Unlocking Australia’s Green Future: The Critical Role of New Grid Technology

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Exploring hardware and software technology that can unlock existing grid capacity and accelerate the deployment of new transmission lines essential for the energy transition.

Australia stands on the cusp of an energy revolution. With its vast renewable resources, from wind-swept plains to the sun-drenched outback, Australia is poised to pivot from fossil fuels to a future powered by renewable energy. Cheap, clean energy has the potential to unlock Australia’s economic future and its ambition to become a global green superpower.

Yet, the bridge between potential and realisation is made of infrastructure — specifically, electricity transmission lines. These lines are the arteries of the grid, essential for distributing generated power to where it’s needed. However, the grid needs to be expanded to allow for new renewable generation and new demand. The expansion of this grid is hampered by the slow and complex process of building new transmission lines, fraught with planning, approvals, and licensing challenges. Addressing these hurdles is essential, but there’s also immense value and short-term wins in optimising our existing grid infrastructure. Both innovative hardware and software solutions are necessary to optimise our grid for the renewable era, structured around two critical areas;

· unlocking the potential of the existing grid, and

· facilitating the rapid rollout of new grid infrastructure.

Before diving into the solutions that can enhance both existing and future grid infrastructure, it’s worth understanding the underlying issues that have constrained our grid’s efficiency and capacity.

How did we get here?

The Australian grid, like many around the world, was built for a different era for a different purpose. Designed to accommodate a centralised system of power generation, primarily from Australia’s abundant fossil fuels. It now faces the challenge of adapting to the decentralised and variable nature of renewable energy sources. In order to address this AEMO estimates we are going to need at least 10,000km of new transmission lines (Australia currently has approximately 40,000km of transmissions lines).

Unfortunately deploying new transmission lines is a complex and challenging process which currently takes years. These issues are across technical, environmental, regulatory, and social aspects. Understanding these challenges is crucial for stakeholders looking to expand grid infrastructure to accommodate renewable energy sources and improve overall grid reliability.

Technical and Logistical Challenges: First, right-of-way acquisition requires securing land or easements, a process fraught with negotiations with landowners, which can be both time-consuming and costly. This issue is often intertwined with social challenges, as it involves community engagement and managing public opposition (see below). Engineering challenges also loom large, in Australia, where the optimal renewable resources and load centres are frequently separated by vast distances, including rugged or remote terrain. These geographical realities add layers of complexity and expense to transmission projects. Additionally, supply chain and workforce limitations present further hurdles, with potential shortages in critical materials, such as transformers, and skilled labour, especially pronounced in less accessible regions.

Environmental issues: Transmission line projects must undergo thorough environmental impact assessments to evaluate their effects on local ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and protected areas. This is exacerbated when projects intersect with conservation areas or regions of high biodiversity.

Regulatory and Permitting Hurdles: The permitting process is intricate and time-consuming, involving a multitude of agencies (local, state and federal) each with their own specific requirements. This complexity is further magnified for interstate projects, where the need to coordinate and comply with the regulations of multiple jurisdictions.

Social and Political Factors: Locally, transmission projects often face opposition from communities and landowners concerned about visual impacts, property values, and (unproven) health risks. Gaining social license to operate requires extensive community engagement well in advance of project approval. Political support is also crucial for securing necessary approvals and funding.

Financial Issues: Transmission projects are capital-intensive, requiring significant upfront investment. Securing financing can be challenging, especially in regulatory environments where cost recovery mechanisms are uncertain.

Given the near-term supply issues (many existing fossil fuel power stations are at their end of life) and load growth (electrification and AI / data centres), we are not going to be able to wait for new transmission lines to be built. Fortunately, there is significant capacity in the existing grid infrastructure that could be unlocked relatively quickly.

Several other factors contribute to the existing grid’s untapped potential:

Aging and Underinvested Infrastructure: Much of the Australian transmission system was built in the latter half of the 20th Century. Further years of underinvestment due to uncertain energy policy have left parts of the grid outdated, with some components no longer fit for the demands of modern electricity usage, let alone the future needs of renewable integration.

Lack of Communication and Transparency: The aged grid management systems often operate with limited visibility into real-time grid conditions. This lack of transparency means that operators are unaware of the actual capacity available at any given moment, leading to conservative estimates that underutilize the grid’s true potential.

Safety Buffers: Due to these information gaps, grid operators and regulators have erred on the side of caution, imposing safety buffers to reduce the risk of extreme events eg fire. These safety buffers significantly reduce the amount of power transmission lines are allowed to handle. These buffers, while essential to protect the system, public, and environment, frequently result in significant underutilisation of existing infrastructure.

Firstly, let’s look at the potential solutions to access existing capacity within our current infrastructure.

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Quick wins — Unlocking the Potential of the Existing Grid

Hardware Innovations

Dynamic Line Rating (DLR): Technologies developed by companies such as InfraVision and Linevision are leading hardware innovation in DLR. By continuously monitoring the actual capacity of transmission lines in real-time — factoring in environmental conditions such as temperature and wind — DLR allows for a more flexible and efficient use of existing infrastructure. This can lead to significant increases in transmission capacity without the physical and financial burdens of constructing new lines. A 2024 study by RMI, looking at just one electricity market in the US (PJM), found that grid-enhancing technologies such as DLR could help connect 6.6 GW of new renewable generation by 2027, rather than needing to build new transmission lines, likely to take over a decade and saving over $1billion a year.

Reconductoring: Upgrading existing lines with high-capacity, low-loss conductors is another effective strategy that avoids long planning, approval delays and high costs. Reconductering avoids the need to build new towers but utilising existing steel structures and easements. TS Conductors has been pioneering in this field, producing conductors that can carry more current with less energy loss (up to 50%). TS Conductors use carbon fibre (instead of steel) which, as well as being lighter, is more a conductive material and importantly it also contracts rather than expands when heated removing the issue of line sag further improving the line efficiency.

Software Solutions:

Smart Mapping and Analysis: Better mapping and analysis of our existing grid infrastructure is essential to unlock its capacity. Neara’s cutting-edge software provides detailed digital twins of grid infrastructure, enabling utilities to simulate and analyse various scenarios. This smart mapping technology enhances decision-making regarding maintenance, upgrades, and capacity management, ensuring the grid can adapt to the dynamic demands of renewable energy integration.

Topology Optimisation and Orchestration Platforms: Software platforms that analyse grid data to identify bottlenecks and optimise power flow can significantly enhance the existing grid’s efficiency. These systems use advanced algorithms to manage congestion and ensure that renewable energy can be distributed effectively across the network, mitigating the need for immediate physical expansions. NewGrid has developed a topology optimisation software designed to help operators minimise transmission congestion by providing real time insights. The software has demonstrated a 5–10% increase in capacity during peak congestion times. Camus Energy is a grid orchestration platform, which enables electric utility operators and planners to both monitor the grid and harness the latent flexibility of electrified devices including EVs, batteries, solar inverters and smart thermostats, to actively manage distribution grid capacity and load management.

Unlocking existing capacity is the key to maintaining momentum and more rapidly connecting some of the large pipeline of renewables projects currently waiting for interconnection. Australia has c200 GW (up 25 fold in two years) in the interconnection backlog and the US has a staggering 2,600 GW of generation and storage capacity now actively seeking grid interconnection (over twice the current installed capacity). The below chart is data from 2022 so demonstrates the increase in queues even in a short time.

Given the size of the transition and rising energy demand, there is a significant need for new transmission and distribution infrastructure but fortunately there are ways to do this more rapidly and cost efficiently.

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Accelerating the Deployment of New Grid Infrastructure essential

Hardware Solutions

Scalable Infrastructure and Deployment Tech: Innovations focusing on modularity and scalability, can dramatically speed up the deployment of new grid infrastructure. For example prefabricated substation units can be deployed more quickly than traditional substations, reducing lead times and enabling faster integration of renewable energy sources. InfraVision uses drones rather than helicopters to string new lines which significantly reduces time, costs and carbon emissions.

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Source: Infravision

High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) Lines: HVDC have been around for decades but there have been recent developments which have greatly improved the efficiency, lifespan and reliability. Optimal renewable resource locations are often a long way from demand centres (ie inland or offshore) so there is an increase demand for solutions to move the power to where it is needed. HVDC technology offers an efficient way to transmit electricity over long distances with minimal losses. The development and deployment of HVDC lines can be expedited with advanced manufacturing techniques and streamlined planning processes. Examples of recently announced large HVDC projects include; Xlinks is planning to build a 3,800 km HVDC transmission line, the longest subsea power transmission link in the world, connect a 10GW renewable project in Morocco to demand in the UK. Suncable’s AAPowerLink is planning a similar project connecting a 6GW renewable zone in the Northern Territory via 800km of overhead transmission to the Darwin region and then on to Singapore via 4,300km of subsea cables. The technology and economics of these projects remain uncertain.

Software Solutions

Digital Permitting and Planning Tools: Leveraging software to streamline the permitting and planning processes is crucial for accelerating the deployment of new transmission lines. Digital tools can facilitate more efficient stakeholder engagement, environmental assessments, and regulatory compliance, cutting down the lengthy timelines traditionally associated with grid expansion projects. Pearl Street’s software offerings equip grid operators, utilities and project developers with the tools needed to navigate through the challenges of interconnection bottlenecks effectively. Neara offers a solution for anticipating the needs of new grid infrastructure through a 3D visualization platform. Gridmo has created a standardised software solution to complete grid connection studies which significantly reduces to time and cost for new generation projects to apply for a grid connection.

AI-Powered Grid Asset Management and Risk assessment: Artificial intelligence (AI) can optimise asset management across grid infrastructure. By predicting potential risk and outages, optimising resource allocation, and automating routine tasks, AI can ensure that new transmission projects are managed more efficiently. Cosmo Tech provides tools for simulating and managing the lifecycle of assets, helping operators and utilities gain insights into when replacements might be necessary. Overstory leverages machine learning techniques on satellite images to detect potential threats posed by surrounding vegetation.

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Australia’s grid infrastructure transformation is key to the renewable energy shift, presenting a major opportunity for the country. This shift offers a chance to overhaul Australia’s economy by leveraging its abundant renewable resources to unlock the benefits of affordable, clean energy. With this potential, Australia could move from exporting raw materials and emissions to becoming an exporter of green energy, most likely through products made using this clean power.

All the elements — technology, funding, corporate engagement, and government policy — are coming together to unlock this transition.

There is existing technology available today as mentioned throughout this article, and, encouragingly, we are seeing exciting new technologies weekly.

Corporate and utility engagement has evolved from mere discussions and interest in new technology to actively delivering large scale projects and scaling solutions.

Australia is now seeing new supportive policies (like the federal Rewiring the Nation and the Capacity Investment Scheme and state programs like Renewable Energy Zones) which are helping to finally provide the certainty needed to make long term investment decisions on large infrastructure projects and help accelerate private investment which has been lacking for the last decade.

As we unlock the full capabilities of our grid, we are not only securing a sustainable energy future but also repositioning Australia as a global leader in green energy, poised to export not just resources, but high-value, low-emission innovation.

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