Peter Clark: Ever-changing evolution and Tasmania’s electricity network

As the smallest jurisdiction in the national electricity market, the Tasmanian energy sector comes with its own unique set of challenges. Nonetheless, Transend Network’s chief executive officer Peter Clark is confident the state is moving towards a real, holistic network business.

As the owner and operator of Tasmania’s electricity transmission system, Transend is responsible for transporting extra-high voltage electricity from power stations to substations around the state.

With assets valued at nearly $1.5 billion, the company takes electricity from power stations around Tasmania, transports it to all parts of the state and delivers it to electricity distributor Aurora Energy and directly connected major industrial customers through a network of 49 substations, nine switching stations and 3688 circuit kilometres of transmission lines. The mainland is also supplied via Transend’s Basslink undersea cable.

Shaped largely by the nature of Tasmania’s predominately hydro-generation system, Transend’s chief executive officer Peter Clark says the company’s transmission system differs significantly from networks on the Australian mainland.

“Power systems that are heavily reliant on hydro generation create a set of operating conditions for transmission systems that differ from those of thermal-based generation. That means more investment and maintenance effort is required in Tasmania to connect generation and load that isn’t the case in the rest of Australia,” Peter says.

With infrastructure spanning the length and breadth of the state, Peter notes Transend’s system is also significantly expansive.

“We have what is considered to be a long system. When you look at Tasmania, compared with other states and territories, the network looks reasonably small. Still, it runs from the north-west coastal corner, all the way down around the centre and across to Gordon power station centrally,” Peter says.

“That’s quite a distance and because we connect mainly with hydro generation, the length of the system can pose it’s own problems.”

The system was originally designed to ensure Transend could connect the diverse generation portfolio to the major loading points, transferring approximately 480mW south and 600mW north.

“It has always depended on demand and how the market has settled between Victoria and Tasmania, meaning we have been had to cope with large swings in energy transfers,” Peter says.

Responding to these demands, Transend has come up with a number of innovative solutions to ensure the transmission network operates effectively – including running transmission lines on what Peter refers to as ‘dynamic ratings’.

“We use real-time information on temperature, wind and solar gain – all those influences on the capacity of the transmission line. To put that into context, the rating of the transmission line is predominately controlled by the sag of the line. If you heat it up, it becomes longer in effect and gets closer to the ground. We measure the temperature of that line and run to a dynamic rating on the line, using real-time input,” he says.

“This has allowed us to run our transmission system harder than we would normally be able to, and we feed that information directly into the NEM dispatch engine. It’s automated and very efficient.”

“It’s very good for Tasmania,” Peter says.

And he should know. Starting out as a power station operator with the Hydro Electric Commission in the late 1970s, he’s been heavily involved in the state’s energy sector for almost 40 years. Before heading the management team in 2011, Peter was the company’s general manager of transmission operations from 2004-2010, prior to which he worked in power system and generation operations ranging from power station operations to power system control.

Throughout his time in the sector, Peter has overseen a number of organisational milestones, the most significant of which occurred when the Transend joined the NEM in 2005.

“This was important because it totally changed the way Tasmanian energy operated and how we interfaced with the Australian energy market operator, which was then NEMCO [the National Electricity Market Management Company],” he says.

“The commissioning of Basslink was also a pivotal moment for the company. When this happened, we actually had energy flows across the Bass Strait. This presented a major change in the way dispatch occurred in Tasmania and effectively how we operate the state power system.”

In his time, Peter has also overseen the company’s microwave communication backbone, which has allowed a number of technology changes to occur.

“The technology shift has been enormous in my time. When I first started in the industry everything was done via telephone. It’s an interesting history in that it has gone from the power system operated manually via telephone to a system now where people in control centres operate all assets,” he said.

“Today, we have no manned substations – everything is done remotely.”

Reliable telecommunications is a vital aspect of Transend’s vision to be a leader in developing and maintaining sustainable networks. In 2008 the company purchased its own in-house communication services business as part of the strategy to meet growing needs for telecommunications and to create new business opportunities.

“The backbone of the communications network is a microwave system that is complemented by a growing number of optic fibre circuits progressively being installed as part of the electricity transmission network,” Peter says.

“New microwave repeater sites are also being established to improve reliability and to increase our capacity for expanding services.”

However, Peter is quick-to-point-out the present economic environment has been the catalyst for a number of behavioural shifts within power generation, transmission, supply and distribution companies around Australia. For Transend, one of the most prominent shifts in attitude has been that towards a more collaborative arrangement with customers.

“The economy we operate in has changed significantly in the last few years and for me, in my role as chief executive officer, I have needed to really focus on bringing customers on board and involving them in the journey,” he says.

“At the end of the day, our customers pay the bills and the impact we have on our customers’ sustainability is in our pricing and the service we provide.”

As a result, Transend has moved towards a more collaborative arrangement where customers are made aware of the issues that directly impact the company. In turn, Transend is kept up to date with the issues that impact their customers, so it can better provide the transmission services to suit their changing requirements.

There has been a major shift internally to make sure the customer is always considered. For example, Transend produces an Annual Planning Report: a ten-year vision to develop the transmission network to adequately address growth in demand and to reduce constriction points.

For the past few years, the customer team has also begun holding workshops with customers to better understand where constraints occur in the network and to collaboratively work towards solutions.

“These have been very successful and improving year on year,” Peter says.

“Our operations team even has a mantra, ‘keep the lights on’ as they understand what a power outage can actually mean for our customers. It can be a major loss of revenue for them.

“At the moment, all our major industry customers, as in those that take direct commissions from us, are either miners or manufacturers. So in effect, we know the high Australian dollar and low-commodity prices are impacting on their bottom line, and we need to recognise this when we work with them to ensure any changes we make to the infrastructure and the way we operate, take them into consideration.”

Given it is the smallest and most recently created jurisdiction in the NEM, Tasmania’s energy sector is certainly not without its own complexities. As a network, it is fundamentally different to those on the mainland, and for Peter it’s essential changes made at the national level don’t adversely impact Tasmanian power generation, transmission and distribution bodies.

“Tasmania is a unique microcosm, and without proper direction and a strong voice, it is possible the state could suffer from reform designed to benefit the larger economies in Victoria, New South Wales and even Queensland,” Peter says.

“But this is what I find so exciting about working where I do. There’s always change happening in Tasmania. Every time I’ve thought the industry was settling down another major change has come through, from commercialising the energy sector to the NEM, which added a whole new level of complexity to dispatching generation and managing transmission systems.

With the amalgamation between Transend and Aurora’s distribution network gaining momentum as they head towards the expected merger date of July 1, 2014, Peter expects Tasmania’s energy network will continue to generate an interesting, albeit challenging, working environment.

“But this is why you don’t stop change. Change should be continuous and should keep going over time,” Peter says.

“People who think the change is over tend to get left behind, because it’s an ever-changing environment.”