Alice Fleetwood: engineer on a mission

Alice Fleetwood
Alice Fleetwood

Alice Fleetwood is determined to see Australia powered by more renewable energy. ES&D catches up with the enthusiastic young gun to talk about her unique experience growing up off-grid, and how addressing challenges such as solar intermittency and two-way power flow can help find a sustainable solution for Australia’s energy networks.

Why did you decide to enter the electrical industry?

I grew up on a property in Northern New South Wales in a house that wasn’t connected to the grid. Interacting with our solar power system was a part of daily life and something I was always interested in.

In high school I learnt more about the finite nature of conventional power sources and the need to look to alternatives through the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. I was passionate about renewable energy and an advocate for change, so much so my friends used to joke and say “when Alice grows up she wants to be a solar panel”.

I hadn’t really considered jobs in the industry. It wasn’t until I visited the Gunning Wind Farm outside Canberra while attending the National Youth Science Forum in Year 12 I started thinking about a career in the energy sector. It was actually one of those clichéd moments where you realise what you want to do. After discovering that engineering was the way to get into the industry I enrolled in a Bachelor of Electronic and Energy Engineering at Griffith University in Brisbane. I’m happy I’ve found an area of study that combines something I’ve always been interested in with the ability to make a real difference in the world.

You’re soon to complete you Electrical Engineering degree. What’s next on the cards for you?

I want to qualify as an engineer so I can be part of assimilating more renewables into our current energy infrastructure, then, with further R&D, help move us towards being a country that is increasingly powered by renewable energy.

I am currently in the third year of my degree so there is still a little bit of time before I graduate and enter the workforce. It’s such an exciting time for the industry with many new challenges and changes to address. Through my work experience with electricity transmission and distribution companies I have learnt about the electricity grid in Queensland and, from this, I have become interested in the current and future integration of renewable power into the conventional network.

In particular I would like to focus on addressing challenges such as solar intermittency and two-way power flow to find a sustainable solution that is strategic, economic, environmental and socially equitable. This involves investigating new technologies that can alleviate network issues and allow a smoother integration of renewables, and I’m inspired by the work the Technology Development team at Ergon Energy does in this area.

Queensland currently has the highest rooftop solar penetration in the world, and the problems that have arisen due to this change to the grid network can’t be fixed overnight. I’m also interested in what is happening in other parts of the world. I’d like to travel to other places to see the varying strategies communities are using to address issues relating to transitioning to a renewable powered society.

How do you think you experience growing up off-grid has shaped your current view of the electrical sector and how power is used by most people?

Living with solar power got me really interested in energy as an issue. I wanted to learn more about renewable energy and how Australia could make more use of both solar and wind power.

When I was young we had a very small solar power system with limited battery storage. My earliest memories include reminders from my parents about turning the lights off when not in use and checking whether we had enough power to watch TV. I learnt to check the battery level myself. If there was insufficient power I would have to start the generator then switch the house over from batteries to generator, just so I could watch a movie! This taught me that electricity has to come from somewhere; that it’s not just a free infinitely available resource.

Friends coming for sleepovers couldn’t use their hair driers because our small inverter didn’t have the power to run them!

The plus side to making our own power was that we never experienced power blackouts, which were reasonably common during storms in our area. Some of my friends had no concept of where their electricity came from until the lights went out and they couldn’t watch TV.

I am concerned about the ever-increasing demand for electricity by people who have no idea about how much power they consume. I think there is a great need to educate the public about the nature and availability of electricity. I am currently living in a student share house in Brisbane that is connected to the grid – but I am still very conscious of the amount of electricity I consume.

It must have been a unique experience. What did living off the grid actually entail for you and your family?

Apart from having to start the generator to watch a movie, there were other things that set my home life apart from most of my friends. We had a very small fridge and even smaller freezer. Having ice cream was a treat. Pop up toasters were a novelty that I experienced when visiting at my grandparents. At home toast was cooked in the grill part of the gas stove. My parents often said they had three dish-washers – me and my brother and sister! My mum used to say living in a solar powered house was a good excuse for not ironing. The most power would be available in the middle of a hot day and who wants to be ironing then?

I think I was more aware of the weather than my friends. It’s quite normal to be a bit miserable at the end of a week of cloudy wet weather but for us that also meant reduced power and if we ran out of fuel to fill the generator… oops! In those early days our family was very aware of power and how much each of us was using.

However, as I got older and the technology improved and became cheaper, my parents were able to upgrade the system. We got more panels and more battery storage so we had access to a greater baseload of power. My older siblings had left home and with just three of us in the house we hardly noticed we were on solar and off the grid.

If you have enough generating and storage capacity life is definitely easier! But it’s also less interesting in some ways, and it’s easy to start taking things for granted.

During your recent vacation placement with Ergon we heard you came up with a very unique idea: East to West. Can you take us through it?

Put simply, the idea called ‘East to West is best’ is about raising awareness regarding how best to set-up home solar systems which interact with the grid. Traditionally the installation of solar PV has meant setting the system up to get the most of the sunlight at its peak. But this conventional idea is not necessarily the best solution for everyone, unless they are installing a stand-alone system and need to maximise their electricity production.

If all home-owners have north facing panels their maximum generation is in the middle of the day. It is difficult for the current infrastructure to cope with this additional peak load being fed back into the network. The current grid was originally designed and constructed to send power in just one direction; from the energy company to the consumer.

If instead of 100 per cent of panels facing north, some solar installations face east and west, then the power generation is spread more evenly throughout the day and the network is not under pressure in the middle of the day.

The idea is essentially to better match the generation of the household to the consumption. In some cases this would involve spreading the generating capacity of solar panels across a larger area of roof space.

Where did this concept come from?

It’s not actually a new concept, similar proposals that have been trialled in parts of North America, the UK and Europe where energy providers have been looking for ways to avoid strain on the grid. I first heard about the idea a while ago from a very switched-on friend who suggested it as fairly simple solution and decided to research it more.

What’s the next step for East to West; will yourself or Ergon be developing it further?

The next step is to research the idea further and to assess its feasibility as a solution in Queensland for both customers and Ergon Energy. This will involve looking at differences in gross generation for different panel set-ups; understanding Queensland-specific issues, especially north of the Tropic of Capricorn; and further research into related initiatives that have occurred in other countries.

Why do you think it’s so important for both the electrical sector and the wider community to focus on renewable energy?

Energy sources and energy demands are currently on a diverging path. Fossil fuels are a limited resource. I believe climate change is of real concern and is an issue we should be addressing now. A move towards renewable energy is essential for us to sustain our social and economic systems into the future. We need to be finding ways to increase the ratio of renewables in our current energy mix.

Renewable energy isn’t free either. There is still a lot of equipment and infrastructure, which must be produced and installed. However, renewable energy sources have a much lower impact both environmentally and socially. So we need ongoing investment and effort in R&D to develop new technologies to make renewables cheaper and more reliable. This includes batteries and electrical storage. Also we need to find innovative ways to integrate renewables within our existing energy supply systems to mitigate against the need for costly changes to the infrastructure we currently have in place and in which we are heavily invested.