Collage of photographs of cars on road, plane over power lines, city skyline; Collage of photographs of cars on road, plane over power lines, city skyline;

The clean energy crux: toward net zero regions, hubs and precincts

How will Australian industries and communities transition our energy systems for a net-zero emissions future? Energy infrastructure overlays with the community, telecommunications, water, social infrastructure, administrative boundaries, and people’s desires. So, how do you engage with the complexity where there are no neat boundaries?

I recently explored these questions with a panel of leading cross-industry experts:

  • Dr Alan Finkel, Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology; Chief Scientist of Australia, 2016-2020

  • Anna Quillinan, Chief Development Officer - Net Zero Energy Solutions, ENGIE

  • Kristin Raman, Acting Executive General Manager People and Strategy, AGIG

  • James Veness, Chief Customer Officer, Hickory Data Centres

  • Thomas Briault, Energy Leader, Southeast Asia, Arup

There was a spirit of urgency and optimism as panellists pointed to solutions that are ready in the here and now – it just needs the will to act to achieve our goals.

As Patrick Gorr, our Victorian Energy Leader and Global Hydrogen Leader, said when he introduced the panel and discussion, “It’s not about a small number of big projects, but a big number of small projects. Large and mega-projects have an enduring role and a need to quickly deliver small, repeatable projects to offset large, complex infrastructure.”

Here are some highlights from the discussion to help you understand how we can make Australia’s energy transition a reality.

A row of six people sitting on stools are speaking to a room full of people at an event A row of six people sitting on stools are speaking to a room full of people at an event
From left: James Veness, Dr Alan Finkel, Kristin Raman, Thomas Briault, Anna Quillinan, Joan Ko

Electrification is key

Dr Finkel, who has travelled widely in his explorations of global best practices, shared his thoughts from the perspective of advising governments around high-level policy.

“Every project is different, which is why companies like Arup have to advise on the implementation details for every project,” he said.

But the challenge at a precinct level is the same as the challenge for the national decarbonisation effort. We want to stop emissions, and the sweet spot for doing that is power. Electrification is key. ” Dr Alan Finkel

Dr Finkel sees new opportunities arise for retail aggregation, virtual power plants, peer-to-peer trading, and more with as much local solar installation as possible alongside batteries wherever you can. Rooftop solar is a great example of the opportunity to localise electrification. Early thinking on the pros and cons of scale and efficiency underestimated the added costs and investment in distribution from giant solar farms. 

“Big solar farms need to be in remote renewable energy zones and multi-hundred-million-dollar transmission lines to bring power to the grid. It carries those extra costs and delays in getting the connection rights and transmission lines built. But in domestic precincts, you can put up your solar panels, and that’s the only cost you have: no extra charge, no waiting for permits.”

“You see it in the numbers. In 2021 in Australia, there were roughly three gigawatts of large-scale solar and wind projects, but there were 3.3 gigawatts of rooftop solar. It’s staggering how effective it’s been.”

Heating and cooling

Anna Quillinan picked up closely from Dr Finkel’s remarks, having worked with universities to provide energy solutions at a precinct level to help decarbonise their operations.

“We reimagine how a precinct works,” said Anna. “How do people travel to and from the campus? What do they do while there? How does that influence how we decarbonise? Heating and cooling are the biggest load that most precincts endure – how do we do that differently? In the Monash example, electrifying their heating and cooling operation and centralising helps reduce the amount of energy it takes to do that.”

Beyond finding those fundamental precinct-level changes toward electrification, Anna also said the university sector is a great space for research, particularly into the social and behavioural changes that need to occur.

How do we get people to interact with energy differently and think differently about how they’re using energy to really make this change? ” Anna Quillinan

Gas networking

Turning to Kristin Raman from Australian Gas Infrastructure Group, I noted that the energy transition discussion is an existential one for the gas industry’s future and how they see their place in the transformation process.

“We see ourselves as an energy delivery mechanism, not just a gas business, but as a provider of energy. We can deliver a renewable gas product, be it hydrogen, be it biomethane – we can do it. We are doing blended gas projects today, and we have many more.”

Kristin said it is essential to acknowledge that the underlying demand for energy is only increasing, even as efficiency grows. 

The existing gas networks in the ground have a vital role to enable a smooth, cost efficient and resilient transition for businesses and homes. ” Kristin Raman

Power plays

James Veness pointed out that he represents large consumers of energy. Data centres and their growth in scale are examples of growth in demand and the effort to manage power resources. He points out that 20-megawatt data centres in Australia just a few years ago are now operating at 300-400 megawatts.

There are strict compliance demands on data centre design, with challenges and opportunities to be explored. And with a lot of heat production and strict fire regulations, it is not a simple thing to add batteries into this environment. But instead of this, the industry is exploring some radical ideas to make data centre precincts find cleaner ways to keep up with their power supply demands.

“One of these is quite controversial. A discussion in the industry right now is around micro-reactors. One of these can power 300-400-megawatt data centres quite easily. It’s very clean – but is it green?”

“Then you’ve got location. Data centres produce a significant amount of heat. Now, in Denmark and the Nordics, they are plumbing the heat from a data centre to fuel or heat recreational facilities and housing. So, the precincts that surround them are quite important in forward planning.”

Socialising infrastructure

Thomas Briault brought together some closing thoughts around ensuring that we appropriately socialise the costs of infrastructure change as precincts localise power generation and storage. He sees hydrogen offering an ample opportunity, playing roles in areas where batteries may not work as well – like in long-term energy storage.

Thomas said it’s essential to see the difference between designing projects from the outset versus designing to retrofit systems already in place – focusing on decarbonisation from where we are right now; these can lead to different solutions.

Providing alternatives

In audience questions, Kristen tackled the future of gas infrastructure in an electrified world. She explained there will always be not only the industrial users who cannot electrify but a variety of other smaller industries – from brickworks to commercial kitchens – that demand gas for their needs. Her view is that if we switch off gas today in Victoria, it would increase overall emissions.

Anna and Dr Finkel agreed that gas has a role to play as a diversity of energy delivery will be essential to managing demand long into the future. And Dr Finkel suggested that we must never forget that customers do not want to be forced to change, but they can be encouraged to change when they can see clear benefits and rewards.

“You can’t just expect people to cooperate. You’ve got to give people alternatives,” he said. “I’ve never really wanted to accept being vegan or vegetarian for the good of the planet, but I finally had an Impossible burger in Houston, Texas, and they’re really good! If all synthetic meat could be as good as that, I could become a vegetarian.”

Hydrogen’s role?

Another question looked toward hydrogen’s role in the future of the energy network, with one person asking how exactly we will experience hydrogen – will it replace gas in the network? Or appear in our cars?

Kristin pointed out that in blended gas testing in South Australia, users would not know they were receiving a hydrogen mix if they hadn’t been told – and that not noticing a difference can be one of the benefits. But it is hard to predict precisely how it will fit into the overall future of energy, given the many different factors at play. 

Dr Finkel has driven a hydrogen vehicle himself but points out it is far from convenient at this stage for most drivers. “I have to drive 18 kilometres to refuel. It only takes three minutes, but it’s a long drive there and back. Battery electric vehicles are just so convenient to refuel by plugging in. So, for those with off-street parking, battery electric vehicles will be the future. The only demand I see for hydrogen cars is for people who live in inner cities and apartment buildings without enough car parking.”

Watch the recording of the event 'Net zero regions, hubs and precincts | The clean energy crux'
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Getting to 2035

So how do we ensure we land in the right place with energy transformation in 15 years? I asked each panellist to offer their closing thought.

“Collaborate,” said James. “We can’t do it without us all working together.”

“Focus on zero-emissions electricity everywhere you can, and then think about everything else where you can’t,” said Dr Finkel.

“Diversity and keeping your options open,” said Kristin.

“For precincts, we have to change planning regulations to make it an absolute requirement to be zero carbon,” said Thomas. “It has to be strong; it must be clear, and everyone needs to know where they’re going.”

“Act,” said Anna. “We’ve got the solutions available to us now. We don’t need to wait for new technology. We’ve got a lot of opportunities to act now. So, let’s act.”