Three pathways to a smarter energy system

By Amanda DunneDecember 20th, 2022

A new generation of digital solutions are needed to coordinate Australia's energy transition to a system that is decarbonised, decentralised and democratised.
Melbourne at night, fisheye view

Australia is transitioning towards a smarter and more flexible energy grid.

This article was originally published in Energy Magazine.

As Australia’s energy transition accelerates, a new generation of digital energy solutions are needed to coordinate an increasingly decarbonised, decentralised and democratised electricity network.

Dr John McKibbin leads CSIRO’s research in energy systems digitalisation. He is driving research programs working to enhance energy forecasting, system planning and network visibility.

“The current energy transition will be the defining challenge of our time. If you can imagine our energy market as a machine, then consider that we’re creating the largest and most complex machine ever invented. In real time.” Dr McKibbin said.

“There are three challenges digital energy solutions can help us solve. And if we solve these challenges, we will be on our way to decarbonising our energy system.”

1: Sharing the load

As we enable the rapid electrification of our transportation, buildings and industry, more pressure will be placed on the grid to meet the growing demand for electricity.

The capacity of our grid is finite, so maintaining the balance between supply and demand is crucial.

Strategically shifting load to low demand periods can restore balance to the grid during peak events, avoid wasteful overgeneration of renewables and increase grid resilience, reliability and affordability.

In doing so we can turn large flexible loads such as heating, air conditioning, hot water heaters, and electric vehicles into distributed energy resources for the grid, effectively creating a giant battery.

The practice of operating appliances during off-peak periods when energy rates are lower is not new. But the introduction of smart technology has provided the capacity to automate and optimise load timing to maximise efficiency and consumer savings.

Empowering digital energy solutions for smart buildings

Commercial buildings are responsible for around 25 per cent of electricity use in Australia and 10 per cent of emissions. To improve energy efficiency, property managers need comprehensive and accurate building data and reliable processes to connect diverse data sets.

The Data Clearing House (DCH) is a digital solution developed by CSIRO in collaboration with industry innovation and university research teams. The platform streams disparate sources of building data to a single location and includes information from external authorities such as the weather bureau and electricity market. By consolidating these insights, the DCH unlocks quality data trends and intelligence, empowering building managers to realise energy savings and flexible load opportunities.

2: Making the invisible visible

Australian households and businesses are changing the way our energy is produced. They are taking a more active role in energy generation through the uptake of distributed energy resources (DERs) such as solar and battery storage.

The rapid integration of DERs into the grid has introduced technical and operational challenges. DERs can be invisible to energy network operators, who may only see the change in net demand that they cause.

The lack of visibility compromises the network’s capacity to understand DER behaviour and effectively manage the power system. This can lead to blackouts and equipment damage if the physical limits of the distribution network are breached.

DERs can be connected and operated at scale through microgrids and virtual power plants (VPPs), offering enormous potential to contribute to a reliable and secure energy system.

Realising our distributed energy potential

CSIRO, through the RACE for 2030 collaborative research centre, developed a strategy with network businesses, universities and tech companies to increase our visibility of the low-voltage network and help enhance the capacity of the network to host DERs.

A range of opportunities were identified to enhance network visibility, including better leveraging smart meter and smart inverter data and installing new emerging network monitoring technologies.

The collaborative research program is now working to enhance the network visibility and hosting capacity of the low voltage distribution network, including:

  • developing data standards, interchange protocols and data integration platforms
  • developing improved analytical workflows for network planning and operations including hosting capacity assessments and dynamic operating envelopes
  • identifying the value of DER services for networks and customers.

3: Powering on with inverter-based systems

Australia’s expansion of renewable energy is skyrocketing – up to 10 times the average worldwide per capita rate.

Large synchronous fossil-fuel based generators support grid strength and stability, so our transition to non-synchronous, or inverter-based systems from renewable energy presents challenges and require new solutions.

“We need to make our inverter-based systems smarter. Currently, they are largely grid following, which means they rely on the rest of the network to manage energy disturbances and fluctuations. As we increase the share of inverter-based resources, they will increasingly need to be grid forming in order to contribute to system strength and stability” Dr McKibbin said.

Emerging research is investigating how large-scale batteries with grid forming inverters can provide system strength and stability capabilities, as higher levels of variable renewable energy are integrated into the grid.

CSIRO’s is currently working with academic experts to deliver the G-PST roadmap as part of a wider suite of digital energy solutions.

Contributing to a global digital energy vision

The Global Power System Transformation (G-PST) Consortium engages power system operators, research institutions and governments from all regions of the world to accelerate the global transition to clean energy at unparalleled scope and scale.

CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) are Australian Consortium representatives, supported by Australian and international engineering, academic and research partners.

CSIRO’s G-PST Research Roadmap incorporates research plans for the nine most pressing research topics to integrate renewable energy into our electricity networks and decarbonise our energy sector, including:

  • new capabilities, services, design methodologies and standards for inverter-based resources
  • new technologies and approaches for power system operator control rooms to provide more real-time visibility, analysis and control
  • quantifying the technical service requirements of future power systems to maintain the supply-demand balance and affordability of renewables
  • new procedures for black starting and restoring a power system with high or 100% Inverter-based resource (IBR) penetration

CSIRO is currently working with academic and industry experts across Australia to deliver the roadmap, in collaboration with the global consortium.

Rewiring our digital energy future

Solving these three challenges is imperative to ensuring that our future energy supply is sustainable, affordable and secure.

As Australia’s independent science agency, CSIRO is uniquely positioned to connect, guide and accelerate our energy transition.

“But it will require an extraordinary uplift in digital capability,” said Dr McKibbin.

“And this cannot be achieved if innovation occurs in silos. What we need is for industry practitioners, regulators, government, researchers and communities to collaborate at unprecedented levels.”

Learn more about CSIRO’s digital energy research at www.csiro.au/energy

2 comments

  1. “Decarbonisation” and “decentralisation” of electricity supply are legitimate scientific objectives that aim to improve the environmental impact and reliability, respectively, of the electrical grid.

    “Democratisation” on the other hand, sounds very much like a political objective that should form no part of CSIRO’s remit.

    Further, the heavy reliance on software to manage a decentralised electricity supply system creates a potentially critical national vulnerability to cyber attack by criminals, or even worse, by a hostile foreign power. A large portion of the entire Australian electrical network could be disabled with no more than a keystroke.

    This potential vulnerability already seems to exist in domestic solar inverters which even today can, at times, be supplying around 25% or more of total capacity in some states. Each one of these devices is in regular communication with “home”, ostensibly to provide performance monitoring.

    A large scale disruption of the national electricity supply by the simultaneous crippling of many domestic inverters by the activation of malware that might already be embedded in their existing software would not be a problem.

    Hardening the distributed electrical network is an urgent and major challenge.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter. John McKibbin, CSIRO Energy Networks lead, responded:

      Democratisation does not refer to a political objective, but rather how households and businesses are changing from passive, to active ‘prosumers’ by providing energy, storage, and other grid services.

      We agree that there are emergent risks associated with the digitalisation of the energy system, including the potential systemic vulnerability of inverter control systems referred to in your comment. Our view is that the shift toward an increasingly digitalised energy system is essential given its growing complexity and dynamism. We must ensure appropriate cyber security precautions to manage these new risks, including electromechanical fallback control mechanisms if a critical cyber security event occurs.

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