Late last year, Hitachi ABB Power Grids donated its Microgrid Control Systems Testing Facility to Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, to form part of its Energy and Resources Institute, which seeks to develop world-class expertise in the energy and mining sectors. As universities around Australia prepare to return to learning in 2021, this microgrid simulator will become a hub for building capacity in the Northern Territory to understand, develop and run grids incorporating high proportions of renewable energy.
Since 2017, the Northern Territory Government has had a target to achieve 50% renewable generation of electricity by 2030, and in July last year it officially set a goal for net-zero emissions by 2050.
Although it faces similar challenges to other Australian states in terms of integrating large amounts of rooftop and large-scale solar into its electricity mix, the configuration of its power system is unique, fragmented into a large number of offgrid communities, many still powered mainly by diesel, and three main networks — the Darwin-Katherine Interconnected System, Alice Springs power system and the Tennant Creek power system.
“These are all very different to the National Electricity Market connected system, because they’re much smaller. We will get to 50%, but there’s an education process on how to make sure that it’s done in a safe reliable way,” says Juergen Zimmermann, Business Development and Technology Manager at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, who is also a long-time resident of the Northern Territory.
“The simulation facility can build confidence and ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction,” he tells pv magazine Australia.
Envisaged by Hitachi ABB Power Grids as a power-control simulator to enable scenario testing without transporting potentially unsuitable equipment to remote locations, the facility has also helped to integrate increasing amounts of solar energy into NT grids; and has been used to model seamless transition to localised supply when power systems are either overloaded or sections of the grid become disconnected due to weather events such as lightning strikes.
The Microgrid Control Systems Testing Facility combines Hitachi ABB software and equipment with the products of other manufacturers. It includes a generator simulator comprising various units; a feeder (or transmission line) simulator; solar and wind farm simulators; a grid-support simulator; an active real and reactive load simulator; a SCADA system and remote access simulation.
These various components can be scaled and configured to best match the microgrid being tested.
Flying more confidently into the sunlight
“It’s like a flight simulator, where you sit at the same controls as a real life system. The equipment behaves just as it would in reality,” says Zimmermann.
Director of the Energy and Resources Institute (ERI), Professor Suresh Thennadil, said at the handover of the simulator that, “The research at the ERI using the facility will be highly relevant not only to the NT, particularly remote areas where there are multiple energy inputs, but also for other parts of Australia and the world.”
Zimmermann describes remote communities as low-hanging fruit on the road to decarbonisation of the Northern Territory.
In April 2019, the Territory Labor government announced completion of its Solar Energy Transformation Program (SETuP) which deployed 10 MW of PV capacity across 25 individual sites that had existing diesel power stations, to reduce the use of diesel at those sites by 15%.
“To encourage more distributed PV take up in remote and indigenous communities requires a greater awareness of what can be done, and how it can be done with local capacity building,” says Zimmermann.
He adds, “These systems are complex, and someone has to maintain them. It’s great to have local people who can do this.”
Developing awareness across faculties, industries and portfolios
Handing the facility over to CDU also has the benefit of drawing engineers, data scientists, city planners and researchers from other faculties into exploring renewable possibilities.
For example, says Zimmermann, the opening of the microgrid simulator as part of the university attracted a transport expert interested in introducing electric buses — “He asked me how you set up the charging network”; a hydrogen proponent from the government who wants to deploy hydrogen in remote communities and asked about integrating it as a green power source.
He says, that engineers working in power systems, don’t realise what other key players don’t know, and opening a facility such as the simulator for more general use brings a broader range of aspirations into play.
To help the university’s power systems experts become familiar with how to operate their new asset — “how to make changes to software, test out new algorithms, configure the system for different types of microgrids and so on”, says Zimmermann — Hitachi ABB has signed a two-year support agreement with CDU.
Zimmermann hopes to also continue to spread awareness among government ministers from different portfolios about what’s possible in the grid space.
Hitachi-ABB will still use the simulator on occasion, booking time from the Energy and Resources Institute in order to test microgrid configurations designed, for instance, to bring low-emissions power to mining operations that have principally relied on gas-fired and diesel-fuelled generation.
Mining companies are now rapidly adopting renewable generation, observes Zimmermann: “FMG and Rio Tinto are becoming leaders in this space by challenging themselves on how they do things. It’s very encouraging to see them getting on top of deploying renewables for good reasons — because it makes sense economically and from a customer point of view.”
But he says, the question remains how quickly the Northern Territory on the whole can transition, how many different energy sources, stabilisers and storage capabilities need to be deployed, and in what combination.
The Clean Energy Council’s Clean Energy Report 2020 calculated Northern Territory renewable generation at 8% of its requirements at the end of 2019; the government itself anticipated reaching 16% penetration of renewables by the end of 2021.
Zimmermann looks forward to collaborations on the simulator that will utilise a wide range of ideas and knowledge to create electricity systems that are optimised for lowest emissions and greatest reliability on the way to net zero emissions.
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