An integrated energy grid could monitor power shortfalls, predict demand and respond accordingly, according to experts, although data will need to be shared
For South Australia, it was a cruelly ironic one-two punch a burst of the extreme heat conditions that are so much more likely because of climate change, and a power cut linked to a simultaneous drop in wind that hobbled the renewable energy systems introduced to minimise global warming in the first place.
On 8 February, South Australians had their air conditioners on full blast while sweltering through temperatures in excess of 46C in some parts of the state, and wind turbines had stopped turning just when energy demand was at its highest. The Australian Energy Market Operator chose not to bring online a standby gas generator and, thanks to an additional computer glitch at SA Power Networks, three times as many houses had their power cut than necessary a familiar plunge into darkness for the sweat-laced locals of a state that has had more than its fair share of energy problems in recent times.
The persistent power-cuts and price surges have seen the Turnbull government blame the states heavy reliance on intermittent wind farms and advocate for the building of new coal-fired plants, while renewable energy advocates are looking to battery storage systems, which are coming down in price but remain expensive, as the long-term solution.
The head of BuddeComm, Paul Budde, however has another idea: talking to air conditioners.
The telecommunications expert envisions an Internet of Things (IoT) integrated energy grid that provides live weather updates, monitors power shortfalls, predicts demand, and reacts accordingly even utilising smart meters to adjust an entire states air conditioners to reduce power consumption.
What you need in these emergencies is a manageable system, not just a matter of switching power on and off to entire areas, but having all this in place you could manage air cons in peoples homes in such a way that it doesnt overload the network, he says.
Steven Travers, the executive manager of IoT Cluster for Mining and Energy Resources, says there are pros and cons to smart grid capabilities such as this.
Thats the other part of this equation how much data are we happy to give, he says. This essentially gives the power company access to your house, but the trade-off is youre not getting the power switched off.
Travers, whose organisation receives funding from the South Australian government, notes that IoT technologies could have also have circumvented the human error involved in the Adelaide power cut by integrating with machine learning software that would react to weather data updated at 15-minute intervals.
These are all off-the-shelf things that are ready to go, he says.
Budde agrees there are dozens of examples about how upgrading to a smart grid could change power distribution for the better.
He says rather than power companies waiting for a number of customers to call them to notify of a problem in an area and sending a car out to investigate, they could simply have sensor technology installed that would automatically flag any issues even for problems that havent happened yet.
The interesting thing with transformers is they are so solid it could take three to four years for a fault to actually cause a problem, but a sensor could alert you of it immediately, he says.
Budde says this is all possible with long-established technology that he was promoting over a decade ago as the head of the now-shuttered SmartGrid Australia advocacy group, which he closed down in part due to changing political winds.
His group successfully lobbied the former Labor federal government to undertake the $100m Smart Grid, Smart City study, which concluded in 2013 that there could be a net economic benefit from smart grid technologies of up to $28bn over 20 years, but the specific recommendations of which have not, to date, been formally committed to by the Coalition federal government.
What Budde says is required is regulation to ensure that everything in the system is interoperable from power lines to the home air conditioners and to ensure there is incentive for South Australias privatised energy network providers to actually try to become more energy efficient.
If you save 30-40% of energy, they get 30-40% less income in commercial industry, thats the last thing theyd want, he says.
IoT technologies can also play a crucial role in the rollout of distributed power systems, identifying when households need to import energy from external sources and when it is appropriate to export from home battery storage systems to the grid.
SA Power Networks spokesperson Paul Roberts says the company had decided against IoT-based control of demand at this stage, partly due a lack of sensory capability through the network, but has just begun a three-year trial of 100 homes connecting their solar power and battery storage systems to the grid that will utilise IoT technologies.
Everyone involved had to be connected to the internet to use the connection to manage and monitor the batteries, he says. [The grid] can dip into stored energy during peak demand, and we offered customers the opportunity, for instance, when a storm is coming to charge up their batteries in advance.