Spotlight On: SA Power Networks CEO Rob Stobbe

Rob Stobbe Sa Power Networks
SA Power Networks CEO Rob Stobbe

While he would rather point to the many people around him who are making the rapid energy transition underway in Australia a reality, Energy Source & Distribution has finally been able to convince SA Power Networks CEO Rob Stobbe to talk a little about himself, as well as the business.

SA Power Networks is South Australia’s regulated electricity distributor, supplying energy safely, reliably, and efficiently to 900,000 homes and businesses and a community of 1.7 million people.

The business is taking a leadership role in Australia’s rapid energy transition, with South Australia moving rapidly away from centralised fossil-fuel based generation to a mix of distributed energy resources (DER) including rooftop solar and batteries.

SA Power Networks’ electricity distribution network of 650,000 Stobie Poles, 400 zone substations and 88,000 kilometres of line, much of it built last century for one-way energy flows, is being transitioned to be a smart platform for sharing energy generated at hundreds of thousands of locations across the state.

A third of SA customers (about 280,000) already have installed solar and applications to connect panels this year will exceed 40,000. This widespread and continuing take-up has led to a number of urgent challenges for the South Australian network which in turn have required unique solutions that will become a blueprint for national industry support for DER.

In solving these problems, SA Power Networks has been recognised for its leading thinking, winning a number of industry awards in recent years including Energy Network Australia’s Industry Innovation Award in 2020, Digital Utility of the Year in 2019 and three successive awards for best use of digital technology.

We get the run-down about all of these key initiatives from the CEO Rob Stobbe himself.

Managing distributed energy resources

Disributed energy resources present new challenges for companies like SA Power Networks. In fact, Rob says this is something that is continually occupying their minds.

“We have some amazing engineers, with a great of mix of youth and experience, working on a number of projects with stakeholders across industry so we can accommodate even more DER on our network and maintain safe, reliable, and affordable services,” Rob says.

Of course, a fundamental driver has been the very rapid take up of rooftop solar in SA – the state has gone from virtually none to a third of customers in 10 years.

SA Power Networks, Rob Stobbe

“We will have 40,000 applications this year and commercial businesses are strongly investing also,” Rob says.

“And of course, the SA Government has recently announced an ambition to achieve net-100 per cent renewable energy by 2030. We think it can happen earlier and we are moving now to ensure we support that.

“I think the biggest thing we have done was to start thinking a lot further forward about how customers might be meeting their energy needs and how we could shape our network to support them.”

In 2011 SA Power Networks published the first version of its Future Operating Model, and in 2012 established its Network Innovation Centre.

“I think the benefit of that early directional thinking has been demonstrated by our development of some very smart solutions that will support South Australia’s exciting and rapid energy transition well into the future,” Rob says.

“We also have been actively doing trials to ensure we have real data and evidence to support our strategies.

“I think most importantly though, we have really sought to deepen our engagement with customers and the solar industry–to understand their needs, pain points and opportunities. 

“This has really allowed us to sharpen our focus to the changes that truly add value.”

Rooftop solar smart inverter project

Over the coming 10-15 years, Rob says SA Power Networks expects to see the amount of solar PV on the South Australian network grow from the current 1.5GW to 3.0GW. 

“As much as it seems hard to believe, it means that on most sunny days over Spring, Autumn and Summer, South Australia will be 100 per cent rooftop solar powered,” Rob says.

“That is a complete turn-around from how our electricity system used to work.”

SA Power Networks, Rob Stobbe

The challenge this presents is that at the moment, SA Power Networks can’t monitor or manage rooftop solar, making the state’s biggest power plant essentially uncontrollable. As much as it’s a big problem now, Rob says it’ll be an even bigger project when it gets to 3.0GW.

“The ARENA flexible exports project allows us to send ‘flexible export limits’ to customers’ inverters to make sure that their output remains below levels that are safe for the local and state network,” he says. 

“A lot of the time this will mean they will be able to export at full power, but also provides the ability to reduce their output if the network is under stress.

“It also means that we don’t have to apply zero export limits in parts of the network that are already saturated with solar PV. 

“Our modelling shows that by using a flexible approach, even customers in these areas will be able to get most of the value from their PV exports that customers on the rest of the network generally experience.”

It has been described by commentators as a blueprint for others to follow and a one-day national standard.

Advanced VPP Grid Integration Trial

SA Power Networks’ award winning Advanced VPP Grid Integration Trial means that customers and Virtual Power Plant (VPP) operators will be able to get much more value from their investments than they otherwise would.

“Rather than ‘dumb’ 5kW static export limits, systems in the VPP trial can export at up to 10kW whenever the network has the capacity to do so,” Rob explains.

“This means that Tesla’s proposed 50,000 battery VPP could potentially export at a power of up to 500MW, the same as the now retired Northern Power Station, rather than the 250MW that would be available under traditional approaches.

“From our perspective it means that we can avoid the risk of VPPs causing unintended problems for our network, and other customers, when they suddenly dispatch in response price spikes or other issues in the National Electricity Market.  It is a win for customers and a win for us as a network manager.”

The project was recently named the winner of Energy Networks Australia’s 2020 Industry Innovation Award, as well as the Best Use of Technology Award at the 2020 Digital Utility Awards, the latter of which SA Power Networks has won three years in a row now.

“While we don’t do it for awards, we have been humbled by the recognition we have received from our industry for our work in many areas – including stakeholder engagement, digital innovation, VPP and flexible export innovation,” Rob says.

Looking forward

SA Power Networks has a host of innovative and significant projects underway across the business, but another really big focus is developing its strategy to manage ageing network assets. A lot of its network was built in the 1950s-1960s and are therefore approaching end of life.

SA Power Networks, Rob Stobbe

“In fact, we have the oldest network fleet in Australia,” Rob says.

“Over the coming years, we will need to significantly ramp up our asset replacement spend, and we need to make sure we do that as efficiently as possible. 

“We are currently seeking to improve the sophistication of our processes to capture asset data, and the analytics required to determine optimal replacement timing to balance efficiency and risk.”

Rob says this year the team at SA Power Networks has been thinking a lot about where the state, network and business will be in 2035, and that is informing development of SA Power Networks’ strategy for 2021-2025.

“[That strategy is] to deal with the opportunities arising from customers’ continued take-up of distributed energy resources, and the increasing challenges and risks posed by South Australia’s ageing network infrastructure.

“The strategy is seeking to support the state’s transition to a decentralised, decarbonised energy system, while continuing to deliver a safe, reliable, and affordable distribution service.

SA Power Networks, Rob Stobbe

“By thinking out to 2035, it has really underlined the need to keep the pace up on transforming our business. In 15 years’ time our business and the energy landscape will have changed significantly, and customers will be very much in the driver’s seat, as they should be.

“They are investing in technology that delivers them more control of their energy needs and costs. And technology companies are providing more and more solutions that help them achieve that.

“This trend will only accelerate, and we are going to have to change as an industry and as a network business.

“On the positive side, we believe we have a fundamental central role to making this customer-led energy transition work well for our community. If we can maximise the benefits of the individual investment being made by customers, that provides a great opportunity for the community to share in low-cost and renewable energy.” 

Rob says that he and SA Power Networks see the next frontier as the opportunity to extend the benefits of decarbonising transport, with electric vehicles helping the utility and its community get better value out of the network though better network utilisation. Beyond electric vehicles, there may be the opportunity to decarbonise additional sectors like heavy industry.

“With abundant, low cost, reliable energy, I think that South Australia could even attract back some of the industry that has left the state over the years, and potentially capture new opportunities as diverse as green hydrogen production and data centres,” Rob says.

“What concerns me most is whether the policy and regulatory framework can evolve quickly enough and whether policymakers and regulators can see us as a partner with customers in designing and achieving positive outcomes.

“There is movement but there is a way to go and some level of hindrance. For example, ringfencing and metering contestability I think have actually hampered our potential as a State-wide distributor to deliver highly efficient and co-ordinated outcomes for customers and our community.”

That said, Rob says SA Power Networks is excited by the transition underway, and very much sees SA Power Networks and its electricity distribution network having a central role as South Australia transitions to a modern, low-carbon economy.

SA Power Networks, Rob Stobbe

About Rob

For the past 30 years or so, Rob has been involved in the infrastructure, water, electricity, gas, telecommunications and rail industries across Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and the UK. He was appointed CEO of SA Power Networks (then ESTA Utilities) in March 2010.

Among his varied roles, he has been CEO of TransAdelaide (which oversaw public rail, bus and tram transport in Adelaide) and Spark Infrastructure and has held senior executive positions at Northern Gas (UK), Powercor, and CitiPower.

He is also a Director on the Energy Networks Australia Board.

Rob retains a number of Board positions including as Director on the Boards of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BusinessSA), Operation Flinders Foundation, James Brown Memorial Trust and UniSA Business School Advisory Board.

Rob says his career is a long way away from starting as a mail boy.

“I think I have a pretty good feel for what it’s like at all levels of an organisation,” Rob says.

“It is also one of the reasons I and the management team get to one of the depots across the state every few weeks to meet with the employees to talk about where the business is going.”