EcoGeneration speaks to Jon Retford, general manager of Wilson Transformers’ distribution transformer business unit, about the challenge of meeting the Renewable Energy Target and why reliability counts.
You started in 1933 and as a maker of transformers must be fairly agnostic about how power is generated, so what has attracted you to renewables?
I’d say it’s a bit of a sweet spot. What you’re finding is people are prepared to pay millions and millions of dollars in generating infrastructure – like the 240 hectares of solar panels we have at Nyngan. That’s a huge investment but the reality is that every single watt that gets generated passes through our transformers. Project owners like that are more interested in performance – which is efficiency – and reliability, rather than saving a few dollars.
You’re involved with the 340MW White Rock Wind Farm in NSW, under construction, and the Nyngan and Broken Hill solar farms. What are your plans for making the most of the vast number of new clean energy projects that are soon to start construction?
ARENA has approved 500MW of projects that have to be installed by February 2018, so there are some time-critical projects. Our estimate is in the next three years there’ll be 10 times that scale of projects out there. So, 5,000MW? That’s a lot of generating capacity. The big utility-scale projects want to be in the transmission network so they can get their power to lots of lots of different places and not just be stuck with one little regional user.
Do you keep an eye on proposed changes to the transmission network and what opportunities do you see there?
Yes, take wind for example. Those projects tend to be in places where it’s bloody windy and no-one lives, so the most suitable sites for those projects in Australia are where the network is really, really weak. Traditionally, in the coal-fired model, the generators were a long way away and they would send power to wherever it was needed. But the system got smaller and smaller depending on where the population was. Where these wind farms are there is not much infrastructure, so they have to start thinking about transmission lines. Most of the other interconnectors are already there and have got plenty of capacity.
Events like what happened in South Australia [with the blackout in September last year] start raising doubts about whether we have enough [transmission] and whether we need some redundancy in it. People are starting to think about some duplication or redundancy in there, but it won’t be for capacity it will be for reliability.
Are you worried the volume of projects ahead of us will cause some bottlenecks in your manufacturing facility?
There are so many projects out there that our capacity might get challenged at some stage, but we’ve got mechanisms for dealing with that. If we are as successful as we hope to be there are things we can do.
Do you think the renewable energy target is a realistic goal? Can it be done?
Yes, I think it’s realistic. There are some things that will have to evolve in the network in terms of demand and supply; there will almost certainly need to be some storage mechanisms. One thing that is definite about PV is you get nothing at night. That is at least predictable. A lot of the interest at the moment is in these incredibly flexible solutions [such as pumped hydro], like the new Snowy power scheme, where you pump water uphill when the power’s really cheap and let it run back down through your generators when the power’s really expensive. Those are just beautiful levelling devices that help fill the gaps when some of the other things aren’t working.
Who are your competitors and what advantage do you have over them?
We’re competing with products brought in from overseas that typically come in 20-foot or 40-foot containers. They come like that because they’re easy to stack on ships and travel around the world. The reality, though, is that when you have to put things inside things they provide an engineering challenge. The transformers get hotter, you have to be clever; if you have a space constraint you have to make things smaller, and that always adds cost.
Our alternative is we’re going to put it on an open skid and because we’re transporting them by road, so we don’t have any constraint. If it’s cheaper to be 24 feet long because the things on it are a bit bigger, so be it. We can just transport it straight to site, they unload them, turn them on and they just work.
The other demand we are seeing is in data centres, which have started being built in Australia because the owners want political stability and reliable electricity. They are 80MW customers. The NextDC data centre in the Jemena network in Melbourne is the second-biggest user of electricity in the network, after the airport. Things like that are putting demand on our products. If they want reliable electricity, then they want reliable transformers.
It’s the very important and often forgotten characteristic of our networks. Everyone’s worried about the cost of electricity but it’s very important that it’s reliable – that it’s there when you need it.