Sub­ur­ban growth build­ing pres­sure on dis­tri­bu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Keith Orchi­son

GOV­ERN­MENT- owned In­te­gral En­ergy is a poster child for the mas­sive chal­lenge Aus­tralia faces in de­liv­er­ing elec­tric­ity to cus­tomers. Al­most all pub­lic de­bate is about gen­er­a­tion, but the power sta­tions’ prod­uct can­not reach Aus­tralia’s 10 mil­lion elec­tric­ity cus­tomers with­out an elab­o­rate web of trans­form­ers, ca­bles and sub­sta­tions. Con­sumers are linked to sup­ply by 800,000km of elec­tric­ity lines.

En­ergy Net­works As­so­ci­a­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Andrew Blyth claims that the $ 45 bil­lion power de­liv­ery sys­tem plus gas dis­tri­bu­tion now adds up to the third- largest en­gi­neer­ing con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity in the coun­try.

In NSW, where the Iemma Gov­ern­ment is star­ing down its own sup­port­ers in its des­per­a­tion to sell power plants, the net­work busi­nesses it will con­tinue to own — the high- volt­age op­er­a­tor Tran­sGrid and three dis­tri­bu­tion op­er­a­tors — will be seek­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­proval this year to out­lay about $ 10 bil­lion over five years on up­grad­ing and ex­pand­ing their de­liv­ery sys­tems. And they ex­pect to look for ap­proval to spend a sim­i­lar amount in the fol­low­ing five- year reg­u­la­tory pe­riod 2014- 2019.

In­te­gral En­ergy is one of three NSW dis­tri­bu­tion ser­vice providers. It de­liv­ers power to more than two mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in 24,500 sq km in west­ern Syd­ney, the Blue Moun­tains, the South­ern High­lands, the Illawarra and the South Coast.

The cor­po­ra­tion says it needs to spend an av­er­age of $ 135 mil­lion a year from now to 2030 on its net­work’s de­vel­op­ment — and $ 2 bil­lion of this will have to be spent in the next 10 years.

The In­te­gral En­ergy fran­chise area en­com­passes some of Aus­tralia’s fastest­grow­ing sub­urbs. Its cus­tomer base is pre­dicted to rise by a quar­ter in the next decade, and max­i­mum de­mand on its net­works to in­crease by more than a third.

The task it faces re­quires not just up­grad­ing net­works, but in some cases help­ing to cre­ate new sub­urbs from the ground up. For ex­am­ple, its Rouse Hill area on Syd­ney’s north- west fringe — pad­docks less than a decade ago — is to be­come a city the size of Can­berra by 2030.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the In­te­gral En­ergy fran­chise is heat and hu­mid­ity — the hills and plains of west­ern Syd­ney are hot­ter than the coastal ar­eas. Ten years ago about 25 per cent of the re­gion’s homes had air­con­di­tion­ing. To­day this is 70 per cent and grow­ing.

Largely be­cause of air­con­di­tion­ing load, In­te­gral’s peak sys­tem power de­mand has shifted from win­ter to sum­mer, re­quir­ing tem­per­a­ture- sen­si­tive plant to work at its hard­est in the hot­ter months.

As in the rest of ur­ban Aus­tralia, In­te­gral En­ergy is also find­ing a sub­stan­tial seg­ment of its 830,000 ac­counts are busi­ness peo­ple work­ing from home and crit­i­cally de­pen­dent on the in­ter­net. They re­quire al­most fault­less stan­dards of elec­tric­ity sup­ply from a sys­tem that is vul­ner­a­ble to storms, bush­fires, ac­ci­dents and van­dal­ism — as well as its own old age.

A sub­stan­tial part of the sys­tem, like other dis­tri­bu­tion net­works around Aus­tralia, was laid down in the 1960s and 1970s and is reach­ing the end of its life.

Global warm­ing also looms large. The net­work struc­ture In­te­gral is now in­stalling is ex­pected to be in op­er­a­tion for 30 to 40 years and, on the pre­dic­tions of sci­en­tists, will have to deal with more ex­treme weather as a re­sult of cli­mate change.

With net­work costs form­ing al­most half an elec­tric­ity cus­tomers’ re­tail bill, the bil­lions to be spent will feed into end- use costs just as the higher prices for emis­sions trad­ing and an en­larged re­new­able en­ergy ef­fort are be­ing added, too.

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