Transmission Could Deliver a Clean Energy Future if the Right Solutions were Deployed

Transmission Delivers a Clean Energy Future

An open letter to Australia this week, undersigned by Energy Networks Australia, TasNetworks, Transgrid and AusNet Services, is addressed to 'Australia' and is clearly aimed at gaining national support for the construction of overhead high voltage transmission infrastructure.

View the letter to Australia

As seen in The Age & Sydney Morning Herald 27/10/2021

The letter opens with...

"Our electricity system is transforming at a rapid rate as more Australians want their power from clean and green sources."

This is true, we are on the brink of a massive energy market transformation with the construction of new wind, solar, hydro and a range of storage projects across the nation. Renewable energy sources are often called ‘green’ and 'clean' because they generate energy without releasing carbon emissions, which is better for the environment than traditional fuel sources. I don't want to open the debate about how 'green' or 'clean' renewable energy really is given the extraction of metals/minerals, processing, manufacture, transportation, construction, maintenance and lifespan of some solutions. So how about we just call these sources 'Renewable' or 'cleaner' and 'greener' than fossil fuels.

The letter then goes on to say...

"We're investing in transmission network upgrades such as interconnectors to support the connection of new wind, solar and pumped hydro generation and other smart storage solutions to meet this growing demand."

Fair enough, makes sense. The need for a reliable, resilient, secure, robust and efficient transmission network will be required to transfer energy generated in often remote renewable energy zones to the countries power grid is recognised. The use of the term upgrades however can be a bit misleading. Australia is going to have to build a substantial volume of 'new transmission infrastructure', if vast quantities of wind and solar are to successfully replace coal and gas fired power stations. That is a given, and is outlined neatly in the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan. So be careful not to be misled into thinking these are minor upgrades. Most transmission lines will be hundreds of kilometres long.

Environmental and social factors in big and pivotal development projects like these are deeply intertwined. As such, it is fundamental the impacts on environment and community be considered as part of the planning process. Not simply state that the demand is there so new transmission networks are required.

For the chief executive of Citipower and Powercor, Tim Rourke, this is something that needs to be addressed. Rourke says there will be a need for some transmission builds to assist larger solar and wind farms that are coming online, but “we need to carefully balance that by making sure we’re maximising the infrastructure we’ve got in place from a cost perspective for customers, because once you build that, it’s there for a long time”.

“Secondly, we need to make sure it’s what customers want. It’s all well and good to say we can do it, but we don’t want the backlash that we’re seeing where customers don’t want transmission built through pristine farming areas."

So, while there will be a need for new transmission lines, we need to build the bare minimum, augment the existing assets as well as squeeze the last bit of capacity out them. Not only does this keep costs down, but it speeds up the time for renewable connections.

Interesting comments. Could existing transmission networks and corridors be utilised? Who'd of thought? International best planning practices seem to indicate this is the case with many countries choosing to utilise existing rights-of-way and undergrounding high voltage direct current (HVDC) networks. If you don't think this is a feasible solution, check out SOO Green, an innovative 350-mile project in the US that will use state-of-the-art 525KV class underground cable and existing rights-of-way for the very reasons Tim Rourke mentions above.

The letter then continues with...

"Our projects will modernise and secure Australia's electricity grid, enabling the transition to a clean energy future and powering new exciting industries."

Modern! Well, that's a big call.  I very much doubt than many Australians would refer to 70-80m high steel lattice transmission towers and a high voltage alternating current (HVAC) solution as modern. But that's all we have available right? Yeah, well, not quite.

Around 50 years ago, high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission entered the market. With the changes in demands due to evolving environmental needs, HVDC has become a common tool in the design of future global transmission grids. Key factors for this have been the recent developments within HVDC, with the step-up in voltage to 800 kV as well as the VSC technology.

By using HVDC, transmission grids can be optimised and controlled to support the introduction of renewable generation into the grid. Far more efficiently and environmentally sensitive than HVAC ever will.

HVDC transmission lines are more efficient for transferring power over long distances, as they incur less power loss (around 50% less) when compared with their equivalent HVAC transmission systems. There is no requirement for compensating reactive power along the transmission line, and higher efficiency translates into reduced transmission expenses to bolster the economic competitiveness of renewable energy sources in the electricity market. HVDC transmission systems also increase the stability of the power system, permit complete regulation of power flow and enable renewable power resource integration.

As concluded by the Victoria Energy Policy Centre, undergrounding is the most obvious and effective solution. Whilst the initial capital cost will be higher, there are many offsetting benefits including higher reliability, no exposure to weather events, no sparking of bushfires, lower operating cost, far less environmental impact and much less local opposition. Quelling public opposition is itself a significant ‘cost saving’.

It's seriously time to modernise Australia's network.

The letter then continues with...

"Across the transmission network, we will collectively cut hundreds or millions of tonnes of carbon emissions by 2050 with major electricity transmission infrastructure projects in development in all eastern Australia states."

This is a broad and impressive claim and is certain to have all Australians applauding. That is until you realise that the construction of overhead HVAC transmission infrastructure does nothing to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, with the losses associated with HVAC transmission, more power actually needs to be generated than what is being used. Without shutting down the coal-fired power plants, major electricity transmission infrastructure projects do nothing to help at all. Losses are a big deal with HVAC. Due to the very nature and location of most renewable energy sources, HVAC is often impossible or too expensive to operate due to unacceptable transmission losses compared to the minimal losses of HVDC.

Losses aren't the only carbon emission consideration, let’s take a quick look at material use and environmental impact of HVAC compared to HVDC.

The material intensity of an HVAC overhead line is higher than a HVDC cable. The statistical material use per meter of transmission is compared here.

Using lifecycle assessment (LCA) to analyse the 'cradle to grave' material impact, the HVDC Light cable has an environmental impact of 64.5kg of CO2 - equivalents per meter and the HVAC OHL has an impact of 365.4 kg of CO2 - equivalents per meter.

The material used in the HVDC cable has only 17.6 percent the environmental impact of the HVAC OHL.

So, in response to the claim that major electricity transmission infrastructure projects are reducing carbon emissions, it's the guy flicking the switch to turn off coal-fired plants and the companies building wind and solar generators that are contributing to this, not the organisations building overhead lines.

The letter then continues with...

"We are committed to ensuring the benefits of our transmission developments are shared with local communities and landowners across the country"

I've been thinking about this for some time now. What are the benefits of large-scale transmission passing through regional communities that do not serve to benefit from the electricity being transported? How are these organisations committed to sharing benefits with local communities and landowners? Sure, some of landowners will receive some form of financial compensation for easements passing through their land but this is a one-off payment that will compensate for land use and financial disbenefits to business operations. Will this compensation ever be enough? How much would you be happy to accept for an 80m high steel lattice tower in your back yard?

There is no compensation for neighbouring properties or for the visual impact of transmission infrastructure. When you start investigating, the economic disbenefits are quite alarming, yet they are not considered in the corridor selection process known as the regulatory investment test for transmission (RIT-T). In fact, socioeconomic and environmental disbenefits are not allowed to be considered. Go figure!

Check out some of the likely economic impacts we uncovered in relation to the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project (WVTNP)

So, what benefits do local communities and those on neighbouring properties receive? Well, that is yet to be determined as currently there is no policy or framework around this. In our discussions with network planners so far, community benefits are likely to be in the form of financial assistance to local not-for-profit organisations. So those who are expected to carry the burden of overhead transmission lines, are not likely to benefit at all.

These is something fundamentally wrong with this.

The letter closes with...

"By working together we can fight climate change, grow our economy, create thousands of jobs and put downward pressure on electricity prices."

I've gotta say, that sounds amazing. Talk about solving wold peace by building overhead transmission lines and steel lattice towers. I am impressed. Who wouldn't be right? So how do we best address these topics raised?

  • Our fight against climate change requires that we investigate and deploy any opportunity that helps reduce carbon emissions. HVDC for electricity transmission seems the obvious choice there.
  • Next, we look at socioeconomic and environmental aspects, underground HVDC seems like the obvious choice there too.
  • Jobs will be created with any infrastructure project, there's no argument there. Jobs will come with both overhead and underground transmission, with overhead possibly providing more, who knows. We all know the government likes to value a projects worth by the volume of jobs created. It's important to remember that these jobs will mostly be temporary during construction so take that for what it's worth.

Now to the interesting part, 'put downward pressure on electricity prices'. Most of us have been hearing for years that renewable energy will provide energy consumers with cheaper power. This is a fantastic claim. As we are all keen to reduce our out-of-pocket expenses, it brought most Aussies on board for the renewable energy transition. But it is true? Not according to the reports so far, it is all looking like marketing spin.

A recent report by the Victoria Energy Policy Centre titled 'A review of the HumeLink Project Assessment Conclusions Report' shines a spotlight on the realities.

The report, that should concern governments, consumers and the energy sector, highlights a 250% blowout in estimated cost from $1.3bn to $3.3bn, the resulting 40% increase in NSW transmission tariffs, the net loss that will be incurred by the project (exceeding $4bn), and the refusal of Snowy Hydro to pay its fair share of connecting Snowy 2.0 to the grid. There is such a high degree of cost uncertainty (-30%/+50%) that it is very likely HumeLink’s cost will end up somewhere between $2.3bn and $5.0bn – Yep, that's a staggering $2.7bn range!

In a recent article on Renew Economy, The authors of this report also state; "with all eastern states embarking on multiple transmission augmentation projects after many decades of inactivity, the available design and construction resources in Australia are limited, leading to further cost pressures."

"The other inherent difficulty in building transmission lines is (understandable) opposition from affected landowners and local communities. TransGrid is experiencing strident opposition to HumeLink and other proposed transmission projects in NSW."

"Similarly, AusNet in Victoria. This is a major social issue, and cost, which hasn’t been fully factored into estimates."

The article goes on to say... If the regulatory process is to retain the confidence of consumers, the AER has to return both the HumeLink and Marinus applications to the senders and make clear that it will only review applications that appropriately count costs and benefits, and result in a plausible net benefit.

The Western Victoria Transmission Network Project should also be subject to the same level of scrutiny given it was subject to the same flawed investment test process. The overall take-out is that transmission projects need far more scrutiny, far earlier in the development process. It is clear that a rigorous process would have identified HumeLink (and Snowy 2.0), Marinus Link and the WVTNP to be uneconomic as proposed, saving $billions for taxpayers and electricity consumers.

Now that would deliver downward pressure on electricity prices!

So why was this letter written to Australia?

The transition to renewables is a pathway toward transformation of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon by the second half of this century. At its heart is the need to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions to limit climate change. The energy transition will be enabled by information technology, smart technology, policy frameworks and market instruments.

There are significant opportunities as well as technical, engineering and social challenges ahead as Australia transitions to a renewable energy future.

Forty years ago, transmission planning policies did not fully appreciate ecological, biological, social, economic, cultural or communities impacted by electricity transmission lines. Instead, project proposals stumbled upon regulatory intervention, community opposition, and last-minute litigation because impact considerations had been left until the final siting phase. Most existing planning policy and resilience framework has a strong focus on activities around existing infrastructure, not new. Adopting this historical framework has resulted in reactive planning and mitigation measures rather than a proactive approach.

Accounting for the full range of obligations, which include engineering resilience, safeguarding reliability, reducing carbon emissions, maximising economic benefits, facilitating renewable generation technologies and avoiding unnecessary impacts on landscape and the environment, will be critical. There is much work to do, especially when accounting for socioeconomic and environmental concerns. Recognising the need for public and environmental policy and developing new methods to apply this early in project development will minimise risks to project investors, better serve the environment and public interest.

This letter was written to Australia to gain support from the Australian people that construction of overhead transmission lines is the only solution and it is urgently required. It was written to counter the significant push-back push-back from communities who are in support of renewable energy provided it is modern, cleaner and greener.

We cannot afford to approach the transition to renewable energy the same way we rolled out large-scale transmission lines four decades ago. By not considering more viable solutions, network planners, operators and governments will fail the economy, renewable investors, energy consumers, communities and the future of our energy grid.

It's time to demand change!

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