How resilience is driving energy localisation

I’m presenting on this topic at the upcoming Clean Energy Week event in Sydney on 23 July 2014

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This article was originally published in Reneweconomy on 29 April 2014

How would you feel if you lost power for a week, even though your electricity provider knew this was likely to happen but did very little to avoid it?

For many in the U.S., this is exactly what happened in 2012.

In response, communities and businesses are pursuing local energy solutions.  Microgrids – one of the topics at next week’s Australian Energy Storage Conference – are being promoted by U.S. policymakers and adopted by end-users as a means of improving system resilience.

Although various definitions of microgrids exist, in simple terms they can be thought of as small-scale electricity networks that are independently capable and controllable from the surrounding grid.  While Australia has many examples of microgrids in isolated or island communities with power systems described as off-grid, standalone or remote, grid-connected applications are rare.

The increased focus on microgrids in the U.S. is being largely driven by efforts to harden the grid and reduce the impacts of events such as extreme weather.  By way of example, power outages caused by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 cost an estimated $USD 14-26 billion and resulted in 50 deaths.  Microgrids can be used to strategically fortify critical infrastructure such as hospitals, police stations, public shelters and emergency response facilities with the ability to disconnect and connect from the main grid in times of widespread outages.

These investments to promote system resilience are aligning with other objectives to promote cleaner, smarter energy.  Project owners are incorporating increasingly larger amounts of renewable energy as a reflection of technology cost reductions and sustainability objectives.  These decisions reflect the ability to tailor microgrid design and operation to specific customer needs, in contrast to the ‘one-size fits all’ approach for regional-scale grids.

For corporates, resiliency translates as business continuity.  With the cost of unplanned outages necessitating uninterruptable and/or back-up power sources, the wider benefits and decreasing costs of microgrids are increasing their appeal.  The peak demand charges applicable to large electricity users provide an incentive for increasing levels of self-sufficiency, and are a direct input into the financial argument for commercial microgrids.  Data centres, which may access cost savings by switching to Direct Current (DC) power systems, have been identified as an early market application for microgrids.

So what of Australia?  Is our electricity system resilient?

The system vulnerabilities have already been exposed.  On 16 January 2007 around 690,000 Victorian electricity customers, including 70,000 businesses and public infrastructure services such as transport, telecommunications and healthcare, experienced electricity supply interruptions as an outcome from a fire in the northeast of the state in the vicinity of transmission lines.  Despite there being no direct loss of life and a mere 7 homes lost to the bushfires themselves, the total economic impact on the state was estimated at $500 million due to the supply interruptions alone.

The community ability to respond during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires was severely hampered by the loss of power.  In Queensland around 200,000 people lost power after Cyclone Yasi in 2011, while some residents lost power for up to four weeks after Cyclone Larry in 2006.

Actions to address these vulnerabilities have been slow and largely superficial.  In 2010 the Australian Government released a national Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy that is based mainly on information sharing.

A request by Victorian distribution network operators to address climate risk in the period from 2011-15 by upgrading components of the network was declined by the Australian Energy Regulator, who were unpersuaded by the companies’ submission.

The long leadtimes of the electricity network price determination and infrastructure investment processes, combined with the steep learning curve for dealing with the ‘new normal’ of climate risk, suggests we are some way off from increased resilience being provided by the system operators.

Instead responsibility has been largely passed onto electricity users themselves.  In the wake of Cyclone Yasi, the Queensland Government published a guideline which recommended that “the relevant bodies undertake a review to identify the power supply security of critical infrastructure”.  As lead of the energy sector group for the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy, the Australian Energy Market Operator advice on preparing for power interruptions is to create a business continuity plan and install back-up power supplies where appropriate.

And while network operators are currently ‘ring-fenced’ from providing services such as microgrids in a competitive market, the review of these guidelines has been deferred despite the Australian Energy Market Commission recommending they be reformed.

As per the U.S., the path forward seems therefore to be one of customer action.

Microgrids, which largely evolve incrementally from existing investments in distributed energy, represent the end-game in terms of going off-grid.  As technology cost reductions and network cost increases drive many towards this outcome, resilience simply strengthens the argument.

Microgrids for resilience: the U.S. experience... the infographic displayed at the Energy Networks 2014 conference in Melbourne

Microgrids for resilience: the U.S. experience… the infographic displayed at the Energy Networks 2014 conference in Melbourne

 

When will electric vehicles provide grid storage?

This post was originally published in Reneweconomy on 28 March 2014

Close your eyes and picture yourself in a sleek new electric car – powered by clean electricity, emitting no pollution, silent and cheap to run.  Parked in your garage, it stores energy from your solar PV system to provide mobility and power your home.

But is it going to happen?… And if so, how and when?

The vision of parked vehicles being used for grid storage has captivated people since EVs began (re)emerging as a viable transport option – wind and solar variability could be solved through intelligent application of an underutilized asset!  Now with solar uptake booming in the U.S. and over 180,000 plug-in vehicles on the roads providing 4 GWh of potential storage capacity[1], the time has surely arrived to pull the pieces together?

The good news is that the technology is here or not far away.  Advanced vehicle/grid control systems can protect the battery and manage energy flows in line with network needs.  Interoperability across the various technology interfaces is advancing through the evolution and application of recognised standards.  These developments will provide enhanced visibility and control for network and vehicle operators, allowing them to cooperate easily, conveniently and for shared benefits.

The story from here will reflect the realities of car use, the insights from Big Data, and the power of visual association.

Experience has shown that vehicle owners are largely, but not entirely, predictable – most use their car during the day and charge overnight. While charging tends to happen when it is cheapest, drivers manage charging in line with the primary use of the vehicle as transport.  For energy service providers this translates to uncertainty – not a great foundation for business success.  When viewed alongside the relatively small storage capacity of individual vehicles relative to stationary batteries, the focus for the foreseeable future will be on the alternative.

The areas of opportunity are instead those with more certain benefits that outweigh the cost and effort involved in setting up the vehicle-to-grid system.

An obvious example lay in use of the cars for emergency back-up power, when access to electricity may be life-saving.  Equipment available now allows EVs to be used as a direct power supply independent from a hardwired electricity network.  Use of the vehicles as storage within independently capable and controllable microgrids has been identified as a means of providing increasingly valuable system resilience.

For non-emergency applications, the pathway will be through evolution of existing grid-connected installations – analogous to that unfolding for microgrids above.  Electric vehicles often operate out of locations that also feature distributed energy resources, such as solar PV.   This coincidence is intended, as the visual association of the two technologies provides significant “brand value” while in the early-market adoption phase.

Through analysis of the energy and vehicle activity data at these locations, much can be discerned about the opportunity for surplus energy to be directed to the cars when parked.  Individualized system design and control strategies can then be developed so as to deliver more certain benefits for only incremental investment.  These projects will serve as a stepping stone for the mainstream, commoditized solutions of the future, where cheap, clean and locally-produced energy is used for transport or stored in vehicles for later re-use.

Bringing these individual, site-based solutions together in the wider network context will unfold as local electricity market regulation allows and incentivizes it.  Regional operators may manage a number of distributed energy resources from across their network collectively as Virtual Power PlantsProjects of this type are already underway, endorsing the view of the future utility customer as a ‘prosumer’.  Through this model, a car may provide grid support from various locations within a network as it relocates over the course of a day – a scenario that represents the ultimate realization of the vehicle-to-grid concept.

For individuals who want to get the ball rolling, the first step would be to compare a record of vehicle movements with the generation profile of your home solar system.  Understanding the overlap will highlight the potential to generate your own transport energy.  Managing your EV charging to consume surplus energy generation may provide a financial benefit that would offset the absence of a feed-in tariff.

In the near-term the cost and effort involved will likely appeal only to the minority for whom the sometimes intangible benefits really matter.  These ‘early-adopters’, who will be strongly motivated by the visual synergy of co-located vehicle charging and solar generation, are a feature of any new technology adoption.

As the pathway seems clear and the technology is here, the future is now.

A co-located Electric Vehicle (EV) charging and solar generation facility at the CERES Environment Park in East Brunswick – an example project of the type that is a stepping-stone for EVs as grid storage (Source: CERES).

A co-located Electric Vehicle (EV) charging and solar generation facility at the CERES Environment Park in East Brunswick – an example project of the type that is a stepping-stone for EVs as grid storage (Source: CERES).

[1] Author’s calculation based on a breakdown of sales by vehicle type and battery storage capacity