Between various energy forecasts of the coming decades, one consistent trend emerges: in power systems around the world, renewables – wind and solar – will grow far faster than has been previously predicted. The economics have changed at breakneck pace over the past decade, meaning these technologies are now the default replacement for existing coal and gas-fired power stations. That means more effort is needed to ensure grids are upgraded and updated to suit new forms of energy technology.
Late Tuesday, the Global Power System Consortium (G-PST) was officially launched by the head of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), Audrey Zibelman at London’s Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit. As revealed exclusively in RenewEconomy’s Energy Insiders podcast last week, where Zibelman was the guest, six of the world’s largest system operators directly engaging with high volumes of renewable growth lead the consortium. See: AEMO takes lead role in global consortium seeking rapid energy transition
They are the Australia Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the National Grid Electricity System Operator UK, California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the-Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Ireland’s System Operator (EirGrid), and Denmark’s System Operator (Energinet).
And the ambition is significant. They are seeking to unlock $10 trillion of investment in wind, solar and enabling technologies over the next decade to achieve a 50 per cent cut in emissions. It’s an ambition that goes well beyond the stated policies of the national governments, but they insist it can and should be done.
These countries and regions have already seen significant shifts in the mix of power output in recent years. The latest half-year report from Ember Climate shows the scale of recent changes in these countries:
The United States’ Energy Information Administration shows the transitions in Texas and California with more detail:
In each of these countries and regions, renewables – particularly wind and solar – have grown at rates far faster than the rest of the world, and have provided valuable insight into the advantages and challenges of growing these new technologies on grids designed for old technologies.
In addition to these leading operators, 25 other system operators from around the world will participate in G-PST. Several large research institutions will take part in the technical work, including Australia’s CSIRO, the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence for Integrated Energy Systems, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Latin American Energy Organization (OLADE), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Danish Technical University (DTU), and ASEAN Center for Energy (ACE).
“Countries around the world are looking to pursue a path to modern, low-emissions energy systems, but face significant challenges in acquiring and applying the technical knowledge needed to operate and plan rapidly transforming power systems”, said AEMO’s Zibelman. The goal of G-PST is bold: to contribute to more than 50% emissions reductions of all pollutants around the world, over the next ten years, by acting as an enabler of new clean energy integration.
It is important to not underestimate the value of these efforts. While it is true that much of the threat of blackouts and unreliable power has been wildly exaggerated by critics of climate action, it is also true that pre-empting the challenges of building new technologies and old grids is a worthwhile project. Most recently, blackouts in California were used by President Donald Trump to suggest transitioning to renewables is a risk to supply. Australia’s blackouts became globally significant templates for scare campaigns on this issue.
This new consortium, championed by the executive who led major changes in accelerating Australia’s transition and enabling rapid growth in renewables, highlights an important principle underpinning the future of electric power across the world. “Reliability”, often ascribed to individual technologies, is actually a characteristic of the design of an entire system.
The need for sharing knowledge and insights on how to integrate wind and solar is therefore a vital component of increasing reliability in grids where the proportion of these technologies is growing rapidly – enabling designers, planners and engineering experts to think holistically about systems. It is a stark contrast to the language of the Australian government, which tends to describe specific technologies – such as coal, fossil gas and CCS – as “reliable”.
It is this work; often technical and inaccessible but vitally important, that decides whether grids end up serving their function smoothly, during periods of high transition. Though Australia has often (and rightly) been derided as coal-obsessed and backwards, many engineers, experts, industries and households, including the soon-to-depart Audrey Zibelman, have positioned the country as a global leader in understanding grid transitions.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.