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by Simon Vardy, Utilities Strategy Lead, Accenture Australia and New Zealand; and Tony Histon, Utilities Transmission & Distribution Lead, Accenture Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa

Generation de-carbonisation and the security of energy supply are key national concerns that risk being mutually exclusive without accelerated grid investment. Renewable investments have sky-rocketed in the context of ambitious government targets; however, investments in systems, assets and markets that strengthen the grid have struggled to keep pace. As we enter storm and bushfire season, network businesses need to hone emergency response plans and, in parallel, progress grid modernisation.

The clean energy strategy

On the one hand, the deployment of renewables has resulted in great strides being made toward achieving a clean energy mix. At the same time, it has presented new challenges to manage in terms of cloud cover and wind variations which now significantly impact network demand.

Furthermore, the loss of conventional generation (with large spinning turbines) robs the system of the inertia necessary to “ride through” unplanned events.

So, how do we solve this dilemma? We believe the answer is a three-fold strategy:

  1. Establish systems that influence demand and sources of supply to operate within prevailing network constraints
  2. Offer attractive rewards to generators and consumers where they use and supply energy in a way that promotes a stable grid
  3. Strengthen grid resilience with further interconnections between networks and devices that compensate for the loss of conventional generation

This strategy can be accelerated, but it won’t be delivered immediately. Utilities need to refine and rehearse their emergency readiness plans.

Battening down the hatches

The potential vulnerabilities of global utility infrastructure to natural events was highlighted this year when widespread outages crippled California, Jakarta, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Additionally, utilities globally are now facing wider and more sinister threats including cyber-attacks and hostile intruders.

However, utilities must form forward-looking and more holistic frameworks for assessing and coping with the new threat landscape made up of voracious cyber-threats and tumultuous weather. As we approach bushfire and storm season, emergency readiness is ever more pertinent.

Even with active technologies in place, powerful actors are now demonstrating increasing sophistication by launching cyber-attacks on the core systems underpinning the grid.

Earlier this year, the western United States succumbed to an attack, causing period blind spots for grid operators for over ten hours. Although in this case energy provision was unaffected, this attack highlighted the need for all-encompassing strategies and frameworks.

If hackers can target the very technology enabling grid visibility, operators must be able to fall back on pre-planned emergency management strategies.

Emergency readiness plans need to be enhanced to consider:

  • New cyber-threats resulting from the use of data to manage a more complex grid
  • Greater exposure to weather events due to climate change and renewable energy
  • Networks with distributed supply sources with varying behaviours under fault conditions

Whilst it is promising to see investment routed toward the long-term safety of energy supply, with harsh weather events predicted towards the end of this year over the Australian summer, and the potential for a cyber based attack to occur at any time, utilities must act now to reduce the disruption associated with unplanned events.

A 21st century grid 

Relying on infrastructure predominantly built in a simpler time for energy provision, operators can find it challenging to understand how to respond to the complexities associated with an increasingly intertwined grid, alongside new forms of energy provision.

With the growing decentralisation of supply, new technologies must be implemented empowering operators to move energy around the grid quickly when disaster strikes.

As a solution, rather than replacing large parts of incumbent infrastructure, new technologies such as active frequency monitors can be used to identify where to route energy when it is needed most.

This supports automated responses to unplanned events, while affording operators the chance to form a cohesive response to risks and outages.

Storage systems such as battery farms, deployed strategically throughout the grid are also useful, allowing operators to efficiently generate or store power, and manage voltage changes during power failures.

These technologies will form powerful solutions to unplanned events, especially when leveraged against robust crisis mitigation strategies.

Uniting against the evolving threat landscape

Threats both natural and manmade require the grid’s aggregate operation to be considered. With the implementation of visualisation technology and new forms of energy provision the grid is increasingly interconnected.

This means threats have the potential to knock out far larger parts of grid infrastructure in more dangerous ways. If operators are not prepared to communicate and work together during an emergency, these attacks could be debilitating for entire cities or even states.

Unplanned weather events or manmade threats are simply unavoidable, and outages do occur. With an ever-evolving landscape of risk for energy provision in Australia, operators must adopt forward-thinking strategies so that when outages do occur, an effective response is deployed swiftly and safely.

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