Moving to Australia from the US to take up the role of executive general manager—networks at Transgrid, Marie Jordan has hit the ground running despite landing during one of the most tumultuous points in our energy transition.
Marie Jordan was in the process of winding down her consulting work with a view to retiring when she was approached by a recruiter on behalf of Transgrid.
“The recruiter wanted me to meet with (Transgrid CEO) Brett Redman, and even though I agreed, I have to say I had no intention of taking the job,” she says
“But I met with Brett, who told me about the challenges and cutting-edge change Australia was going through with its energy transition, and he actually convinced me to come.
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“I remember going downstairs after talking with Brett and asking my husband, who is a physician, ‘Are you ready to retire? If you are, we can go to Australia.’”
Now, more than 35 years after she began working in the utilities sector for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Marie finds herself ready for a new chapter.
“It’s been a really interesting journey,” she says of her career to date.
“I’ve done everything from gas to distribution to electric transmission. After working for PG&E I went to work for National Grid in Massachusetts, where I gained global perspective on transmission partnering with National Grid in the UK, which was a really nice backdrop for my next role as CEO for Peak Reliability.”
Peak Reliability managed reliability coordination for Western Interconnection, which included the 14 western states and part of Canada and part of Mexico, providing oversight to the real-time operations of the electric grid with two control rooms running 24/7.
“It was a really interesting role, actually understanding how to manage the network which had about 65 transmission operators in that western interconnection,” Marie says.
“In the US, with coal- and gas-fired generation really starting to back down in both the east coast and west coast because of the cost, we had a bit more of a reasonably paced transition to renewables.”
“Here in Australia, we’re at the cutting edge of the renewables transition, and the pace is absolutely different to anything I’ve seen in the US. So now it’s a matter of how are we going to make this transition in such a short timeframe and ensure it’s reliable.”
From a network perspective, Marie says, a megawatt hour of coal-fired generation can be different from a megawatt hour of renewables generation in terms of how they work on the system.
“For us, it’s not just making sure we have enough generators out there—it’s about making sure we can adapt our system to cater to the different types of energy generation. And that’s a nuance that’s often lost.”
To ensure the network is fully prepared to meet renewable targets, Transgrid focused on accelerating the transmission projects defined in the ISP to deliver the variable renewable generation. Marie has a team that is working on the planning of how to augment the network to be able to deliver 100 per cent renewable generation on the NSW network. Based on forecasts by AEMO, in 2025 the minimum demand point during the day, the system may have sufficient renewable resource to meet the minimum demand.
“Our team is trying to stay one step ahead but there will be some catch-up, especially when you have coal generators like Eraring moving its closure forward by seven years,” Marie said.
“Trying make the transition more quickly with renewable energy zones, we have to look at how we can reliably bring on the energy they generate. The NSW Government will also install a 700MW standby network battery, the Waratah Super Battery, to ensure a reliable energy supply following the closure of Eraring Power Station. So there are a lot of moving parts to the plan that we have to consider.”
Asked about Transgrid’s transmission upgrades—including Project EnergyConnect, Queensland-NSW Interconnector, Victoria to NSW Interconnector, HumeLink, and the Snowy 2.0 Connection—Marie says the goal is to make it a program rather than a series of projects.
“We need to connect Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria with high capacity transmission lines, but we need to co-ordinate all of these individual projects together as one program to get the most benefit from an earlier delivery date with efficiencies and savings from moving these together.”
“One major challenge in doing this is social licence,” Marie says.
“These projects are designed for the good of Australia but they come with a big impact on the people whose land is in the path of the transmission. So we have to work with the community earlier than we have in the past. How do we do the best we can, working with property owners, to have the least impact to their land and ensure equitable fair treatment while we’re doing it? It’s about making sure we’re doing the right thing for all Australians and minimising the impacts to land owners.”
Our conversation moves to the recent energy crisis, during which AEMO suspended the spot market in accordance with the National Electricity Rules (NER).
Marie says, “I’ve spent a lot of time in California over the years looking at resource adequacy and rolling blackouts. One of the first things Transgrid did when we started to get the lack of resource notifications, was to look at our planned work and made sure we cancelled planned outages on the transmission system. In the US we call them ‘no touch days’. On those days, you don’t want any outages whatsoever—it’s emergency work only, and you take the planned maintenance and cancel the work in these critical periods. This ensures all generation is available to support the shortfall.
Marie says they took a similar approach at Transgrid to prevent blackouts during the unfolding energy crisis.
“You’ve got to have every single megawatt able to come online from no matter where it is. We cleared our system and staffed our control centres with additional resources to really manage and support all the directions that were coming from AEMO. We wanted to be ready to help manage the system in the best way possible.
“We managed to get through that without any rolling blackouts in our region, which was a good outcome considering there were, at times, some tough decisions being made.”
One of the biggest issues facing network operators in the transition to renewables is system strength and security. Where system strength has traditionally come from coal-fired generators, control room operators now need to have more operational awareness to ensure the system can handle what’s being thrown at it.
“When I was with Peak Reliability, we had the ability to pull in information from the network that would be finding the pre-cursors to disturbances that could cause blackouts; the transient stability, system strength in general, making sure your fault current is high enough to make your protection work. So, it’s going to take some effort and good planning, but we need to put those tools into control rooms here in Australia.”
“It’s about understanding how the system is working out there and being able to manage planned and unplanned outages. If you lose something, you’re always thinking ‘what’s the next lever I can pull to keep this system stable?’
Despite the challenges at hand, Marie says she’s enormously impressed by the Transgrid team’s collective desire to do the best job possible.
“At the heart of this business is an incredibly hard-working and talented group of people. Since the day I arrived, the one thing I found that exists here is a tremendous amount of talent but, more importantly, a lot of people who are focused on doing the right thing. They really want the transmission system to succeed.
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“I’m also finding the kindness and warmth of people extends beyond Transgrid. I was standing at a gas station here for the first time, and somebody came out of their car right away and asked ‘do you need help?’
“I feel really blessed to have landed here because of the general kindness of people. I’m excited to be here for a very long time.”
Outside of work, Marie says she’s looking forward to exploring Australia.
“I love hiking and doing fun things outdoors. Australia’s really the perfect place for all that. I just have to be careful I’m not swimming with crocodiles or bull sharks,” she laughs.
“I bought a book about Australian wildlife, which says if someone tells you something is poisonous, it probably is. I’ve also just bought my first pair of R.M.Williams boots, so I’m good to go.”