Integration: the great leap forward for renewables

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Earlier this year, the Australian National University (ANU) launched a new international research program to improve ways to integrate battery storage with the electricity grid.

The ANU Battery Storage and Grid Integration Research Program has been established to undertake activities related to the development, integration, operation, and optimisation of energy storage in electricity grids and electricity markets globally.

Dr Lachlan Blackhall was appointed to his role as Head of the Program in April this year, following almost two decades in the entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and investment domains.

Dr Blackhall is probably best known in the energy industry as the co-founder and former Chief Technology Officer of Reposit Power, where he pioneered the development of distributed control systems to monitor, optimise and control grid-connected energy storage. During his time at Reposit, Dr Blackhall was also involved in the development of virtual power plant technology to aggregate distributed energy storage to deliver services and capabilities to energy networks, markets and utilities.

Following his time at Reposit, Dr Blackhall is relishing the return to academia, and is excited to be leading a Program that will be designing and implementing the building blocks for powering our future electricity system.

The activities being pursued by the Program are categorised into four thematic streams: energy storage; data and analytics; devices, optimisation and control; and regulation, markets and models.

In the energy storage stream, the focus is on designing, characterising and understanding the behaviour and performance of new energy storage and battery devices, based on advances in materials, electrolytes and device construction. Research and development activities will target the critical issues and bottleneck problems that can affect battery performance and lifetime; with further R&D work in this area likely to include hydrogen generation and storage, supercapacitors and kinetic storage.

The data and analytics stream will work to progress the state of the art modelling, forecasting and prediction that is critical to the effective operation of energy storage capabilities in the electricity system; and their participation in energy, ancillary and network services markets. This will include activities related to individual and aggregate load and solar forecasting, modelling and analysing the low and medium voltage distribution network, and the development of new approaches to understanding the delivery of dynamic stability and inertia-like services from distributed energy resources including battery and energy storage.

The devices, optimisation and control stream will be investigating and developing distributed optimisation and control capabilities (both hardware and software) to allow the effective and efficient operation of distributed energy resources, including battery and energy storage. In particular, this stream will focus on developing distributed optimisation and control capabilities that are modular, low cost, safety-critical and secure.

In the regulation, markets and models stream, the team will undertake activities to identify, understand and contribute to the design and implementation of policy, economic and market models for the deployment of energy and battery storage into the electricity system and electricity markets globally. This will include understanding the economic, social and regulatory barriers for the use of energy storage in various grid, community, embedded and microgrid operating models.

Integrating renewables: the three key challenges

Through the four streams, all work comes back to the ultimate end goal of assisting the integration of renewables into our existing electricity grid. According to Dr Blackhall, there are three key challenges when it comes to integration.

First, many renewables, like wind and solar, are intermittent generation sources, meaning it is not possible to predict exactly how much energy will be generated in any given time interval. Because supply and demand must always be equal in the grid, Dr Blackhall and his team are working to ensure that various different types of energy storage and batteries can solve these issues, ensuring that the energy we store can be used to “fill in the gaps” of this intermittent generation when we need it.

Secondly, many of these renewables, particularly residential solar PV, are being installed on the demand side of the grid where there was previously no generation. Where previously energy only flowed from the generators to the household, energy is now flowing in reverse in many cases. This requires substantial work to better understand how the distribution network can be used as the “electricity superhighway”, where electricity now flows bidirectionally.

“While this is a dramatic change from how the grid was initially designed, it is opening up new opportunities for interesting models like peer-to-peer and community retail models,” said Dr Blackhall.

Thirdly, as we install more renewables, we are offsetting the amount of fossil fuel-fired generation in our grid. Most of this fossil fuel-fired generation is produced by synchronous machines, and there are concerns from some that the loss of synchronous machines (and the inertia they provide) could result in stability issues for the electricity system. In this area, Dr Blackhall and his team are working to demonstrate that energy and battery storage will be able to provide the stability services required to keep the grid secure and stable, even with very high penetration renewable generation.

Challenges leading to opportunity

Lachlan Blackhall.

While there are tremendous challenges being faced, this is also creating some very interesting opportunities for the development of new technology, new operating models and new approaches for energy retailing.

“In my opinion, one of the most interesting opportunities is to address how we will we integrate these demand side resources into the electricity system alongside the existing market, network and generation assets and systems,” said Dr Blackhall.

“Beyond this question is the even more challenging question of how we will coordinate and orchestrate large numbers of distributed energy generation, storage systems and demand response capability to provide energy reliability and security.”

To this end, the Program will have a number of projects in this area. One of the existing projects at The Australian National University is the CONSORT Bruny Island Battery Trial, a collaboration between The Australian National University, The University of Sydney, The University of Tasmania, TasNetworks and Reposit Power with funding support from ARENA.

The lead researchers on this program, including Sylvie Thiebaux, Evan Franklin, Paul Scott and Dan Gordon, have been working to demonstrate how their software, Network Aware Control, could coordinate residential solar and battery systems to deliver energy and network services to reduce the amount of diesel generation required to run the Bruny Island network.

Results from this trial have shown that even a small amount of residential solar and battery storage can significantly reduce the diesel generation required to ensure that all customers still have access to the energy they need, as well as ensuring that the grid remains stable and efficient.

From here, the Program has big plans to roll out a number of projects over the next few months. The team is already working with a number of partner organisations nationally to develop projects related to data and analytics, optimisation and control as well as to develop new approaches for coordinating distributed energy resources including energy and battery storage.

The future grid

Dr Blackhall believes that the future electricity grid is going to require lots of modelling, prediction and forecasting.

“As we deploy more distributed energy resources, including solar and battery storage on individual residences, we need to have a much stronger understanding of the forecast individual and aggregate load and solar generation at each residence,” said Dr Blackhall.

“We also need to have a significantly better understanding about the operation of the low and medium voltage distribution network where many of these distributed solar and storage technologies are being deployed.”

According to Dr Blackhall, this understanding will then allow new technologies like distributed solar, battery control systems and home automation to be developed to allow these resources to participate in energy, ancillary and network services markets, and contribute to energy reliability and security.

Technology, of course, is only part of the equation, and Dr Blackhall shares the sentiment from many in the industry that the right policy and regulatory settings will also be required if we are to see renewables reach their full potential.

“It will not only be new technology that really drives the revolutionary changes we are seeing in the electricity grid at the current time,” said Dr Blackhall. “I think the most important changes over the coming years will relate to the policy and regulation of distributed energy resources. Ensuring that these resources are able to participate in energy, ancillary and network services markets is crucial to supporting the increasing amount of renewables being installed.”

Two key regulatory and policy changes that the Program is looking at closely include new network tariffs and new regulatory requirements for electricity retailers.

New network tariffs are needed to allow new retail and community energy models to prosper, and to allow the sharing of energy in peer-to-peer relationships. New retail regulations are important to allowing new retail models to be tried and tested.

“In both cases we need to ensure that regulatory reform encourages innovation whilst also ensuring that customers are protected,” said Dr Blackhall.

The end goal

With four streams to work across, and a trilemma that’s been puzzling the entire industry to focus on, it’s certainly a significant undertaking for Dr Blackhall and his team. But for Dr Blackhall, the end goal of the Program is clear – to build a globally leading program in the area of energy storage and grid integration.

“For me, an ideal outcome of the program would be for us to contribute to an electricity system powered by renewables, that is cost-effective and equitable for everyone in our community,” said Dr Blackhall.

Central to this goal is also ensuring that the work delivers benefits for the community, industry and government.

The Program will also have an ongoing focus on energy equity. Throughout all projects and activities, the team will be focused on ensuring that the changes they’re designing and proposing to the grid are ultimately for the benefit of everyone – even those who may not directly be able to buy solar or batteries.

“Protecting vulnerable consumers and those who cannot install solar and battery storage where they live is at the core of ensuring we achieve energy equity going forward,” said Dr Blackhall. “This is an important area of work, and one that we are providing significant resources for as part of this new program.”

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