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Future-proofing our power system in a COVID-19 world

Across Perth’s suburbs the lights are burning day and night as hundreds of thousands of West Australians work from their home offices.

We all take for granted that we turn on the switch, the lights will come on, our computers will be powered and our printers will run. The reality is the mass translocation of people working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our power supplies, seeing an overall reduction in demand of about three to four per cent.

The change has also shifted the load profile of our grid in WA, as people working from home during the day co-exist with partners and children using a variety of devices simultaneously.

The change in working patterns has highlighted the importance of local, distributed power supplies, making it timely that the WA Minister for Energy, Bill Johnston recently released the much-awaited Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Roadmap.

The Roadmap seeks to deal with the huge impact of household rooftop solar systems generating electricity in the middle of the day. It encourages changes in consumption behaviour to deal with the spike in generation, as well as promoting battery storage at the local and household level.

The reason we have to deal with the spike in the middle of the day is that in order to accommodate the electricity generated from rooftops that gets fed directly into the grid no matter what, we have to ‘turn down’ the system’s big thermal generators . There are no individual controls on rooftop solar, so they can’t be moderated to suit demand.

But turning down large coal and gas fired power stations is not easy – most of them were built to run as baseload plant, running non-stop, except for maintenance shut-downs. Consistently turning down these power stations is costly and shortens their life considerably.

In addition, solar power from rooftops, while clean and low cost, is intermittent, varying from suburb to suburb and from hour to hour. This places a lot of stress on the system and the thermal power stations which provide back-up to smooth out the power supply.

The initiative of the WA Government to set up the Energy Transformation Taskforce, which was responsible for DER Roadmap, is laudatory. In doing so, WA has taken a lead over the eastern states which have not yet come to terms with how to integrate renewable energy into their grids, despite pursuing pro-renewable policies.

While a lot of the commentary on the DER Roadmap has been focused on the trial of new tariffs to provide incentives for using power during the middle of the day, the other major component of the plan is to encourage battery storage at the local community or individual level.

This will be important as we see permanently changed work patterns result from the pandemic restrictions, with more people working from home, for some or all of the time.

Storage, in the form of batteries, will increasingly become a major feature of the WA power system, both at the individual and community level, and also associated with large-scale renewable projects.

At the community or local level, batteries could be integrated with Western Power substations, but there will also be a place for batteries in households or at business premises. At the larger scale, it is imperative that batteries are built alongside solar and wind farms to directly moderate the flow of energy into the grid, working very much like gas-fired plants, but with obvious environmental benefits.

To achieve this ambition, we need to see incentives for investment in battery storage to ensure we get the right technology in the right locations. The Taskforce is working on this, and I congratulate its team on taking the time to consult with the stakeholders in WA’s power system to determine the right solution. Getting it wrong is just not an option.

It is especially important to ensure our electricity market attracts investment, and that the private sector is encouraged to roll-out the new storage technologies to help create a cleaner, lower-cost power system which delivers reliable energy to households and businesses alike.

In order to emerge from the other side of the pandemic with a robust and cleaner power system, the WA government should support immediate investments from the private sector in battery storage associated with renewable projects, and assist our local communities and businesses to install battery storage systems.

Short-term incentives from government are appropriate while new market rules supporting battery storage are developed, implemented and understood. In time, however, the market should be robust and self-sufficient. WA’s private sector has already demonstrated its appetite to invest in electricity infrastructure, with approximately $5 billion invested in the past decade.

The WA Government looks set to seize the opportunity to future-proof our power system and ensure we come through these challenging times with a number of well-placed, clean energy and storage projects underway, helping kick-start our local economy.

This opinion piece originally appeared in The West Australian.

Richard Harris is a Special Counsel at Cannings Purple, specialising in energy and resources and government relations, and the chairperson of the Independent Power Association. Contact Richard.

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