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By  Ruth Dawkins Scott Walker 14 July 2023 6 min read

Key points

  • Australia is experiencing one of the fastest power system transformations on the planet, providing a window on the energy future for many global jurisdictions.
  • The combined impacts of the '4Ds' - decarbonisation, digitisation, democratisation and decentralisation - are driving Australia's unparalleled transformation.
  • These are being accelerated by a complex range of societal, technological, economic and commercial shifts.

We've been working alongside the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and nine other research partners on an important roadmap to support Australia's transition to a stable, decarbonised power system. 

Launched last year, Australia’s Global Power System Transformation (G-PST) Research Roadmap incorporates work on nine pressing research topics, including inverter design, new control room technologies, and tools to ensure grid stability. This research is part of a broader consortium of countries working to accelerate the transition to reliable low emission power systems across the globe.  

We have now published a G-PST Stage 2 summary report which encompasses key findings and progress updates from the research program. Individual reports from each of the project partners have also been published. Six of the project themes are common to the global consortium, while three (reports 7, 8 and 9) have been designed specifically for the Australian energy context.  

The complexities introduced by EV charging infrastructure and EVs requires further testing, especially as EVs are expected to drive major load growth in distribution networks.

Why is Australia’s G-PST research so important? 

A global energy transition to net zero by 2050 is well underway. Drivers including lower-cost renewables, retirement of fossil fuel plants, emissions reduction targets, geopolitics and consumer demand are driving this transition at unprecedented speed and scale.  

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Investment 2023 Report, global investment in clean energy will rise to an all-time high of USD $1.7 trillion in 2023, a figure about the same as Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. The biggest spend is on solar energy, which is expected to draw investment of USD $380 billion. 

It’s a good news story, but it also generates complexities. Around the world, changes to power system design, operation and management are urgently required as countries and regions accelerate their uptake of electricity generated by a variety of renewables. And industry, businesses and households are participating in a more decentralised energy exchange across their respective grids.  

What is unique about energy transition in Australia?

Traditionally, electricity grids were built to transfer electricity from large, centralised coal-fired power stations with assistance from natural gas and hydro. The transfer was in one direction to end-users, and the system excelled in providing dispatchable electricity at any given time.  

While households continue to draw power from the grid – for heating, appliances and electric vehicles – some people are now also supplying energy back into the system from rooftop solar.

Dr Thomas Brinsmead is our technical coordinator of the GPST work. He said this shift presents unique challenges that need to be addressed, especially in Australia.

“There are two major differences between Australia and a lot of other countries,” Thomas said.

“First, we don’t have the density of interconnections of grids as in places like Europe. Our eastern grid is essentially a long, skinny line around the coast, which leads to less spatial diversity in resources. If there were more interconnectivity, you could often re-route around the loss of a link in the network. A network that’s a long line is more vulnerable. 

“The other major aspect where Australia differs is that we are much further along than most places in our uptake of distributed energy like rooftop solar and batteries. Other grids are moving in that direction, but we are at the forefront in terms of installation and implementation.”  

The growth of renewables in Australia has taken place at an extraordinary rate. In 2010, there was 480 MW of utility scale renewable generation installed across the National Electricity Market (NEM). At present, there is 19,000 MW of utility scale renewable generation installed. The AEMO estimates by 2030 this figure could reach 35,000 MW, representing more than half the utility scale generation capacity at the time.  

A key aim of Australia’s G-PST research program is exploring how these distributed energy resources can best be monitored, coordinated and aggregated. And how we can ensure the security, stability and reliability of the country’s energy supply.    

The rise of renewable generated energy into our power system needs to be complemented by an expansion of storage capacity to mitigate dispatchability issues.

What are some of the findings from the Stage 2 reports?  

Detailed Stage 2 reports are now available for each research area, and these outline the work completed to date, the remaining knowledge gaps, and the high priority tasks to be delivered in the short term. 

Unsurprisingly, given the rapid uptake of solar photovoltaics in Australia, which is expected to continue over the coming decades, there is a major focus on what this might mean for the power system. This includes the inverter technology itself, as well as dispatchability and grid stability.  

“In the decarbonised world that Australia is heading towards, the types of generation technology that provide electricity have different stability characteristics," Thomas said. 

"In essence, they produce electricity through power electronics rather than rotating machines. That requires new ways of managing and controlling how everything works so grid connected devices don’t interfere with each other in a disruptive way.

“The new technologies are also not as dispatchable. We can’t choose when the sun will shine and the wind will blow, so that means we need to make sure there’s enough storage and transmission to build up reserves of energy when there’s an excess of wind and solar and use those reserves at times when it’s deficient," he said.

Researchers are helping address both issues by developing methods and tools to evaluate and improve system stability and ensure reliable grid integration as renewable electricity continues to expand.  

Another interesting area for researchers is black start capability: the ability of a power system to get back up and running after a blackout. Thankfully, such an occurrence is a rare event in Australia, and the processes for restoration are well planned in advance. But with significant changes occurring to our power system, it’s important to explore what adaptations may need to happen.  

Thomas said this research is largely related to problems that most people shouldn’t ever have to worry about.

"The role of power engineers and researchers is to look at potential problems coming down the pipeline and make sure those are dealt with well before there is any drama. Blackout recovery is that type of problem. Hopefully it’s something you’ll never have to worry about," Thomas said.

"So what we are doing now is looking into the extent that new technologies can reliably replace all the functions of traditional technologies, or whether we’ll need to retain some existing devices in the system as backup."

What comes next? Stage 3 reports and beyond 

The Stage 2 G-PST reports provide a useful midstream update on how this enormous and vitally important body of work is progressing.  

The program of research that began with the launch of the Australia’s G-PST Roadmap in mid-2022 is anticipated to take three to five years to complete. However, the research partners will revisit the G-PST Roadmap on an annual basis to update the direction as circumstances change.  

There is other related work taking place in parallel to the G-PST process, including AEMO’s Engineering Roadmap to 100% Renewables (PDF, 4.3MB). Taken as a whole, these initiatives provide the necessary foundation for Australia’s transition to a stable, secure and affordable low-emissions power system.  

“Although Australia is moving quickly along our renewable electricity generation journey, and facing some unique challenges, we are not alone. By sharing experience and analysis within a global community of countries in a similar transition, working together rather than independently, we will learn from each other to bring about a more secure and reliable outcome,” Thomas said.

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