It probably took longer for Audrey Zibelman to get from New York to Australia than it did for her to make her mark on the Australian energy industry.
Having left her position as the head of the New York Public Service Commission to become chief executive of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Zibelman told utility executives that Australia’s energy future lies in a modernized system that is highly flexible in real time. That modern system will depend on the addition of distributed generation on a mass scale, a two-way grid, and the incorporation of intelligence throughout.
When it comes to doing that, she said, it’s clear that Australia is ahead of the rest of the world. It’s great to see Australia setting the pace – it’s one of Sunverge’s largest markets and home to the world’s largest residential virtual power plant thanks to AGL. We’re also proud that our storage systems were there to provide backup power to homeowners in Queensland during the recent Cyclone Debbie.
What’s disappointing is that the U.S. is not right up there with Australia. The nation that has been the home of innovative technology should also be a world leader in energy network modernization.
Zibelman is absolutely right that the traditional grid, with its over-reliance on central generation, is no longer adequate in the 21st century. Its lack of resiliency is a matter of not just economics, but even life and death in an age where everyday life depends on reliable power and stops without it.
Zibelman saw those effects firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (as she reminded her new constituents in a speech in Adelaide). Australia itself has just lived through widespread blackouts in the middle of a blistering summer, as demand overtaxed its system’s ability to deliver enough power – so they understand the problem well. It’s only a matter of time before the next major weather event in the U.S. sweeps through a densely populated area and leaves millions without power, cell phone service and other vital resources for hours, days or even weeks.
The longer the US waits to modernize its grid and prioritize the deployment of distributed resources, the more the country remains at risk for another Sandy catastrophe. Reinforcing our existing capabilities through broad adoption of distributed generation and storage, combined with intelligence, is the future. This bolstering of resources at the edge of the system will provide the resiliency consumers demand, and that utilities need to provide, in a way that’s not possible with central generation alone.
Utilities around the country realize this. Utility Dive’s 2017 State of the Electric Utility survey found that more than 70% of the 600 utility executives surveyed expect moderate-to-significant growth in rooftop solar, demand-side management and behind-the-meter storage. To facilitate the interconnection and control of those resources, more than 80% said they expect to see growth in grid communication technologies. And 90% of respondents believe their company should have a DER business model, with over half indicating they should pursue rate-based investments in distributed resources.
We’ve seen this decentralization create innovation in other areas, like the “Internet of Things.” That innovation, in fact, decentralized intelligence into ordinary household devices that help make increased energy resiliency possible. In fact, the modernized grid mirrors today’s IT infrastructure, with its cloud-based processing power connected to and supporting the individual processing power and intelligence of smart, distributed devices from laptops to light bulbs.
The technology is there. The model is there in Australia. The understanding of the need is there. The longer the US delays the inevitable, the higher the risk; it’s time to put the regulations, resources and capital in place to move much faster.