No decarbonisation without distribution

Every electron is needed and more…

There was so much to take away from the recent Energy Users Association of Australia (EUAA) conference in Melbourne.

The extraordinary work required to decarbonise sectors like aluminium and steel was not lost on anyone, and it was sobering.

But one thing was clear: if we’re serious about delivering the transition to the committed timeframes, we need to get moving.

And fast.

Hearing from those industries was eye-opening and underscored a central tenet running through the entire conference: none of this is easy. And it will take every part of the system working together to achieve goals of net zero.

And this includes our distribution networks, which are critical enabling platforms for energy decarbonisation.

Moderating a panel discussion at the event, Essential Energy Chief Executive Officer John Cleland said while rooftop solar was continuing to boom across local networks, there was a greater role for distribution to play in connecting new utility scale generation.

“Every electron is needed and more,” Mr Cleland said.

“To date, there has been a lot of discussion about replacing retiring generation with new transmission and renewables – and that’s absolutely appropriate.”

“But the distribution network’s role is going to also be critical, and we shouldn’t overlook the hosting capacity for potential generation on distribution networks.”

Mr Cleland noted that with the proliferation of rooftop solar PV, plus current utility generation, distribution networks were both generating and supplying power to customers at greater levels than ever before.

“Our consumption taken from the transmission network dropped 17 per cent, in a time when our overall consumption only decreased less than one per cent.”

“That shows the role that distribution networks are now playing in the energy system.”

Close to customers, close to generators

On the same panel, Endeavour Energy’s chief executive officer, Guy Chalkley, also noted the changing role for distribution, highlighting the advantages of proximity at both the supply and demand ends.

“Distribution was always at the end – now it’s at the start and the end,” Mr Chalkley said.

“It’s close to customers and its close to generation.”

Both Endeavour and Essential were at pains to point out they were in no way calling for distribution in any way to be prioritised over transmission, but just that there were options for generators to connect at distribution level too.

“There’s not one solution, there’s lots of solutions required,” Mr Chalkley said.

“You really need more of all of it.”

Connect smaller, connect faster?

It’s not the first time that distributors have called for a greater role in connecting new generation.

In 2021, Powercor proposed using its existing 66kV network to accommodate extra new renewable generation with faster connection times.

The proposal called for the use of big batteries and synchronous generators to augment the 66kV network, unlocking significant new generation in the existing network footprint – avoiding the need for new powerline easements.

Once again, the network stressed the idea would be to support and complement the required transmission network build-out – rather than a replacement or offset of any kind.

At the time, Powercor General Manager, Electricity Networks, Mark Clarke, said distribution networks should be considered as part of a whole-of-network solution to unlocking new renewable energy capacity in the shortest time possible.

“Connecting renewable energy at the distribution network level is fast, simple and generates greater benefits more broadly spread out at the local level,” Mr Clarke said.

Typically, distribution networks can entertain connections in the small to medium utility scale range, usually up to about 150MW depending on the voltage of the network.

It’s also been noted that comparatively smaller projects connected via the distribution network meant more projects could be built at the same time, leading to more jobs for regional areas.

What’s in a name?

It’s certainly not as catchy as ‘no transition without transmission’, but the boffins deep inside DNSPs have at least had a go at alliteration with ‘no decarbonisation without distribution’.

For what it’s worth, the catchcry was used as a panel topic at the 2022 All Energy Australia event, but insiders tell me that CitiPower Government Relations staffer, Harry Turner, is known to tell those who will listen he coined the phrase long before that event.

While the claim is doubtful, what’s not in doubt is the enormous role that distribution can play, alongside transmission, to connect the many megawatts of new generation we need to enable a successful energy transition.

As Essential’s John Cleland noted, “every electron is needed, and more.”

Jordan Oliver works in the Corporate Affairs team at CitiPower and Powercor, and has been on secondment to Energy Networks Australia.