Doug Aberle: The customer equation

Western Power managing director, Doug Aberle
Western Power managing director, Doug Aberle

Western Power managing director, Doug Aberle talks to Energy Source & Distribution about the unique challenges faced by Western Australia’s evolving network.

At the edge of Western Australia’s South West Interconnected System (SWIS) – a spindly transmission and distribution network covering 322,000 sq km of land – isolated communities require an ever-increasing supply of reliable power. Storms, bushfires and hailstorms at times threaten the distribution network’s 620,000 wood poles. Powering the ongoing resource boom is putting pressure on the transmission network, as new mining and other developments are increasing their demand for power and for access to feed into the grid. Years of under-investment combined with a broad geographic spread, substantial growth and low population density have created a unique infrastructure challenge.

Western Power managing director, Doug Aberle explained to Energy Source & Distribution that as Western Power moved into the first few years of the decade there was general realisation that networks needed to be up-built.

“At the same time here we had a huge upswing in demand driven by growth, so we had a combination, a perfect storm if you like, that meant that we had, in the space of five years, to increase our investment in the network, just in terms of capital, from around about $200 million per annum early in the decade to a billion. We made that increase steadily over a five-year period and that’s the sort of platform upon which we are now rebuilding,” Mr Aberle says.

With the growth of the Western Australian economy and population, the demand for energy in metropolitan areas has been steadily increasing at about 4 per cent each year – with the 2011 peak demand likely to again exceed 4000 MW.

“In a sense we’ve reached a cross roads – we can continue to invest in the network to meet the increasing demand for power and the increasing peaks in demand, or in addition, we can integrate some alternatives, like developing smart grids and engaging with customers to change their power use patterns.”

It’s at the edge of the grid in the state’s isolated communities that customers have become a frontline in deploying new technologies to help reduce the load.

Located on the southernmost tip of Western Australia are the edge-of-grid towns of Denmark and Walpole. Overlooking estuaries feeding into the Southern Ocean, the communities are part of a ‘Green Town’ initiative in growth areas where it is uneconomical to build or upgrade existing feeders.

“It was about involving the community in embracing much more energy- conservative practices and that wound up helping us to defer capital investment by a couple of years, as well as reducing the carbon footprint, which is what the community wanted,” Mr Aberle says.

“We combined with local shires and community representatives and worked with them developing energ-saving initiatives that could reduce energy use at peak times and therefore delay the need for a new power line. A community one-stop shop was set up in Denmark to provide energy efficiency education and advisory services and rebates were offered to local residents to encourage the use of gas-boosted hot water systems instead of existing electric storage ones.

“It was very successful. It’s a challenge that we face that some of the other networks don’t, because they’re not quite as isolated and don’t have the same radial edge phenomenon we have.”

“It’s a good example of taking a small interested community, working with them and creating an example which is potentially repeated elsewhere in the network, particularly on the edges.”

Further inland is the small town of Ravensthorpe, powered by a 270 km long feeder, which is affected by the combined impact of limitations on load growth due to transfer capacity of a small feeder as well as reliability issues.

“For a small feeder with only a handful of people on it, it’s very difficult to justify the sorts of investments that would give you something more reliable,” Mr Aberle says.

“In the case of Ravensthorpe, we basically supported the town to be disconnected from the network and supported on diesel. In the case of Denmark/Walpole, we supported the population to put in a lot more energy-saving devices and become a lot more energy conscious and reduce the peak that way.

“I think we are poised for a paradigm shift… from the old mechanistic world of just building lines and connecting large generators to distributed loads. We are now to the point of an ‘organismic’ world where the customers are brought much more into the equation by the right kind of metering enabling them to let their behaviour adjust to what we have to actually build and in turn what they have to pay. And I think that’s really exciting and I think (we), as the network provider, are right at the heart of that.”

Creative solutions are needed now more then ever. Air-conditioner penetration has skyrocketed in WA from 47 per cent in 1999 to 92 per cent currently. The peak 15 per cent of consumption has narrowed from a period of about 12 days in total to occurring over less than two days, translating to building networks that are used fully for a very small amount of time. Mr Aberle estimates that Western Power spends around $60 million per annum on two days worth of load.

The network’s initiatives go beyond small-scale upgrades. Work on Western Power’s first stage of its ‘Mid West Energy Project’, a proposed 330 KV transmission line, will commence in 2011, if approved. There is also the ongoing Solar Cities project involving smart meters, photovoltaic installations and a PV saturation trial and electric vehicles. Mr Aberle believes engaging with the customer during these processes is crucial to their success.

“It’s not just a matter of having the right technology and throwing it at people. It’s really a matter of bringing them on the journey and helping them to grasp the impact of what their consumption is over time – and we in fact began that a couple of years ago with our ‘Beat the Peak’ and subsequent ‘Power Down’ campaigns which really served to raise peoples’ awareness over summer that the way they use their air-conditioners… could have a significant impact on the load profile,” Mr Aberle says.

Finding the right price signal will be crucial for the network’s future development. Cost-reflective pricing needs to be achieved. It will optimise the value of metering infrastructure and real-time information to consumers to allow them to adjust their consumption pattern and, in turn, reduce peak build.

“The importance of the cost-reflective pricing is that it actually sends signals that will help drive demand-side management, if you’ve combined it with the right physical signals that reduce what you have to invest. If you have cost-reflective prices it also makes the various forms of green energy more realistically able to be valued. Currently we have an unrealistic price of traditional energy – I’m not just talking infrastructure here but what’s charged for energy from various traditional sources – and if that’s not raised to become actual price then green energy remains uncompetitive.”

Mr Aberle believes that the development of a WA state energy plan, the Strategic Energy Initiative (SEI) is a timely initiative which will help the network achieve its goals.

“The SEI is an excellent initiative in that respect. And it’s also excellent that the government is taking the approach of seeking input from broadly across the industry because I think that’s a recipe for getting the richest and best informed policy for heading into the future,” he says.

Mr Aberle finds satisfaction in making an ‘evolved’ network with a 50-year legacy for the state.

“It’s not just the traditional hardware but also the thinking, the flexibility of a newly ‘organic’ network, that actually brings the customers into the picture. The opportunity for that, is I think a uniquely available one at this time,” he says.

Perth Solar Cities

Western Power commenced The Perth Solar City program in 2010. It involves a cutting-edge trial of 106,000 households to help residents make sustainable changes in their energy use. In addition, five major solar energy projects designed to build, test and promote energy efficient power systems in the community are being established.

The Central Institute of Technology’s Perth Solar City installation, a 48.6kW PV system made up of 162 SunPower 300W modules (panels), is already up and running and will be followed by major solar installations at the Perth Zoo and King’s Park, adjacent to the city.

The Solar City program also allows the distributor to experiment with different combinations of in-home readouts and tariff structure for around 10,000 meters in a particular geographic area in order to gauge customer response.

“We’ve got much richer data around how moving to a smart meter with the right combination of tariff and readout will in fact impact on peak and overall consumption behaviour, which in turn enables us to make better informed decisions,” Mr Aberle said.

They will also be to replace 300,000 existing meters that need to be upgraded, in a targeted way.

“It also enables us to educate people about the philosophy and impact of doing that over a period of time so that they have plenty of time to embrace the notion, both of smart meters and also different tariff structures,” he said.

World’s smartest brain

A large hailstorm cut through Perth on 20 March, 2010. Within half an hour Western Power’s network went from no disconnections to 160,000 customers cut off. The distributor was able to quickly respond to the network’s biggest test in over 10 years thanks to its control centre upgrades.

“We managed to get 100,000 of those back in 24 hours and really made a world-class response to that thanks to our newly upgraded call centre and the Electrical Network Management and Control (ENMAC) centre,” Mr Aberle said.

“And it responded magnificently well. We were actually very pleased with how rapidly we were able to restore people and we were able to communicate, via the media to the general public, thanks to the quality of the information we were able to get out of the Enmac and the functionality of the call centre.”

According to Mr Aberle, Western Power took a deliberate decision 10 years ago to have the best possible central system to handle their unique and isolated distribution system. Mr Aberle describes their GE control centre as having the “smartest central brain in Australia” and the best utilised Enmac in the world.

“It’s very powerful and it’s almost custom-made to connect with smart meters in a distributed sense, which helps us provide self-healing capabilities, but also basically helps us to run the network in a very dynamic and organic fashion.”

Having both the transmission and distribution control centres in the same building drives their capabilities.

“It’s certainly an improvement in safety. It’s safer than wallboards and relying on people. It has an in-built safety function carrying out that kind of activity. We can actually relate the Enmac to our call centre and in terms of messaging to the public, that’s much more efficient because of being able to do that rather than having to do that manually. And it also enables us to look much more accurately at our power flows and adjust them so there’s a potential operating efficiency benefit as well.”