Interview: Fiona Orton, Future Grid Manager, TransGrid

Over the next several decades, Australia’s energy mix is projected to change radically thanks to  progressive consumer demands and new technologies. In the lead up to her presentation at the 2019 Australian Energy Storage Conference and Exhibition, we talked with Fiona Orton, Future Grid Manager at TransGrid, about the critically interconnective role of transmission systems, and the future-focused strategies needed for energy planners.

Planning for the ‘once-in-a-generation’ energy mix shift

Through her current position at TransGrid and previous roles at AGL Energy, Fiona Orton’s career in Australia’s energy and sustainability sectors spans more than a decade.

As TransGrid’s Future Grid Manager, Ms Orton is responsible for developing and defining her company’s long term vision for the energy sector.

This task requires careful consideration about how technology, regulation, market structures and customer needs may evolve over time — and how the development of power systems should also evolve. 

“We are currently experiencing a once-in-a-generation transformation in the mix of power supplying Australian homes and businesses,” Ms Orton said.

“Today, almost 90 per cent of electricity generated in NSW comes from coal, but over the next 20 years, the majority of these power stations will reach the end of their technical lives and are likely to retire.

“We expect around 15-20GW of wind and solar to be needed in NSW by 2040, in addition to significant storage and behind-the-meter distributed resources.”

Reconfiguring for the future

 With renewables, distributed energy resources (DERs) and storage technologies converging to form an unprecedented energy blend, the Australian grid must undergo an equally thorough changeover if distribution is to keep up with demand.

Transmission — as the underlying nervous system that seeks to connect generators, storage sites and end users in an organised manner — faces a tall order as generation centers shift and dependence on energy storage grows.

“While today’s generation is mostly located near coal fields, future generation will be clustered in regions with high quality renewable energy resources,” Ms Orton said.

“This will require a reconfiguration of our electricity system, with transmission playing a vital role in connecting these new generation sources in an orderly way.

“Additionally, as aging synchronous fossil fuel generation retires and is replaced by inverter-connected renewable generation, energy storage technologies will be increasingly relied upon to provide ancillary and grid support services to maintain system security — such as inertia, fast frequency response, frequency control and black start.”

The need for a well-planned transmission strategy becomes especially apparent as interest accelerates around intermittent renewable generation, increasing the strain on existing networks.

“We are already seeing an unprecedented level of renewable generation projects wanting to connect to the grid,” Ms Orton said.

“Unfortunately, the network in regions with strong solar and wind resources is already congested and only a small fraction of these new projects can be accommodated within the existing network capacity.

“Grid access and connection is becoming a major constraint to delivering the energy system transition, and a coordinated plan will be required to ensure that the least-cost mix of transmission and generation can be delivered in a timely way.”

Long-term strategies

When asked how Australian energy companies could best plan for long-term grid evolution, Ms Orton asserted that an optimal strategy consists of the combination of affordable renewable generation, higher geographical interconnection, and grid support service upgrades — with consumer interests never far from mind.

“An integrated approach for the complete energy system will be required to successfully deliver the long-term energy transition.

“This will require the connection of low-cost renewable energy generation ahead of anticipated coal retirements; the development of firm and dispatchable capacity to ensure reliability; the sharing of geographically diverse resources; and the development of new grid support services to manage system security and regulatory evolution.

“All parts of the energy supply chain must be involved, with the long-term interests of consumers always the central consideration.”

While the frequent fluctuations in consumer preferences can be difficult to predict, Ms Orton explained that the distinct cultural shift towards electric vehicles and intermittent resources means that DERs and demand-side resource flexibility will only become more important.

“As distributed storage adoption increases, these resources will have significant potential to deliver cost-effective Demand Management services.

“Non-network solutions are already a key part of TransGrid’s network planning, and we actively seek to procure them when they can defer or avoid capital investment and reduce consumer prices.

“If integrated into the electricity system in a coordinated way, distributed resources have the potential to lower energy prices for all users, by reducing peak demand, increasing utilisation of existing infrastructure and providing cost-effective non-network and grid support services.”