Energy Security – Planning for Tomorrow’s Inter-Grid

Written by Mary Hendriks, on October 17, 2016

“Energy Storage System” by Portland General Electric (Creative Commons via Flickr)

With the recent South Australian blackouts driving the debate, the managers, regulators and advocates of change for our energy systems are now stepping up to find solutions for security of energy supply for consumers, business and industry, and for our essential services.

This is becoming a key issue for Australia, as our centrally planned, one-directional electricity supply systems are morphing from dependence on large thermal combustion systems to smaller, distributed, clean energy generation units able to interface with options for islanding and two way supply.

Australians have inherited an impressive electricity system, one that was built and designed over the past 50 years, but which is now showing signs of age. The questions then arise – do we patch up our existing systems, or look forward, taking the step to change to new energy systems? If we started today, how would our grid be designed to incorporate the significant percentage of clean energy, needed to meet our current and future global commitments?

This is not just a tweak of our existing systems.  I would suggest that the time is right for considering the bigger picture, one of an “inter-grid”, a web of energy supply involving urban local grids and multiple paths, utilising electricity generation units at various nodes, able to supply in all directions that link with that node. An electricity supply system that will also power smart cities and maintain stability as electric vehicles become mainstream.

This becomes more important as we negotiate our changing environment of increasing storms, more intense fires and surging waterways.

Security of energy supply brings up the question of how areas may island to maintain services, or access energy from adjacent local grids. An example of this was at the University of California, San Diego, who supported the local grid operator during firestorms some years ago. The university micro-grid not only islanded and maintained their primary systems when wild fires had disabled the nearby transmission lines, but was also able to feed electricity to the main grid to prevent the grid from collapsing.

Being able to store energy, to have power when and where we need it, is an essential element of this new inter-grid. Certainly, some of our network operators have explored using energy storage and smart systems. Electricity supply networks, such as those run by Ergon Energy in Queensland, Powercor in Victoria and Horizon Power in Western Australia, have all implemented systems at ‘fringe of grid’ to avoid costly upgrades of transmission lines.

We need a variety of energy solutions as we replace large centralised thermal power stations with low cost, but intermittent solar and wind power. This requires a re-think of our market rules, and opening these markets to compensate innovative companies for providing services to this new grid. The AEMC has opened the discussion to new rule changes, such as the time interval for settlement, and rules relating to ancillary services to allow innovative, smart systems to be paid for managing rates of change of power frequency.

But these are cautious tweaks of an existing system, rather than a “big picture” view. Wind, solar and other clean energy generation systems need a 21st century, fast responding inter-grid, with multiple paths, smart solutions and energy storage. The rules of this inter-grid should enable innovative companies offering software solutions for managing, storing and releasing energy, to provide services to this grid. Fast responding energy storage is able to provide many ancillary services at a lower cost, and if distributed in well-designed systems, should provide more energy security for the end user.

Overnight change is not possible nor practical, however this debate offers the opportunity for a serious re-think of the end goal of clean and low cost electricity for Australia’s industry, buildings and transport infrastructure, delivered by a smart, modern and robust inter-grid. That time for looking forward is now.