Digital Down Under: The great transformer

Audrey Zibelman is in charge of making Australia’s energy market fit for the future. The Chief Executive Officer of Australia’s Energy Market Operator (AEMO) says digitalization is the key for a massive national transformation. 


by Garry Barker

In Australia, like elsewhere in the world, power production has drastically changed. Today, more than 16 percent of Australia’s energy comes from renewable sources like wind and solar, with another 20 gigawatts waiting to be integrated into a national grid that has a 53-gigawatt capacity. Coal generation will eventually retire with plants reaching the end of their technical lives. So, where do the “big trucks” of energy come from when the weather can’t carry the load? It’s the main question Audrey Zibelman, who made herself a name as a transformer when heading the New York State Public Service Commission, is concerned with. And she already has the answers.

An integrated system

“As the system has more and more renewables, you’re really looking for resources that are flexible," the now CEO of AEMO knows. Ms. Zibelman sees the country down under as well positioned for the future. “The opportunity for pumped hydro and hydro resources here is very significant. And certainly batteries are going to be very important for us.” The world’s largest lithium-ion battery just went live in South Australia about half a year ago. In the medium and long run, Zibelman sees sector coupling as another option which will offer new business opportunities on the energy market.

We’ve seen solar and wind increase in the last ten years by 300 to 400 percent. It’s huge.
CEO of Australia’s Energy Market Operator (AEMO)

“More and more people are looking at hydrogen and how that could be part of the energy equation going forward. So, there are lots of other resources – gas could be a resource. We at AEMO certainly don’t write off any technology.” For Zibelman, it is all about optimizing resources economically. “So we’re looking at what to bring to the energy mix and to integrate solar, wind and storage into our system.”


Zibelman also takes into account Australia’s geographic diversity, making sure that energy can be delivered to consumers at the lowest possible cost. Microgrids are part of this scenario. “Compared to other OECD countries, we have an opportunity to look at remote communities and create these micro- grids, so that rather than having to import, they can use localized resources. The other aspect that we’re seeing is a lot of work in virtual power generation where you have the ability to aggregate many resources collectively at a local level and not necessarily disconnect from the grid, but, like a microgrid, use those resources to basically meet local needs in an efficient way.”


Last but not least, Zibelman sees blockchain companies looking at how to create platforms, so that diverse owners can work together. “I think that all of these things will be part of our power future.” And how fast are those changes going to happen? “Very quickly. I think the opportunity is to make sure that we are ready for it,” she says. “We’ve seen solar and wind increase in the last ten years by 300 to 400 percent. It’s huge. I expect the change here is going to also occur at that rapid rate. Wind and solar are getting cheaper, storage is getting cheaper and demographics are changing too.”

Knowing where and when

Prosumers are independently making electricity from the sun, storing it in domestic batteries, but also sending their excess to the national network. How does AEMO know what’s going in? “We work with regulators to make sure that we have visibility of what’s happening at the local level,” Ms. Zibelman says. “When renewables, particularly rooftop solar, represented 2 to 3 percent of the mix or even 10 percent, not knowing where they were didn’t matter. But when they become 20 to 30 percent and when cloud cover can create an abrupt change in what is available or what you have to make available, it’s very significant.”

The prerequisite for the kind of visibility Zibelman needs is a fully digitalized grid, with data being as important a fuel as wind and sun. A complete digital transformation will bring massive improvements in a number of areas as well. For example, synthetic inertia in wind turbines is an issue that Zibelman cares about in order to stabilize the grid. It means to reprogram power inverters attached to wind turbines so that they emulate the behavior of synchronized spinning masses in conventional power plants. Renewable generators thus transform from potential liabilities into substantial contributors to power grid stability instead.


The role of the prosumers is one Zibelman is watching closely. Take the prospect of electric autonomous cars, buses and trucks, plus greater use of computing power and big data centers. Buildings, appliances, motors and so on are becoming more efficient. “We’re not seeing the increase in demand that historically we’ve seen as populations grew, but that’s just because we’re more efficient as users. People in their 30s and 40s making decisions about their homes are now more technology savvy.” Developments that are changing the world of energy, in Australia as elsewhere in the world, are creating a future with plenty of new business models that can make use of a fully digitalized electrical power system.

“One big machine”

That, plus efficiency, is also reached through the Internet of Things spreading through Australia’s soon to be fully digitalized grid. “Home energy hubs and things like the Nest thermostat, as well as other smart devices suggest that metering might not be needed to participate in a system at the residential level,” Zibelman says. “Clearly, technology is moving very quickly with the ability to use big data.” Zibelman says she recognizes that there is a huge opportunity to use embedded resources both at homes and businesses to make the whole system more productive.


“I think of it as one big machine that AEMO is optimizing – the technology is already here. What we need to do is make sure that the regulatory systems and the market systems are providing the right opportunity for the market to be able to achieve what we want, which is a highly productive network that uses resources both behind and in front of the meter.” This means the nature of the system will eventually be changed on a day-to-day basis. “So, rather than demand just being passive, it becomes an active part of the entire network through aggregators and simplicity. The end result is a more productive system, just like we see with the Internet where people are able to use information and create a lot of value.”

Garry Barker is technology editor for The Age, and a long-time contributor to Australia’s Herald and Weekly Times Ltd.

Picture credits: Abigail Varney

Audrey Zibelman’s extraordinary career in the US public service, on company boards, for international energy organizations and now as Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has spanned more than 30 years. Along the way she was an executive with a number of companies involved with transmission and planning, energy market trading, risk management, fuel procurement and renewable energy development.


Zibelman was Commissioner and Chair of the New York State Public Service Commission, General Counsel of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission and testified before Congress and federal and state agencies on the benefits of power markets and smart grids. In 2008, she founded and was Chief Executive Officer of Viridity Energy, a company providing demand response, demand management and battery storage solutions. Since 2017, she has been Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of AEMO.

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