Australia's main grid is being exposed by technology and you can see its obsolete bits hanging out
Murray Hogarth: Opinion
Australia's National Electricity Market (NEM) is an energy emperor with no clothes when it comes to the three big D's of an emerging new grid reality - digital, data and distributed.
For evidence look no further than the traditional way the NEM portrays itself (see image to the left), and also this baffling historical fact: the key requirements for how electricity is measured for trade and billing purposes, embedded in the role of the National Measurement Institute (NMI), were framed in the 1950s and written into legislation in 1960. It was before the digital era, much less the internet one, but those rules continue to apply over half a century later.
The NEM, in its day, was a modern engineering triumph. Its achievement measured by the 45,000 megawatts (MW) of its mainly coal-fired, pollution-belching centralised power stations; the dizzying heights of its transmission towers marching for 40,000km across the landscape; and the 9 million customers in homes and businesses reached by its poles, wires and utility meters.
But that was then, when energy was a commodity, and this is now - 2016, the latter half of the second decade of the 21st century - when energy is becoming a service and new clean, distributed energy generation and storage technologies are converging with information and communications technologies.
The next grid will be a myriad of micro-grids with millions of generation points, millions of storage points and millions of consumption points. Instead of real power on the grid starting with giant 1000MW and 2000MW coal-burning power stations, it is shifting to tiny little sensors that will monitor the energy flows in real-time on every significant circuit and remotely-controlled switches that can steer those energy flows to wherever they need to go.
The brains for all this will be in the Cloud, not in the operations room, as the Internet of Things (IoT) comes to the energy sector.
The NEM remains spectacularly ill-prepared for all of this. The blame for this doesn't lie with any one or another of its main entities: the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and its Standing Council on Energy and Resources (SCER); all of the numerous state, territory and federal Energy Ministers; the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC); the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO); the Australian Energy Regulator (AER); and more.
Rather, the fault rests with all of them, the entire technologically outdated edifice, which is no longer fit for purpose, and may well be incapable of adapting. (To paraphrase, Einstein's definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same thing and expecting a a different result; while communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan warned against trying to solve tomorrow's challenges with yesterday's solutions, and also observed that 'we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us'.)
Technology-driven change is brutally Darwinian. If something isn't adaptable in the new, digitally-augmented operating environment, it won't survive. This is just as true for energy as it has been for other major sectors, such as telecommunications and the print media. There's no point in being sentimental about it. Nor will any amount of wishing it were otherwise matter.
Over the weeks and months ahead, the Wattwatchers blog will be drilling down on just how naked the NEM is on those 3 D's - digital, data and distributed. Next, the self-defeating folly of continuing to see the future of metering - and the NEM's cherished theme of 'power of choice' for consumers - through the prism of utility-style (so-called) 'smart meters'. These devices will come to be seen for what they are - half-smart artifacts from a now defunct, far less disruptive technological era when life-cycles of 15 or 20 years at a time for mass equipment roll-outs were still a plausible proposition. That was then, this is now.
*Murray Hogarth is Director of Communications and Community Networks for Sydney-based energy technology company Wattwatchers, which provides Internet of Things monitoring, communications and control solutions for energy. He is a long-time adviser and commentator on climate, energy and sustainability.