Gridlock—and no end in sight to higher energy costs

Underneath view of an enormous transmission tower (energy prices down)
Image: Shutterstock

By Phil Kreveld

The path to the 80-plus percent renewables grid is obscured by wishful thinking—and ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Presently small modular nuclear reactors are the flavour of the month but they might just as easily submerge again.

Amid the public forum noise and political grandstanding, consumers of electrical energy are installing rooftop solar because electricity tariffs keep rising. They might know more than Australia’s energy ministers—or in the alternative, take the sure for the unsure, no confidence in the nebulous promises of better days to come—sometime soon, or maybe never.

Related article: How to design a ‘renewable’ grid

It’s not that an eventual 100% renewable electricity grid is a fantasy. But the way we are going about its construction makes it a fantasy. And gridlock will come about well before the renewable dream is realised, because wishful thinking isn’t now and never was a better alternative to all-encompassing, integrated engineering planning.

What will gridlock look like? Supply chain choke-ups for synchronous condensers to beef up grid system strength, insufficient practical experience with voltage forming inverters, untested grid operational control, ad hoc siting of battery support, for example in remote energy zones, but investment drying up in the face transmission line congestion is equally likely. Let’s face it, there is already a distinct air of investor reluctance, their patience being severely tested by very long delays in connection approvals—lack of grid strength being an oft cited reason.

The frequently stated need for more transmission line construction is not so much a nonsense; the fact being that more is necessary. However, what is escaping us is that electrical infrastructure has to be a system; in other words, a thought through, planned conjunction of generators-transmission lines-increasingly dynamic load centres.

At a recently held four-day workshop on battery energised voltage forming inverters at Monash University, the breathing space necessary for prolonged testing of this relatively new technology was evident.

The necessary test and observation periods might not suit the climate change warriors—those who are caught in the headlights of 82% renewable target by 2030 or the politicians who feel their electoral success depend in its realisation.

Related article: Australian Energy Week: the dichotomy exposed

The national electricity system planning and execution requires centralised engineering—one where all the parts, as cited above, are planned and the execution, supervised and on a time scale appropriate to ensuring reliability and stability.

Political dreams might be destroyed but we would inherit a reliable, renewable grid—and as to energy costs? Who knows? CO2 reduction is not some convenient zero-sum business—and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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