. Where are there snags at the moment?

Rajesh Arora of AECOM says the application process is far from trivial as the network service providers all have different requirements. If too much is open to interpretation, he says, time can be spent going back to NSPs to request clarification of what’s behind some of those requirements. It’s very important to have experienced consultants and project partners, but it helps when there is no ambiguity about technical requirements. “It’s an area where something needs to be done,” Arora says.

Snagged on system strength

Rachael Cox at Hydro Pacific has negotiated with networks over the technical and financial aspects of three projects and said things are only getting harder. “Discussions have become more robust as we’ve got involved in north Queensland and system strength [has become an issue],” she said. The rapid pace of new applications and construction has added an extra layer of complexity. “It’s a lot to adsorb as a business.”

To be fair, it’s a lot for the networks, too. Dennis Freedman at AusNet says the scale of connection requests has almost driven a cultural change at the network. “I think we’ve got better as an industry at actually looking generators in the eye and asking, what’s really important to you here? And structuring it up that way, rather than just running you through a process.”

Those who expect to follow a step-by-step process may get stuck, he says, whereas those who take the time to build a relationship and surround themselves with the right partners are more likely to succeed. “The most important part is to get yourself educated before you start.”

Freedman reminded the audience that an NSP’s role is to protect the assets that are already connected.

Rule change hurdle

System strength is the main thing keeping Cox awake at night, she says. Hydro Pacific started the ball rolling on a north Queensland project in January 2017 and by October that year had placed its order for a transformer. “We were up for quite a lot of money,” she said. A rule change from the Australian Energy Market Commission about system strength in November shifted the goal posts, however, “and still to this day we are working with AEMO on … system strength remediation options. This has been a very long two-year process.”

Her best advice echoes that of Freedman: build strong relationships with the transmission network service provider and the Australian Energy Markets Operator. “There is a real advantage in being at the table with AEMO and having all parties in the room – because they do have a say and impact on the outcome of things like … generator performance standards and system strength.”

The transmission network service providers, she said, had to wrestle with the system strength rule change too, and many were caught off guard. “It is a very resource-intensive problem. It’s very hard when you know the information you need but it’s very hard for them to give it to you because they haven’t developed [models] themselves yet. It’s been a very difficult time in the industry.”

Blasted physics

A transition from centralised generation to a sprawling network of smaller, intermittent wind and solar plants will be complex. If AEMO’s work identifying renewable energy zones within its Integrated System Plan attracted a wave of connection requests in parts of the country where prospects are best for generation and investment, then so be it. But we shouldn’t expect the NEM to be adapted for change overnight.

Marginal loss factors released by AEMO in March were a rude shock for generators, and Cox admits Pacific Hydro did not anticipate the extent of shortfalls against its own estimates. “You want financially viable projects and you spend a lot of time on models … the transparency around how they {MLFs] are calculated and why there was such a sudden drop is very alarming for the industry,” she said. “It certainly has a massive impact if suddenly you lose 10% of your revenue.”

Freedman from AusNet said risk in marginal loss factors “wasn’t understood”. In Australia, generators pay for this loss of capacity, but it’s not a universal rule. In Texas, he said the networks pay.

Fundamentally it’s a matter of science, where the flow of electrons in a network is a factor of where generation is added to it or taken away. MLFs were bound to be disturbed by the exit of Hazelwood and the connection of many wind and solar plants over the past couple of years. It doesn’t take a scientist to conclude they are likely to get worse.

“But as we get new transmission and electrons are allowed to travel in a more efficient way, hopefully that will be positive,” Freedman said.