Spotlight On: Horizon Power CEO Stephanie Unwin

Horizon Power CEO Stephanie Unwin smiles while standing in front of Horizon Power signage (energy vault)
Horizon Power CEO Stephanie Unwin

Energy Source & Distribution goes west to catch up with Stephanie Unwin, CEO of Horizon Power, which is responsible for the largest geographical catchment of any Australian power provider, spanning just over a third of the country.

Australia’s only vertically integrated energy utility, Horizon Power, designs and delivers adapted solutions which respond to the unique challenges faced by those living and working in regional and remote Western Australia.

As CEO, Stephanie Unwin is passionate about delivering better outcomes for customers, communities and the environment. With a law and economics background, Unwin has worked her way up in the industry with determination and purpose, with previous roles including executive and advisory positions at Verve Energy (now Synergy), Zenith Energy, ARENA, CSIRO, and Energy Networks Australia.

This, she explains, has given her valuable insight and understanding of the complexities faced at Horizon Power in providing electricity to remote geographical areas with small customer bases.

“Our customers live and work across 2.3 million square kilometres, which makes us responsible for delivering energy solutions across the largest geographical catchment of any Australian power provider—and I am acutely aware how important reliable and affordable power is to both the regional economic development and the quality of life in regional towns,” Unwin says.

“Remote regional towns are really close to my heart. I was born in New Zealand but by the time I was four I had moved to the regional mining town of Paraburdoo in the Pilbara. I then spent time in Tom Price and Karratha before heading to Darwin.

“I have been with Horizon Power for four years now, which have been the most joyful of my working life. I am really fortunate to have such purpose in the work we do each day.”

Related article: Horizon Power purchases vanadium flow battery

A power pioneer—overcoming remote and regional WA’s unique challenges

Covering the largest geographical area of any Australian power provider and operating outside the National Electricity Market (NEM), Unwin says one of the biggest challenges for Horizon Power is not being interconnected like its eastern counterparts.

“The states and territories operating within the NEM send in their energy when they’ve got extra and then take it when they need it. They have access to different sources of generation at different times of the day in different parts of Australia. So, if the sun’s not shining somewhere, it’s likely to be shining somewhere else—and the same goes for wind,” she explains.

“Conversely, we have a whole bunch of smaller systems that are responsible for themselves —and you don’t get to rely on another system hundreds of kilometres away to provide your generation. Rather, the systems are typically powered by one generation source and have to be self-sustaining.

“I can’t see us ever joining up to the NEM. With Western Australia’s size and population, we can continue operating within the current model without needing to disrupt the local environment and biodiversity in that way.”

Unwin says another challenge, which is also being experienced in the larger systems within the NEM, is the rapidly growing demand for rooftop solar.

“I think across the industry we’re all grappling with how quickly we’ve seen the rise in the desire to have rooftop solar, which brings with it a consequential impact of intermittency and a need to solve the critical issue of storage.

“These problems are common to all of us. It’s just a matter of scale.”

Asked what she sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities for utilities in the current market, Unwin says the future lies in electric vehicle (EV) uptake and integration.

“EVs are a demand source for energy. I think they will fundamentally change the way customers behave with their vehicles. They could also be part of grid stability, as can their behind-the-meter batteries. And the timing with which they charge can really help soak up lots of excess energy at the time you need to soak it up, depending on where you are around the state and whatever the source is.”

Milestones so far

Asked about some of the most memorable milestones she’s experienced during her tenure at Horizon Power, Unwin speaks with pride about the Esperance Energy Transition Project.

“On behalf of the State Government, we supported the transition of about 400 customers in Esperance from reticulated gas to an alternative energy source. This project came about after the independent power provider decided to stop supplying reticulated gas in Esperance,” she says.

“The work our team did to create a human-centred design and provide such important hands-on support for our customers throughout this journey was incredible. They navigated huge logistical challenges in such a short timeframe—bringing trades together, educating customers on new energy sources, and successfully delivering the project before the cessation of gas. I am so proud of the team and what they were able to achieve.
The vast majority of customers successfully transitioned by the end of March, with the Esperance Energy Transition Project serving as a blueprint for other electrification works around the country.

“I am also really proud we are now serving Esperance with higher levels of renewable energy, delivering a long-term power solution for the community, through our Esperance Power Station.

“There have been some days in May and June this year where our use of renewables has been as high as 61-62%, however, we have also had days where it is below our target. A lot of work is being done with our engineering team and operators onsite to integrate the renewables while ensuring stability of the electrical network, which has resulted in increased renewable penetration over the past few months. We still need to do more finetuning and this will focus on achieving higher levels of renewable generation consistently, which can withstand changes in weather and associated intermittency. But what has been achieved to date is nothing short of remarkable.”

The launch of Horizon Power’s Denham Hydrogen Demonstration Plant launch in November 2022 is another industry-leading project that Unwin says will provide valuable insights and lessons to support the commercialisation of renewable hydrogen power generation into the future.

“It was incredibly challenging from a project integration perspective, but I believe we are going to learn a lot from the project in the next 12 months, helping us to see if this is a viable solution and if so, how we might deploy hydrogen in our mix going forward,” she says.

“The WA EV Network is another exciting project—the Western Australian State Government’s $43.5 million investment to boost EV infrastructure around WA. Our bespoke approach to this project includes using a combination of solar and battery with a back-up diesel generator to power EV chargers in some of the state’s most remote locations. In conjunction with Synergy and on behalf of the State Government, we are installing 98 charging stations across Western Australia. It’s a massive effort and will provide valuable infrastructure which ultimately will hopefully drive the EV uptake and make it much easier for drivers to explore our wonderful state.

“It was great to be in Broome in July for the launch of our first EV fast charger on the Network and in Carnarvon in early September for the first charging station in the Gascoyne. I’m looking forward to getting out to other towns later this year as more of our fast chargers become operational.

“Finally, our emergency management response and the work our teams do to ensure supply of energy to our customers around the state—sometimes in the toughest of circumstances—is amazing to witness. Our response to the once in a 100-year floods in the Kimberley last summer, ensuring safe and reliable supply of energy to our customers, was arguably the most extensive in our history. It really displayed all that is great about Horizon Power and the people we are lucky enough to have working in our business.

“I am extremely proud of connecting what we do to the communities we serve—and all that flows from this. We are out there solving real problems in each of our communities, and proud to be delivering programs and initiatives which really support our customers, while also being at the cutting edge of the fast-moving energy transition.”

Related article: WA EV Network’s first DC fast charger in the Gascoyne

Inside Horizon Power

From an internal perspective, Unwin says Horizon Power is leading the way in the digital utility space, capturing smart data that allows teams to make informed decisions in regard to asset management and maintenance.

“The platform we are using is called SmartWorks, and we are currently trialling it in Broome,” she explains.

“This is a big change management piece because we are changing the way our employees have always done things, but the feedback to date has been overwhelmingly positive. Our crews and asset managers are glad to be able to access important data which helps in their decision making.

“Another thing that really brings us together is how we collectively work in extraordinary times. There is always a cyclone or fire season depending on where you are in the state, which means we typically have something big happening every year. In those tough times we are pretty amazing, coming up with ingenious solutions, banding together, doing it in a time sensitive way that’s also respectful to our communities and coming together to get the job done.

“I think all of those things make for a great culture. I love going out to our regions and connecting with our workforce no matter where they are.

“I love coming to work each day. We have some brilliant minds who are working on great solutions, both in the field and in our offices, which will support us well into the future. You can’t help but be inspired when you see that going on around you every day.”

Previous articleTransgrid drones take flight to inspect transmission lines
Next articleHorizon Power CEO reappointed for another five years