Home Energy system Switch off: the risk for the deployment of a clean energy network

Switch off: the risk for the deployment of a clean energy network


A national clean energy grid will require 10,000 kilometers of new high voltage transmission lines and towers. Regional and farming communities along the roads will need to be on board for this to happen, but there is already a pushback, as Asma Aziz and Iftekhar Ahmad Explain.

If you’re driving through central Victoria, you might wonder at the signs that say ‘Piss off AusNet’ in shop windows or even mowed down in the grasslands. Communities and farmers are repulsive against plans for new 85-meter towers and transmission lines needed to bring renewable energy to cities.

Expect to see many more of these stories in the years to come. To decarbonize by 2050, we need to build more than 10,000 kilometers of new high-voltage transmission lines to carry renewable energy. That’s according to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s new plan for the energy system, to which Labor pledged ahead of the election.

But local opposition could derail this – even though the influential National Farmers Federation has supported the plan. The plan recognizes this: “As the pace and scale of transformation continues to accelerate…social acceptance will require urgent and continued attention. »

Why do we need more transmission lines?

High voltage transmission lines can deliver electricity economically and efficiently over longer distances. For decades, we have used these transmission lines to balance electricity demand and generation.

Australia’s National Electricity Market is one of the longest interconnected electricity systems in the world, capable of moving electricity between the east coast states, Tasmania and South Australia.

To increase our renewable electricity base, governments have introduced renewable energy zones – our sunniest and windiest places – to encourage investment. But these areas are often far from energy-intensive cities. This is where transmission lines come in.

Building more high-voltage lines will allow us to make the future network more resilient, allowing electricity to be brought in from other areas if an area is not producing as much, or to be exported in the event of a peak in production. This is a key way to solve the problem of intermittency with renewable energy. If the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing in an area, we can draw energy from the places where it is.

solar farm
Solar and wind farms need grid connections – and that means new power lines.
Zbynek Burial/UnsplashCC BY

Are there alternatives?

As battery technology and other methods of storing electricity improve, it may be possible to increase storage methods rather than relying on large new transmission links.

Vast and sparsely populated Western Australia leads the way on this front. To reduce transmission costs, the state has deployed more than 100 stand-alone power systems that combine renewable energy and storage. Over the next 10 years, WA expects another 4,000.

This model shows us what might be possible for sections of the East Coast network. We could see a decentralized power system, in which local renewable energy is produced and stored locally in stand-alone power systems or micro-grids. Cities like Yackandandah in Victoria are pioneering this local-first approach.

We could postpone or scale down these massive transmission network projects and make the most of our existing transmission lines by strategically deploying virtual transmission capacity. This means setting up battery storage or a small pumped hydro plant, reducing the need to source electricity from distant sources while maintaining the balance between supply and demand.

There is still a lot of work to be done on this front before virtual transmission can begin to reduce the amount of new transmission infrastructure we will need. Early virtual transmission projects like Kennedy Energy Park showed us that we need a better technical understanding of how they work best, as well as updated regulations.

Utilities like Powerlink Queensland are exploring alternatives such as duplicating existing transmission lines or planning lines for areas already under development, such as along highways or forest tracks.

Community advocates worried about the visual and physical impact of new transmission lines often advocate for cables to run underground.

It is possible, but may be more expensive. To bury these high-voltage lines safely, trenches 2 to 3 meters deep are needed, dug in parallel, with control bays every 800 to 1,000 meters. Compared to transmission towers, this actually results in a higher direct impact on the terrain.

Not only that, but you can’t allow deep-rooted trees and shrubs in the easement, which means upkeep. If there is a fault, the affected ground must be dug up. Major bushfires can also transmit significant heat through the ground to cables, so this needs to be taken into account.

Does this exclude underground transmission lines? Not entirely. In fact, in some cases it could be profitable, as the proposed Star of the South offshore wind project demonstrates.

Burying electrical cables can be cost effective for some projects, but this is a case-by-case approach.

Could community opposition slow the shift to clean energy?

It is a risk. Efforts to remove emitting sources of electricity from our grid will face a real bottleneck based on the social acceptance of new high-voltage transmission lines.

Even though 83% of us now recognize climate change as a threat, people may change their minds when clean energy solutions are offered close to home. This isn’t new – the “not in my backyard” problem is well known.

So how do we deal with rejection from the community? First, we must recognize that these transmission lines are an imposition. They have a significant footprint on their land corridors, in the form of tall towers, conductors, and the need for access.

Local landowners, neighbors and the wider community often perceive these types of developments – whatever the need – as a symbolic intrusion into their personal property.

Victorian farmers and residents are protesting the AusNet project, believing the new infrastructure will lead to loss of control over their land, an uglier landscape and possible restrictions on farming practices such as irrigation. Their concerns are legitimate. But the need is also great, and time is limited.

We know what’s wrong with these settings. The traditional approach for large pieces of infrastructure has been dubbed decide, announce and defend. It would be a mistake.

Instead, utilities and planners should focus on open community discussions about the environmental impact of proposed overhead transmission lines versus the costs and impacts of underground cabling, as well as virtual site tours. By clearly exposing the problem to the public, utilities have a better chance of gaining social license – community permission – to build the infrastructure we will need.

Asma Aziz, Lecturer in Electrical Engineering, Edith Cowan University and Iftekhar Ahmad, Associate Professor, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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