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25 February 2021 5 min read

Australians are incorporating more renewable energy into their everyday lives. According to the Clean Energy Council, 24 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2019 was from renewable energy sources.

You can also see this in action. Solar panels are becoming as commonplace as front doors. After all, Australia has the highest uptake of solar globally with more than 21 per cent of Australian homes with rooftop solar PV! And there are a growing number of home batteries available to store your clean energy for later use.

But how do we make renewable energy more accessible and widespread?

That’s what Dr John Ward works on. He’s the Research Director of our Energy Systems Research Program. He oversees how clean energy systems can be integrated into what’s already available to us through the grid. That means he investigates how we can get more renewables into our system as we transform Australia’s energy sector to net-zero emissions.

We look at his research and how he’s applying it on both a small and large scale.

Dr John Ward: renewable energy researcher

John has a lot of energy for this research. He leads a team of 50 scientists who work together to find solutions to Australia’s energy challenges.

They test the limits of our electricity network and find ways to incorporate more renewable energy (like solar and wind). They also make the best use of Australia’s existing energy infrastructure. It’s done in a facility in Newcastle known as the Renewable Energy Integration Facility (REIF). And as the name suggests, REIF mixes renewable energy sources and grid power together and demonstrates how they interact in the real world. As a result, researchers can explore better outcomes for Australian consumers and industries.

REIF also replicates how much energy a normal house or commercial building complex would use in a day with a diverse mix of power sources. As a result, John and his team can capture detailed electrical power data at around 10,000 times per second, gaining insights into very fast transient interactions that support the reliability of our electricity systems.

Additionally, REIF develops techniques to detect and solve faults in our electricity systems. This helps improve the reliability of our current energy supply and, importantly, reduces unwanted blackouts.

“We have created a world-class facility that can be accessed by industry. REIF is supported by experts in the fields of power engineering, system design, energy management and grid technologies,” John said.

"This includes research into building thermal physics, behavioural science, electricity network optimisation, solar forecasting and energy storage.”

However, John’s work doesn’t stop at REIF. He is the chair of many renewable energy committees both here and abroad, sharing his expertise with others. He also applies his research for remote areas to see how these areas can manage transitioning towards renewable energy for the long-term.

One example is the Alice Springs Future Grid project.

How John applies his research in practice

Currently, there are numerous barriers to increased use of renewable energy. So what can we do? Enter the Alice Springs Future Grid project. It’s a two-year $12.5m collaborative project which aims to remove barriers to greater use of renewable energy in the town’s power system. John and CSIRO are taking a leading role as the project’s knowledge sharing partner.

“The challenge facing our electricity is now one of system integration – but not just in the engineering sense,” John said.

“Firstly, we need to coordinate the community, economic and technical aspects of a transition to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Additionally, you need to provide the pathway to 100 per cent. They’re both much more significant than just solving a technical electrical engineering problem.

“The scale of the Alice Springs project is perfect. It’s a massive scale-up compared to existing renewable microgrids. It’s also a small-scale version of the challenges faced on large interconnected systems like the Australian National Energy Market. And the lessons learnt are applicable to both,” he said.

One aspect of the Future Grid project is to use a range of technologies that haven’t yet been trialled in the Northern Territory. This will help us better understand how houses with solar panels and batteries can support the main grid.

“This will give us and the rest of Australia some really good answers for how to better integrate more and more solar power into our systems across the country for the long-term,” he said.

This project will ultimately boost the use of renewable energy Alice Springs. The project is taking a holistic approach and exploring solutions across the economy, regulation, policy and community.

John's energy for this research is unparalleled

John’s interest in renewable energy doesn’t stop the minute he ends his day job.

“I volunteer for various things which tend to take up my time. For example, I’ve been a volunteer on the World Solar Challenge since 2005 and joined the event Scientific Faculty in 2013,” John said.

The World Solar Challenge happens every two years. It challenges teams to travel 3000km through the outback from Darwin to Adelaide, all in a self-designed and constructed solar-powered vehicle.

“This is an amazing event, where we challenge teams to think about and tackle research and development of sustainable road transport,” he said.

Here he is in action at the last World Solar Challenge in 2019.

“These cars are always at the forefront of the best solar cells, the highest efficiency electric motors, highest specific energy storage,” John said.

“If you want a glimpse into the future of solar-powered cars and batteries in vehicles, this is where you can see it.”

John's origin story

Working with renewable energy means John started out in climate science, right? Think again.

“I’m an electrical engineer by trade. I did my bachelor’s and my PhD in electrical engineering,” John said.

“But electrical engineering is not just about electrical things. Or engineering for that matter. Before joining CSIRO, I did some endocrinology research. I applied signal processing to hormone levels in women, helping to understand and predict pregnancy outcomes which allowed for early intervention if needed.

“I’ve been with CSIRO since 2002. In that time, I've had some amazing opportunities to take basic research ideas through into new start-up businesses. The work I did on optimised grid integration and thermal management of energy storage was the foundation for start-up Evergen. Additionally, an optimised building control system was commercialised by BuildingIQ.”

So how does John feel about being able to explore his research with us?

"We are in a time of phenomenal transformation in how we produce and use energy. I am massively appreciative of the opportunities I have to contribute to this with the amazing CSIRO team.”

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