Silicon Valley glamour steals the limelight, but Australian companies are doing smart work on the en
Summary: Mooroolbark is a nice, unassuming suburb about 30 kilometres east of Melbourne. It’s a long way from the cutting edge world of Silicon Valley’s tech movers and shakers. It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find part of the solution to Australia’s looming energy crisis.....
Iconic Silicon Valley company Tesla has been garnering lots of headlines in the wake of its offer to help the South Australian government out with its energy supply woes. Tesla’s founder Elon Musk even personally weighed in with a tweeted promise following the state’s rolling electricity blackouts in February: “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free.”
The SA energy outages — September, December and February incidents — provide a good example of the problems existing energy networks have in regulating supply, demand and flow of power, and in accessing timely information to control and maintain networks, especially when the energy is coming from a mix of renewables and non-renewables sources.
Musk’s proposal of a battery storage solution has received lots of attention, with Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes and many others encouraging Tesla to bring its expertise to the table.
The battery energy storage solution would be valuable both for grid stability and to store renewable energy for later use. However, it won’t fully address the deficiencies of an energy network still labouring with infrastructure that was conceived and built progressively over the 20th century to transport energy one-way only: from the power station to the consumer.
Meanwhile, in sleepy Mooroolbark, a consortium of Australian tech and utility companies has been quietly working on a project that could supply a significant piece of the puzzle that finally powers Australia’s electricity grid into the 21st century.
The mini grid trial is a project by Ausnet Services, PowerTec and Freestyle Technology to provide a stabilising Battery Energy Storage solution. Controlled by the Parallel Distributed Energy Resources Control System (PaDECS®), it promises to give grid operators greater flexibility in delivering reliable power and allows them to more effectively integrate distributed residential renewable energy generation sources.
The mini grid Battery Energy Storage solution (PowerCache™) provides voltage stabilisation and 3-phase power and energy balancing for 16 homes, as well as isolated grid voltage control services to the community, and enables the participants to share residential solar energy. It’s a proof of concept project that could soon be rolled out on a much wider scale.
It harnesses advances made in the application of Internet of Things technology, especially machine to machine (M2M) devices, as well as system integration and control software, to create a smart grid that listens and communicates between the many points of supply and demand in an energy network.
An integral part of the system is that it makes use of ‘fog’ computing rather than being cloud-based, which means data is managed at the edge of networks and can provide for faster localised response to potential network problems. Fog computing allows for faster data processing, analysis and storage, which is achieved by eliminating real-time data passing through the cloud. This makes it ideal for decentralised infrastructure networks such as energy grids.
Another important aspect of this system is the integration of components such as advanced metering and protection infrastructure that will allow for better quality data processing to inform the operation of networks, helping to smooth the peak during generation and consumption cycles often experienced by grids that are fed by a mix of energy sources.
The benefits of such advances will be the smoother transition of networks to increased renewables in the fuel source mix; including better and consistent management of these multiple sources at consumer and network levels. This enables rural and remote power users to access a more reliable source of power with more renewables.
There is no magic bullet fix for upgrading our energy distribution. While headline-grabbing proposals by the likes of Tesla could certainly form part of the overall solution, many other aspects of Australia’s complex energy system need to be considered in order to keep pace with the growth in variation of the generation mix now used in electricity supply across the country, as well as the vastly varied localised demands across networks.
Australian governments and energy authorities have the opportunity to reform and overhaul our outdated electricity networks. Along with possible regulatory and market mechanism reforms, there needs to be a willingness on the part of governments and energy authorities to embrace smart technology to bring our power infrastructure up to date and on par with other advanced economies.
Part of the solution might come with a sprinkling of Silicon Valley glamour, but we shouldn’t let that blind us to the innovative work Australian companies are doing, even in places like sleepy Mooroolbark.