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By Holly Tancredi, Assistant Editor, Energy Magazine

Rachele Williams, General Manager for Project Delivery at the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), says there is no bigger, more important challenge to solve than transitioning Australia to net zero. We caught up with Ms Williams to discuss the role of consumers, the technical potential of electric vehicles (EVs) and thermal storage, as well as reflecting on her career and leadership values.

Ms Williams has expert knowledge of the energy sector, developed from her experience as an engineer of power systems and from working across a range of portfolios in technical, commercial, policy and regulatory settings. Specialising in innovation and with extensive experience in emerging technologies, Ms Williams has worked on distributed energy and storage projects with fuel cells, small-scale wind turbines, and more.

Rachele Williams is the Chair of the Distributed Energy Integration Program (DEIP), a collaborative effort to help solve the issues and barriers slowing customer’s devices being fully integrated with the network.

Within her roles, Ms Williams is well aware of the critical role consumers will play within the energy transition, and she is at the forefront of supporting and developing technical solutions to ease the way. Ms Williams said the complex nature of the industry means there’s no easy answer or silver bullet to “solve” the energy crisis.

“We’re in uncharted territory. This energy system, the technology we’re using – ARENA are at the forefront in Australia. There isn’t a road map for us to follow; we’re defining our own map,” Ms Williams said.

“Realistically, change is going to be our only constant.”

The complex decisions

ARENA hosts the Distributed Energy Integration Program (DEIP), a collaborative effort to help solve the issues and barriers slowing customer’s devices being fully integrated with the system. Ms Williams, the DEIP Chair, said the program’s foundational work includes a plethora of stakeholders coming together to find, explain, and solve problems to ease the transition, but it’s not always smooth sailing.

“From the largest consumer down to small business, energy touches all of society, so there’s a lot of different stakeholders with strong views,” Ms Williams said.

“Getting across the issues, getting stakeholders to trust each other, have those really great discussions, and get to a consensus decision, takes some time,” Ms Williams said.

“The work gives policymakers the ability to take those next steps and be really successful in making some changes in an area that can be really contentious, fraught, complex and challenging,” Ms Williams said.

Ms Williams said understanding that technical solutions and changes are complex and nuanced and represent a major shift is important, as the industry must consider the market, regulation, and conceptually, how consumers use distributed energy resource (DER) devices.”

Dual-purpose devices

Ms Williams said changing the narrative of renewable energy technologies will be a major factor in the transition of Australia to net zero, and a large adjustment began during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns across 2020-21.

“During the lockdowns, the amount of distributed resources such as rooftop solar in the system was just phenomenal. It exceeded anyone’s expectations or forecasts. That’s both an enormous benefit but does present some challenges for managing the system,” Ms Williams said.

Ms Williams said this aspect of the transition is intriguing, and she said that moving forward, it is important to acknowledge not only what consumers want, but how ARENA can facilitate that in a safe and effective way.

It is not only rooftop solar that is changing the way ARENA looks at DERs, EVs will also present a unique opportunity within the transition due to its impact on consumers and storage.

“We’re thinking about DERs in a way that we’ve never thought about them before,” Ms Williams said.

“Our philosophy around EVs is going to be confronted by the reality of how consumers think about them and how they want to use them.

“From a consumer perspective, you haven’t necessarily bought an energy device that drives you around occasionally – you’ve actually bought a car. It’s not first and foremost an energy device, it’s first and foremost a transportation device that needs to be charged.

“The way that we facilitate a really strong uptake of EVs and then how we’re able to safely and effectively integrate them into the system will be the next frontier.

“ARENA is opening up that opportunity and creating a network of chargers so you can get to wherever you need to be with your electric vehicle.”

In a series of trials, ARENA is working on building out the infrastructure in order to facilitate that uptake for people who might not own their own home and might not be able to build charging infrastructure at their own residence. These trials provide a fuller scope on a project’s viability, invaluable data on how people are using charging infrastructure, as well as informing both industry and policymakers with concrete evidence.

Thermal storage opportunities

As the energy sector continues to integrate renewables into the system, a large piece of the puzzle will be storage and supporting the more difficult-to-transition sectors.

ARENA’s investigation into the transitioning of the heavy industry has been a new project and priority for the organisation. Ms Williams said ARENA has been investigating the hard-to-approach sector with the aim of integrating renewables and reducing emissions through low emission metals.

In October 2022, ARENA announced AGL would receive $1.1 million to investigate if South Australian Torrens Island Power Station B could be retrofitted with thermal energy storage (TES). Ms Williams said it was exciting that ARENA is working beyond lithium-ion storage and analysing thermal storage to unlock greater usage potential, reduce costs and emissions, as well as create opportunities for synchronous generation outside of coal.

TES has greater storage duration potential, and has the possibility of utilising technology to integrate renewables into industrial heat applications – which currently represents over 40 per cent of Australia’s total energy end use and half of which is used to process heat.

According to ARENA, TES has the potential to open up:

  • Heat grade flexibility provisions e.g. the ability to upgrade heat sources or discharge at various temperatures
  • The ability to serve multiple end uses across sector applications
  • Diversify energy resources to include heat

The systemic issues

Ms Williams said that greater innovation, stronger solutions and lasting change isn’t developed within people by chance but developed through people’s support systems. Ms Williams reflected on the support she received early in her career, and said she thinks about her career in two halves – before and after her position at Transgrid.

“The ex-CEO of Transgrid, Paul Italiano, had a role called the CEO Associate, and I was lucky enough to get chosen for that role. It was an incredible inflection point in my career,” Ms Williams said.

“If you look at my resume, you can see the before and after. That position changed my life, and it definitely changed my career. It exposed me to commercial decision-making at a really senior level.”

For Ms Williams, this opportunity fostered not only huge personal and professional growth, but also a change in her leadership style, furthering her understanding that success looks different to different people.

“We all know that there’s a skill shortage, but being able to have everyone contributing at their full potential is where we need to be to solve these problems,” Ms Williams said.

Despite this, Ms Williams is well aware of the systemic challenge of diversity in the energy industry and the concern for future generations.

“I was in a session on women in renewables recently where they said it’s about year nine when girls start opting out of STEM courses. When that happens, it means then we don’t have the feed into universities, which means the output isn’t balanced and we don’t have a broad range of talent from different levels,” Ms Williams said.

“The wealth of research says the more diverse a group of decision makers you have, the better decisions you make.”

  • In Australia, girls’ interest in STEM courses, especially in engineering, declines as they age.
  • Boys are twice as likely to aspire to STEM careers, regardless of a diverse cultural background and metropolitan location.
  • There is a 20 per cent difference in girls and boys choosing elective STEM subjects between years six to eight. This divide continues as they age.
  • The 18-25 age segment reported 53 per cent of men not interested in STEM, compared to 70 per cent of women.

Improving diversity will encourage success, and ensure that progress is made – both within ARENA’s technical projects, and professionally within her team.

“I don’t believe that merit is allocated on gender or race or sexuality or socioeconomic background. Merit is evenly distributed across society, so it’s important to bring everyone up to their full potential. We have so many diamonds in the rough that are overlooked, and if we just put the energy into bringing everyone up to their full potential, we would be able to achieve a lot more.”

Ms Williams said that thinking about people as individuals, recognising their strengths, and encouraging those to be developed, is how we’re going to solve problems in this society.

“Both the diversity and energy transition problems – they’re huge, they’re meaty, but they’re the kind of problems I really get excited to try and help solve and try to make the world a little bit better.”

Footnotes
1. ARENA, Thermal Energy Storage Summit, 2022.

2. Federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources, YouthEquity, 2021, Youth perceptions and attitudes to STEM, STEM Equity Monitor.

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