How utilities can help reach a ‘climate positive’ Brisbane Olympics

Hand waving Olympic flag against blue sky (Brisbane)
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After being selected as the host city for the summer 2032 Olympics, Brisbane announced its intention to make the games the first ‘Climate Positive Olympics’. This includes aiming for greenhouse gas reductions greater than residual emissions caused by the games, writes mPrest, Inc. director Vivek Bhandari.

Hosting is an expensive and energy-inefficient endeavor. As infrastructure is built or upgraded, newer loads including air conditioners (ACs) and electrified transportation and generators like solar photovoltaic (PV) will be added to the network in areas where the utility or distributed system operator (DSO) may or may not be expecting such a growth.

Imagine water flowing through a pipe from A to B. It has a carrying capacity. If you push more water in the pipe, not just from A to B, but also B to A, it would impact the pipes. The unidirectional valves might break, the meters and taps could be damaged, and even the pipe could blast. Similarly, in an electrical system, if you push more electricity through these wires in haphazard directions, the relays could trip, the wires could melt and brownouts and blackouts could occur.

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Brisbane 2032 will not be the first time a utility copes with large scale infrastructure upgrades ahead of a high-stakes event. In the best case scenario, operators will be proactive and deploy grid orchestration technologies, including distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS), and find solutions to upgrade protection devices to make the best use of renewable resources and new loads.

However, we’ve also seen our fair share of scenarios where upgrades do not adequately occur and disasters result. Many of us remember the 2013 New Orleans Super Bowl Blackout. Blackouts and brownouts could be disastrous and sometimes even apocalyptic and aren’t limited to happening once in a lifetime during major events. For example, in August 2019 almost a million people in the UK were without power, several even were trapped in trains, when a lightning strike shut down a gas and wind power plant simultaneously.

In Australia, we face a lot of power outages everyday. Over 90 per cent of these events are caused by issues with poles and wires. The results are exacerbated when it happens in a highly populated area, with relatively old grid infrastructure and a lot of variable generation, combined with unavoidable weather incidents like bushfires, floods or lightning strikes. All of these variables seem likely for the Brisbane Olympics.

Looking at the Brisbane games specifically, reaching climate positivity will require distributed energy resources (DERs). These assets could overload the grid if not managed adequately, making it even harder to maintain grid stability leading up to and during the event. All of this amounts to one clear fact: a climate positive Olympics in Brisbane cannot be achieved without participation from utilities and grid operators over the next decade.

Taking action now

Around 20 per cent of the electricity currently used in Queensland is coming from renewables. There are programs currently in place that are promoting DER growth, like clean energy schools and solar for remote communities. Knowing this, we can expect more DER adoption as we approach 2032. Looking at infrastructure upgrades for the Olympics specifically, unused roof space offers a great opportunity for solar plus storage installations at competition facilities. We could also see community batteries, e-mobility and stadium microgrids emerge as well.

With new DERs in place, controllers for managing and curtailing loads as well as upgrades to switchgear and protection will be needed. In addition, the network will require non-wires upgrades, such as DERMS, to optimise energy use on top of wired upgrades like protection systems and new lines. On the whole, non-wire upgrades are preferable for many utilities as they are easier to deploy and more cost-efficient.

Currently, DER operations are not transparent to grid operators. Most have access to generator control functions for utility-scale generation sources, both renewable and non-renewable, but at the distribution scale no overarching control system is in use for managing DERs . Queensland utilities should look to roll out DERMS, demand response programs and virtual power plants (VPPs) for DER orchestration sooner rather than later to support climate goals ahead of 2032. Greater visibility using these platforms means greater transparency, better management and fewer grid problems.

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Reaching a clean energy future

Queensland aims to reach 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and AEMO recently cited a goal of having the grid capable of managing 100 per cent renewable penetration by 2025. These goals are more near-term than Brisbane but the means to achieving them and a climate positive olympics are one in the same.

Installing more renewable generation assets and DERs are necessary to reach a 100 per cent renewable target like AEMO’s. However, installing is merely the first step. Queensland needs an IoT “system of systems” that will control and monitor those DERs. The same system must also monitor and control the loads with a top-down push from utility leadership. These programs and efforts are key to establishing Australia as thought and action leaders for sustainability. Brisbane 2032 offers a tremendous opportunity to lead by example and showcase the success of these activities on a global stage.