1 April 2021

For a start, many parts of the distribution network – the poles and wires you see in your street are old and now well beyond their original life expectancy, itself a testimony to the humble steel and concrete Stobie pole favoured in South Australia (SA). Erosion, corrosion, bushfires, traffic, weather, changes in land use and in energy demand all take their toll on this network. 

Not to mention, this is a network that was built for one way delivery, with power traditionally being generated in a power station and from there faithfully distributed to all who need it out to the farthest reaches of the state. It was never built for the sort of two-way distribution and dispersed generation that solar and wind generation bring.

Out on the highways you may have noticed the lonely poles and wires stretching for kilometres across the landscape carrying the energy crucial to families, farms, communities and businesses of regional SA. Times have changed, and poles and wires originally installed to serve a community of many small farms, nowadays are serving far fewer, but larger farms. As those poles and wires age the cost of maintaining and replacing them is becoming prohibitive and new ways of cost-effectively providing reliable energy to small regional communities are needed.

Everyday an army of inspectors assess the condition of the poles, wires and equipment that carries power across thousands of kilometres of the state, including our bushfire risk zones, looking for faults to try and fix problems before they occur. This critical work, which is rather like painting the Harbour Bridge (when you get to the other side it’s time to start again), is going to become more urgent and complex as the network ages, at greater risk of climate change driven damage through bushfire and weather extremes. Wholesale replacement of a network that spans the entire state is prohibitively expensive. How network reliability can be maintained in the long-term, considering climate change and changing industry and societal needs requires vision, innovation and new technologies.

Incentive schemes over more than a decade have fuelled a boom in home solar panel installations in SA. This growth combined with the rise of solar farms and wind generation farms means that renewables now supply more than 60% of SA’s power. Since SA turned off its last coal fired power station in 2016, attracting equal parts admiration and ridicule in politics and the media nationwide at the time, the wholesale energy price has become one of the lowest in the country, costing South Australians roughly half of what Queenslanders pay today. SA has become a renewables poster child. SA also has some unique energy market characteristics. Lacking a large industrial and manufacturing base, peak demand on the network is highly dictated by weather – when its hot residential air conditioners cause peak demands in the evening when people get from work. When the weather is fine – neither too hot nor too cold, solar generation is high, and demand is very low. Conversely, when the weather is both cloudy and not windy generation is extremely low. Controlling the generation and distribution of electricity in such a variable environment on a network that was never designed for it is an exceptional challenge. 

With the boom in solar and storage batteries in SA, the need to orchestrate these distributed energy resources (DERs) has become critical for network stability, to know in real-time how much energy is being generated across the entire network and when too much or not enough energy is being produced so that the relevant signalling can be sent to the network to take the appropriate action.   

Earlier this month, mild temperatures over the weekend, perfect weather for the annual Fringe festival, resulted in high solar generation combined with low energy demand levels to create the conditions for dangerous oversupply into the network. Too much energy in the network is dangerous and unless there is somewhere for the energy to go it causes failures resulting in blackout. New technology now compulsory in new SA rooftop solar installations enabled the energy regulator to signal thousands of rooftop solar systems to temporarily turn off reducing generation until the danger had passed. So serious is the risk of substantial damage to the network that the national regulator has this week been moved to introduce a fee for feeding electricity into the grid under high load conditions. The regulator’s intent is no doubt to drive both the uptake of residential batteries and the introduction of smart control systems to enable remote control of generation in the interests of network stability.

Likewise, signalling is needed to direct many individual residential storage batteries to act in coordination, like a virtual battery farm, to release their charge into the network under the most profitable conditions. Little in the way of orchestration technology protocols exist today and SA is working with global partners such as Tesla and solar panel manufacturers to develop these world-first technologies.

The network must also plan for the rise in Electric vehicles (EV) as communities transition away from fossil fuel powered vehicles to battery driven engines that will be charged when parked either at home, on the street or at a parking station. Charging EVs is expected to require more power than the average residential solar panel system, meaning that the network will need to increase residential services as well as having suitable infrastructure to replace the traditional role of today’s petrol stations.  Another interesting challenge.

The solutions to these challenges are being tackled today. Drones, robots, LIDAR, satellite and aerial imagery, low orbit satellite networks as well as the Internet of Things will all increasingly help the work of maintaining a safe and reliable network as well as supplying rich new veins of data. High volume detailed data flows will be needed to support the complex modelling and analytics required for efficient, data-driven network maintenance, capacity planning and forecasting to ensure energy security and minimise consumer cost. Microgrids and self-contained micro power plants will increasingly begin to replace traditional supply networks.  Trials of world-leading Australian invented hydrogen generation and storage technology offer the promise of emission free energy and a whole new export market. 

The transition from fossil fuel-based generation to renewables is turning the energy industry on its head and SA, with its combination of a renewables-driven network and microcosm of complex energy challenges is uniquely positioned to lead the world in developing the solutions for building a sustainable, renewable energy driven future for our communities. As the impacts of climate change accelerate in the years ahead and our children, and their children, grow to inherit these challenges, the work we do today, perhaps, will make South Australia one of the places that the world remembers as where the tide started to be turned.

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