Future thinking: Steven Neave

Steven Neave with Victorian Minister of Energy Lily D’Ambrosio and Buninyong local member Geoff Howard working on the controls on Powercor’s battery unit
Steven Neave with Victorian Minister of Energy Lily D’Ambrosio and Buninyong local member Geoff Howard working on the controls on Powercor’s battery unit

Powercor’s Steven Neave talks surveillance, data science, and staying relevant.

When it comes to technology and the grid, disruption is the new normal.

Giving customers choice over their energy usage, and ensuring they have the technology and systems to facilitate that independence, is a key consideration for network operators. Powercor general manager electricity networks Steven Neave is among them, and he has a clear message for all levels of the supply chain.

“The industry needs a shift – a regulatory and structural shakeup – to retain its relevance in a connected world.”

Powercor recently penned its “five strategic pillars”; a game plan to retain its place as one of Australia’s largest distribution networks. The strategic outlook includes embracing disruptive technologies, and explores the various roles they might play in emerging smart communities.

In a sector that is constantly changing, resilience requires flexibility. As a result, the pillars will be revisited every 12 months. Nonetheless, several actions will remain at its core: engaging with stakeholders, adopting new technologies, facilitating choice, and maximising value for consumers.

“We’re growing as a business, but we’re growing very differently to how we were 10 years ago,” Steven says.

“The fact we’re making sure we will be well-positioned to meet challenges head on is indicative of a greater movement within the industry, towards a more flexible, robust and bottom-up model.”

A big part of staying relevant is adopting new technologies, which is exactly what Powercor is doing with its residential battery storage trial. The three-year trial will allow Powercor to assess the benefits of integrating residential-scale batteries into the CitiPower network, and test the ways it can incorporate renewables.

Then there’s the large battery installed in Buninyong, south of Ballarat. CitiPower/Powercor has invested almost $8 million to install a 2MW energy storage system on a high voltage powerline. The battery will allow Powercor to reduce stress on the network, improve reliability, reduce maintenance costs, and ultimately lower costs for customers.

Housed in a 40-foot shipping container, the energy storage system is capable of providing back-up power to around 3000 customers for an hour during a power outage. When installed, it will be able to run automatically to ‘peak shave’ load on the Powercor distribution line and automatically switch to back up power for residents in the event of fault on the grid resulting in a power outage.

“Batteries are a really important component when it comes to peak shaving. From a network’s point of view, the ability to have battery support in certain locations means we don’t have to build uneconomical future power stations for those 15 days a year when we have those peaks,” Steven says.

“We expect the battery in Buninyong will increase capacity of our existing electrical assets as well as extend the life of these assets, further maximising the use of energy storage on the grid.”

Powercor's battery storage system Buninyong in Ballarat South
Powercor’s battery storage system Buninyong in Ballarat South

If successful, it will also allow Powercor to defer $4.4 million of capital upgrades to the traditional poles and wires network.

However, batteries are just one of many technologies Powercor is looking in to, with Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiter (REFCL) among the innovations Steven is excited about.

In the wake of the Black Saturday Royal Commission, the Victorian Government undertook a world-first trial to demonstrate the capabilities of fully-optimised REFCL technologies. The technologies spell great advances for preventing powerline faults and, in turn, bushfire mitigation. But along with the obvious safety benefits for customers and workers in high-risk areas, REFCLs also herald the way forward for network reliability.

“There’s a lot of really exciting technology coming out around vegetation management, particularly Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), a surveying technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser light.

“Patrolling feeders and looking for vegetation with LIDARs are really important. For years we’ve got really good data sets on the location of vegetation in relation to our lines. But now, technology has come such a long way we can tell so much more about the network.”

The technology is so advanced it can determine high-growth species. It can even calculate the amount of moisture in foliage. In turn, this enables vegetation management crews to assess whether a tree is healthy or sick and, if it’s dying, they can trim the tree before it falls over and becomes a hazard.

Such detailed analysis is particularly useful for large patches of Powercor’s terrain – long, rural, heavily vegetated areas with overhead lines – where bushfire is one of the biggest risks.

“We are continually looking for solutions to protect our customers and the network,” Steven says.

He’s particularly enthusiastic about Fault Detect Isolate and Restore (FDIR) technology, an application designed for automated fault handling on distribution systems with radial or open loop configurations.

“We are at a point where the network could soon have the intelligence to know when there’s an unplanned outage, to know the location of all the switching devices around that unplanned outage, and to switch and minimise the customer impact – all under a minute,” he says.

Of course, with so much data, analytics is becoming a huge growth area for the energy industry. Based in Victoria, Powercor has a wealth of data at its fingertips, largely sourced from its advanced metering infrastructure population. The company has been able to make some useful leverage decisions off this data, with its Meter Data Notification Project a prime example. When a meter is about to lose supply it throws out a “last gasp”, and raises its own outage. As a result, Powercor is alerted a customer is off supply so it can respond quickly.

But Steven wants to take data management even further. Powercor is even about to recruit a number of data scientists; a role that wasn’t even a consideration five years ago.

“We want to make smarter decisions with our capital investment, but also maximise the way customers interact with the network,” he says.

“The key benefit to data analytics is being able to understand customer consumption and customer profile. For example, if we can model the way customers utilise their energy when they have solar at a domestic level, and then aggregate that back on a distribution or transformer level, we can get a really rich data set that outlines how those consumers are using energy. From here we can determine how the network is being impacted and, in turn, we can offer the customer more and more opportunities.

“There will be times where we will want to encourage the industry to put non-traditional-type energy sources into certain aspects or parts of the network. This will provide us with network support – and it’s a win-win situation for industry and consumers.”

This focus on interaction with stakeholders and communities is key for Steven, as it is for network operators around the world. Building trust and facilitating customer choice is now a key part of the network, he says. And he’d know.

Since starting his career with the state electricity commission in 1989, Steven has seen the industry go through its most significant overhaul in more than a 100 years.

“We’re not just talking about opening up two-way communication channels between networks and end-use customers, we’re talking about an environment where we are adding value and facilitating customer choices.”

“New technologies are changing lives. We provide electricity for nearly 1.1 million customers throughout Melbourne, and central and western Victoria, so that’s a lot of people whose lives could change for the better if we navigate this new world.

“When you think about it like this, playing a part in evolving and leading our new networks becomes a pretty important job.”

Steven will be speaking on Australia’s largest grid scale solar energy storage project at the All Energy Australia conference, to be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from October 4-5.