A call to innovate

Alex-Wonhas
Dr Alex Wonhas

For Dr Alex Wonhas, creating a prosperous, low-carbon future for Australia is possible; the energy sector just has to find the most effective, lowest risk pathway there. Energy Source and Distribution talks with the leader of CSIRO’s Energy Flagship about enhancing productivity, intelligent technology and the need to innovate on a global scale.

For a scientist who is passionate about low-emissions technologies, now is an exciting time to be involved in shaping the country’s energy landscape.

Having spent much of his career in consulting, delivering strategic and operational projects to senior executives in the resource and energy sector, Dr Alex Wonhas now leads around 350 scientists and engineers, who are part of CSIRO’s Energy Flagship.

The Energy Flagship is focused on finding smarter and more productive ways to extract, produce and use energy while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The work includes new advanced control systems and information technologies that manage and use energy more intelligently.

By developing models about future energy needs and impacts, the program is helping industry, governments and regulators make informed decisions about emerging technologies, as well as how to enhance their economic competitiveness and security.

Alex – a Doctor of Philosophy in Theoretical Physics – says when a colleague from within the CSIRO told him there was a job going where he could not only research the country’s energy system, but also shape it, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to move from being a spectator of the transformation of the energy system to a real participant. I wanted to be able to actually develop the solutions that would change the energy sector, so I threw my hat into the ring,” he says.

Through the Future Grid Forum, Alex did just that. Bringing together more than 120 representatives across the whole electricity system – representing 40 stakeholders from generators, transmission companies, distributors, retailers, regulators, government bodies and NGOs – the forum filled a gap in the Australian energy sector’s understanding of its potential future.

It was the country’s first extensive whole-of-system evaluation that encompassed the entire energy chain from generation through to consumption.

The forum process led to a much better analytical understanding of particular issues facing the industry, such as the potential role decentralised and distributed generation can play in Australia’s evolving electricity system.

While it is impossible to predict the future precisely, Alex says one thing became very clear.

“The future will look very different from today. The evolution of the electricity system will be one of the most fundamental changes we’re going to see in the energy system in the next 30-40 years,” he says.

“But when we looked at this prospect, we didn’t really understand all the nuances of the transition. In particular, when we looked at the debate we are having in Australia about the role of networks, we felt there was no detailed, fact-based understanding of how networks and demand could evolve.

“We learnt a lot through the Future Grid Forum but, frankly, I don’t think we necessarily know all the answers at the moment.”

Among those questions left pending is what a successful business model might look like moving forwards.

“One thing we can be sure of is, it will evolve. The next five to 10 years will be a time when we need to work it out,” Alex says.

“We might need to experiment with what does and doesn’t work. But the people who figure out how businesses in the industry could benefit and what a successful business models might look like will be the winners.”

With a keen focus on new energy technologies, CSIRO’s Energy Flagship devotes a significant amount of resources to developing intelligent energy projects; initiatives where advanced design allows grids and networks to more intuitively respond to faults, power quality issues and customer comfort.

Energy use in buildings is responsible for 26 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the primary cause of peak energy demand on the electricity network. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that CSIRO is working hard on ways to power, heat and cool buildings, using local energy sources including renewables.

“Our goal is to create value for the industry and for the nation. A couple of the companies we have created highlight just what we can achieve in the sector. For example, a company called BuildingIQ has licensed air-conditioning control technology that basically regulates the air-con in a commercial building according to peoples’ comfort level instead of some engineering set point,” he says.

The technology, which was invented by CSIRO and commercialised by BuildingIQ, assesses building conditions every few minutes and constantly adjusts and monitors the HVAC system.

BuildingIQ found the heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) energy use is reduced by typically 10-20 per cent after installation of the software and can be retrofitted and applied to large office buildings easily.

“It’s actually self-learning, in terms of how the building responds to the weather and to, obviously, the operation of the system itself. By managing this cleverly, you can achieve a reduction in overall energy consumption, and you can also be much more responsive to electricity prices,” Alex says.

“Importantly, you can significantly reduce peak demand, because if the system anticipates a peak in demand, it can pre-cool the building and doesn’t have to draw as much energy when peak demand is there. In the long term, this approach can help run our networks in a more efficient and productive way.”

Alex isn’t the only one who thinks the smart system is impressive. BuildingIQ won the prestigious 2013 Bloomberg New Energy Pioneers Award last year, after securing around $9 million in venture funding.

“The award shows our science has global reach and a real impact on the energy efficiency of very large buildings, like the iconic Rockefeller Centre in New York,” he says.

With the rise of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind in the national electricity system, Alex and his colleagues are also concerned with the challenge of managing the variability of renewables.

CSIRO’s Energy Flagship is currently collaborating with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and the Bureau of Meteorology to develop a new solar forecasting system for the National Electricity Market. The new system will manage the dispatch of all large scale solar plants into the national electricity market.

“If we use intelligent ways to generate, transmit and consume energy, we can maintain a stable electricity system even with a large amount of renewables. With good forecasting we can dispatch conventional resources or demand side responses when intermittent renewables are not producing power,” Alex says.

One key area that has the potential to dramatically change the country’s demand profile is the electrification of transport. The mainstreaming of electric and hybrid vehicles is particularly interesting to Alex, because it tackled cleverly, it could very significantly reduce peak demand. If not managed well, however, it could create an even bigger challenge for the sector.

“We’ve done a lot of analysis of the transport sector, particularly in Melbourne. We looked at conventional transport and the transition to electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles and how they may affect the local distribution grid,” he says.

“Three years ago we also worked extensively with the airline industry to identify potential pathways to transition the aviation sector to more sustainable fuel. Historically, we’ve done quite a bit of work with biofuels, particularly understanding the Australian resource base.”

Indeed, biofuels can play a big part in Australia’s transport future. Finding a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based petroleum and diesel will become more important as conventional oil supplies decline, petrol prices soar and the necessity to reduce greenhouse emissions intensifies.

CSIRO’s Energy Flagship is at the cutting edge of second and third generation biofuel research, currently specialising in algal biofuel, lignocellulosic biomass (plant dry matter) and investigating sustainable options for biofuel crops and production.

There are challenges involved with biofuels, however. For instance, Algal biofuel is still in the research stage and not yet commercially available. The expected costs are currently high for infrastructure, and there is a lack of a user base for growing and harvesting the algae. Nonetheless, these costs are expected to reduce with time.

No single solution will solve the current global energy puzzle. Issues like changing demand, greenhouse abatement policy, resource price uncertainty, emerging technologies and social acceptability create a complex arena with multiple drivers.

Consequently, delivering energy solutions for a sustainable future is a huge challenge, but one Alex says the Australian energy sector needs to embrace head-on.

Originally from Germany, Alex says he may be biased when comparing Australia’s commitment to innovation with that overseas, particularly in Europe. However, when he looks at his home country, he’s quick to encourage those involved in all tiers of power generation, transmission and distribution to be fearless and creative.

“We are experiencing a great time of change in the sector and we need to be smart about it. We need to test new ideas. Maybe some of those won’t work, but as a nation, we are often not using innovation to its full extent,” he says.

“Some nations are using it very strongly. In Germany, for example, the small-to-medium enterprise sector is made up of hugely inventive companies operating at a global scale, and I think that should be the benchmark and the inspiration for Australia.”

Among the areas CSIRO’s Energy Flagship hopes to see more innovation in is the unconventional space – oil and gas generally produced from complex geological systems that will require new technical solutions for viable extraction. Australia has vast resources of unconventional gas resources including coal seam gas, shale gas, and tight gas. However, innovations will play a role in making them cost competitive with other global resources.

Initial estimates suggest Australia has enormous potential. As a research body, CSIRO is also aiming to help people understand its impacts and implications so it can be used efficiently and sustainably.

“We’ve made great strides in many technology areas. Our carbon capture technology has been successfully adopted by a Chinese company who is already utilising it. I expect, in the future, they will develop a globally competitive product from it,” Alex says.

“We have also made great progress in battery and energy storage, which is now commercialised through our spin-out company Ecoult. This can help power remote locations and stabilise the grid. We’ve found much more efficient ways to generate power from coal. A way that allows small capacity additions that are load following, which is exactly what we will need in a declining or flat demand outlook.

“I hope to see some of the technologies we are currently developing and demonstrating to used in the commercial context in the coming five to 10 years.

“There is a real opportunity for Australia to be more innovative, we just need to be bold.”