Massive renewable energy projects underpinned by ICT technologies

In the mid to late 2000s, I set up the industry association Smart Grid Australia (SGA). The reason why I became involved in the smart energy sector was that earlier that decade I had established the industry group UtiliTel.

At that time, Telstra was reluctant to go even beyond the integrated services digital network (ISDN) in starting to provide Australia with a proper broadband service. It was all about protecting their existing business rather than moving into innovative new technologies. The company estimated that there was no demand beyond 1 to 2 million broadband subscribers in Australia by 2010.

By establishing UtilTel, we looked at what opportunities there were for the electricity companies to utilise their communications network to start offering broadband services. However, by the end of that decade, there was a shift within the electricity companies from looking at their communications assets as an external business opportunity to utilising comms to make their own internal infrastructure smarter. At that stage, UtiliTel changed into Smart Grid Australia.

Within this organisation, we looked at smart grids, microgrids, other distributed energy systems, smart renewable systems, blockchain and transactive energy models. Energy companies were agitated by the lack of government policies that would allow them to move into these new directions. The industry is heavily regulated and cannot move into new systems in any significant way until regulations are changed. In frustration, the group dissolved SGA.

While the Government has still not come up with smart energy policies, the world has moved on. State governments and private industry have embraced these new developments and despite the Federal Government’s fixation on fossil fuels, massive changes are occurring.

Newcastle-based Diffuse Energy, for instance, has an interesting telco-based innovation. They deploy their small-scale wind turbine technology on mobile towers to reduce diesel consumption and improve operational resilience. They have just been awarded a project with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to accelerate the deployment of this technology.

Ten small wind turbines will be installed at remote Australian communication sites.

There is also a  large scale microgrid development at the Agnew gold mine in Western Australia. What is already thought to be Australia’s biggest microgrid operating on hybrid renewable sources (combining wind and solar) along with gas and diesel engines for backup. The system has a combined capacity of 56MW including 13MW of battery storage, based on a lithium-ion battery energy storage system.

A few months ago, I mentioned the microgrid and transactive energy smart energy campus initiatives taken by Monash University in Melbourne.

The technology developments over the last few years have been mindboggling. New internet of things (IoT) sensor-based technologies are turning a range of different energy technologies into interconnected projects.

There is also the Asian Renewable Energy Hub. This will generate 26,000 MW of renewable energy in Western Australia. Once fully deployed over the next 5 years, it will consist of 1,600 giant wind turbines and a 78 sq km array of solar panels.

Up to 3,000 MW of generation capacity will be dedicated to large energy users in the Pilbara region. The bulk of the energy will be used for large scale production of green hydrogen products for domestic and especially export markets.

Then there is the Singapore based  Sun Cable project. They are developing the Australia-ASEAN Power Link (AAPL), a major energy infrastructure project that will supply renewable electricity to Darwin and the ASEAN region. As the world’s largest dispatchable renewable electricity system, the AAPL is expected to be the first of many “sun-cables”.

As you can see, these are no longer feel-good projects but are truly transformative in nature. It is very exciting to see how new innovative developments in communications and IT technology are enabling such enormous energy projects.

These are massive projects, and they will take many years to develop and obviously things can and will change during that timeframe. But the trend is unstoppable.

It is sad to note that the reason why these projects can be developed is that they are off-grid. They must bypass the Australian electricity systems. These overseas companies cannot afford to become involved in the Australian political quagmire of energy policies. For more than a decade now, the Federal Government remains gridlocked. What a hugely missed business opportunity for Australian companies.

These developments totally depend on foreigners and foreign entities who will take their innovations and profits away with them.

Paul Budde

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