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Microgrid Solutions in Australia: An Interview with Maxine Ghavi of ABB

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The ABB Group employs more than 147,000 people in over 100 countries. In Australia, ABB has operations in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin and Melbourne, employing 1,400 employees located at its 14 sites, and serving customers through an extensive country-wide presence. Since ABB in Australia is especially focused on the Microgrid segment, REM talked to ABB’s Head of Grid Solutions Maxine Ghavi to find out more about these operations.
Microgrid Solutions in Australia: An Interview with Maxine Ghavi of ABB
Courtesy of ABB

Can you tell me more about yourself and about ABB

I’ve been with ABB for about coming on 9 years and I’ve had multiple roles in that timeframe, as Head of the solar business Segment for them and then the microgrid program from the launch, really as a strategic pillar in 2015 as well and then on to Grid Edge Technologies and then most recently as Head of the Grid Edge Solutions business in the power grids business of ABB. As this relates to our business, it’s been sort of a journey from having started in microgrids more than thirty years ago and of course in Australia, which is why Australia is very near and dear to our hearts, and really develop the technology in Australia and the application and storage at this point, deploying solutions outside of Australia, and over the last thirty years.

So there’s really a very nice portfolio of references across the globe, for different applications and to address different challenges and opportunities for our customers. As the market has evolved, especially with the cost of renewables declining, and also the cost of batteries declining over the last few years, the applications for microgrids, and storage as a whole, are becoming much more economically viable. So we were really positioned well from a technology perspective, from a solutions perspective, to really deploy and scale for the new opportunities and growth in this sector.

Can you tell me a bit more about what you’re doing with microgrids in Australia and whereabouts?

We have multiple applications in Australia that we’ve deployed. You can go back and look at Marble Bar and Nullagine Australia, which was for remote communities and that was with Horizon Power, so basically with a community where we augmented the diesel generation that they had, with solar and also storage, so that they can maximise their renewables from solar, and in some instances up to 60 percent of the community power would come from solar. So that’s been around since 2010 for example.

Another application that we deployed was Ausnet Services. So this was for what you would call end of the line microgrid. For this, essentially what we were doing, because one of the applications of microgrids is really addressing the capital and cost deferment for transmission and distribution for the utilities, and in this basis, it was an end of the line microgrid, where we augmented with microgrid solutions syncontrol technology and battery energy storage to ensure that we not only reduce the stress on the line but also we were able to island as needed, because bush fires are quite a problem in Australia, as you know, and especially over the last summer.

Another application that we have, and this is the most recent one that, actually a couple more, we did for Woodside, an offshore oil and gas site where we incorporated the same technology storage and microgrid control technology, so that they can have reliable power, basically augmenting the current generation so spinning reserve application.

Another one is for a utilities, ESCRI project that we did, and it’s one of the applications where they were curtailing their renewables, so that they were not taking full advantage of the renewables, because they were causing quite a few problems in the system, so they had 90 MW wind and had also 8 MW distributed rooftop solar and we applied the same technology with a 30 MW storage and syncontrol technology so that we could provide the reliability of the network, maximise renewables and also enable value stacking. Control of the network

So these are the examples we talk about quite a bit. We also have several mining application in Australia 1) where it’s a remote mine, so it was running completely on diesel generators, so we augmented that with 10 MW solar and also storage so that again they could do integration of renewables, reduce their carbon footprint and reduce their costs. Another is where we supplied our solution to support a gas-fired power station to optimize and automate its operations, increase energy efficiency, reduce fossil fuel consumption and enable uninterrupted power supply from Alinta Energy's Newman Power Station, which supplies mining operations in the Pilbara.So, just in Australia alone, you see that we have done different applications. It’s quite diverse what we’ve been able to do.

Why do solar and wind in particular predominate in this sector?

I think first of all, specifically in Australia, one key reason is that they are in abundance. They are available. Both wind and solar, depending on what part of the country you are in, there is an abundance of renewables that are available. This is also why, for example, as in ESCRI, they have the solar rooftop, which is distributed generation they’ve got, and then 90 MW of wind farm, and bringing these different renewables together so that they can maximise the benefits. So it’s in abundance, but, as wonderful as renewables are, they are also a challenge because they are intermittent and unless you are able to manage that intermittency, when you have to curtail the renewables, and so that will have an impact on your return on investment. The more you are able to maximise the renewable penetration in to the system, whether it’s grid connected or offgrid, the better your reliability, your resilience, also better the economics of the entire system.

How much attention are chief execs and boardrooms now paying to energy resilience and clean energy, particularly with regard to climate change and the effects of that seen in Australia over the past year?

I wouldn’t say that is just in Australia, as it’s really global, but I have to say Australia is one of the leaders, one of the most forward-looking in terms of implementation. Energy management as a whole has become a boardroom discussion. Whether you’re talking about a commercial, an industrial site or a community, or utilities and what they offer to customers, it has become a boardroom discussion. For a number of reasons.

First of all, the customers are trying to reduce their cost of energy, so now there are better ways, more intelligent ways in which you can reduce the energy costs, we can reduce the energy consumption, and we can also maximise renewables, and so all of those combined, to address the sustainability that companies are looking for. This is why you’re looking at the conversation really going up to the boardroom. If you think about energy efficiency, up until a couple of years ago it, there were things you could do in a building, as a facility manager, changing LED lights and as solar become more economically viable to be able to deploy solar. But now you’re looking at the entire ecosystem, there are other things that are available, but also they are more complicated to manage. For example, if you look at a commercial or industrial site today, many customers who are occupying the site want to have EV chargers, they want to manage those, they want to do peak shaving, they want to maximise solar, but there are also opportunities where you can participate in the open market, the electricity market, and be able to reduce your costs that way.

So now, the energy efficiency for that site is not just about energy consumption, but also maximising renewables while being able to enable resiliency and reliability and you can reduce your costs of ownership by being able to participate in the electricity market and if a utility owns those assets, behind the meter assets, plus the applications such as storage in front of the meter, they can leverage those to affect the overall resiliency of the network.

So there are a number of things clearly, sustainability is a big driver, but, as the solutions are becoming more and more economically viable, then the energy cost reductions and cost savings and energy management becomes much more of a topic. 

How prepared is the Australian national grid for the adoption of clean energy and what benefits can microgrids bring in particular?

A lot of programmes, the market and the regulatory framework, has been supporting renewables and is enabling renewables, and that’s been varying by different degrees in different countries, so again, whether it is in Australia or elsewhere, we’re seeing more of the enabling policies to enable the microgrid connected and offgrid, but especially grid-connected microgrids. We see a lot of assets in Australia, both from the utilities but also from the private sector. There is quite a bit of interest from commercial and industrial, as well as the utility side, to enable more microgrids.

Again, the drivers there are renewables – you want to maximise renewables, maximise the benefits of renewables, you also want to provide reliability and resiliency. So when there are bush fires and you have a community that is connected via transmission lines, and the transmission lines go down due to a bush fire, those remote communities are still going to be able to have access to power through renewables and to seamlessly go from grid-connected to an off-grid mode because of the technology, the control technology, the storage technology, and be able to provide power to critical loads, because, that’s the other thing, you need to have a lot of intelligence in your microgrid so that you can ensure, if you are disconnected from the grid, you are able to run your critical load applications seamlessly.

Can you tell me more about your recent projects with Horizon Power and others?

The Horizon Power project you mentioned is actually MarbleBar and Nullagine. We’ve had several projects with them. One of them was the Marble Bar that I mentioned, which was a remote community that used diesel, solar and storage, that we enabled. The more recent ones that we’ve done over the last year have been the ones I mentioned for the utilities segment, for the electronet transmission system. That’s the ESCRI project, and also Woodside, that I mentioned. That’s for an oil and gas platform. I think the common element in all these applications was, whether they are grid-connected or off-grid, is the resilience and quite powerful and intelligent control technology, in addition to the storage technology powerstore battery energy systems that we have.

How do you see this sector developing over the next five years or so?

Having come from renewables, from solar specifically and having watched that market really explode and grow, I see the same thing happening here but honestly much faster. I think the drivers are stronger, there’s more awareness and more intention and drive towards decarbonisation, while, through the technology we have developed, you are also at the same time able to offer reliability and cost reduction. When you start combining these key elements, the deployment becomes more economically viable and much more attractive, so we see a rapid growth in this market, in general, both for grid connected and also off-grid applications for microgrid, as well as energy storage, in front of the meter and behind the meter, and we see that globally. In some markets, it will be faster than others, and the key enablers in addition to cost are going to be the policies that enable the deployment and also the sustainability targets are a driver as well.

We are seeing more of these natural disasters that are really having an impact on the electricity network. Microgrids really became quite popular and got on the map, as a mainstream topic, after Hurricane Sandy in the US. Even though we have been deploying microgrids for years, it’s became a mainstream topic after Hurricane Sandy. And now, you’re starting to see the fires in California, you see the bush fires that happen in Australia, so more and more, as we try to manage our electricity network and provide assets to power, with natural disasters. The other one is cyber-security. Critical load needs to ensure that they have sustainable and reliable power and they want to be able to disconnect from the network if need be. Another thing is the ageing electricity network, where the utilities can actually look at deferring capital costs by being able to leverage microgrid solutions, energy storage solutions and the control technology, to defer CAPEX and to still strengthen the network and to be able to support their customers. So the drivers, thirty years it was providing power for remote areas, for remote applications, for communities, industry and scientific sites etc, and being able to use renewables, that has really evolved, so now we have multiple drivers that are going to account for the exponential growth.

A lot of people might think that every microgrid application is different. I would say for ABB when you have done so many of them for so long, you start seeing the common denominators and have the experience to address different challenges and applications. I think that is one of the things that is going to be key, and also understanding the growth of the microgrid market, where we will see new applications, but the fundamentals continue to be the same. From that perspective, I would say ABB is  in a great position to address those new applications, because we have done quite a few , first-of-its-kind type applications successfully.

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