Audrey Zibelman, who this year swapped New York’s top regulatory role for one in Australia, is looking to bring all power sources under one umbrella. 

“We've launched a planning exercise that's really looking at how to plan a system on a national scale, not just transmission but also looking at gas and renewable development,” said the CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

The plan aims to help Australia’s grid deal with a tidal wave of intermittent renewable energy. Zibelman said 20 gigawatts of power have requested consideration on a grid that has a 53-gigawatt capacity. “That's a huge increase,” she said, “and all of it is wind and solar.”

Renewable generation is already causing challenges in areas such as South Australia, where wind production exceeds demand at certain points in the year, she said. Meanwhile, the gas market faces shortages.

In September, AEMO warned that “the aggregate gas supply available to the domestic market in eastern and southeastern Australia may not be sufficient to meet the total annual energy requirements of domestic gas users in these regions in 2018 and 2019.” 

Add in the fact that outdated rules are threatening the stability of Australia’s grid, and it is no wonder that Zibelman, who left a job as chair of the New York Department of Public Service to join AEMO in March, has found life Down Under to be a real eye-opener.

“In many ways, Australia is a postcard from the future for the United States, relative to the levels of variable renewable generation we have, as well as the pickup of distributed energy, including distributed solar and storage,” she told GTM.

The differences are not just in the energy mix. Compared to U.S. grids, AEMO is in control of a long, skinny network, Zibelman said. This serves an area that is as large as the bottom 48 states of the U.S. but with a population roughly equivalent to that of New York state.

Regulation is also markedly different in Oz, with nothing akin to America’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or to state public utility commissions such as the New York Department of Public Service. 

As a result, while “you always look for the similarities, it's actually the recognition of the differences that have become important for me,” said Zibelman.

She has lost no time in coming to grips with her new environment, though.

In addition to the national energy planning exercise, this year Zibelman has been leading AEMO through exercises including expanding grid response programs and reviewing rule changes that will let the network accommodate a greater proportion of renewable generation.

At the government level, meanwhile, Australia has seen the establishment of a review commission to look at how to adapt the grid to a changing energy future.

“We are meeting the trifecta [of] objectives, i.e., having a system that produces power at a reasonable and affordable price, having a system that is secure, and having a system that meets our emission objectives,” Zibelman said.

Solving Australia’s grid problems will most likely involve a significant dose of energy storage, which Zibelman said is available in several forms.

The country has been in the spotlight for hosting the world’s largest battery plant, the Hornsdale Power Reserve project, but also contains hydro reserves in Tasmania and the Snowy River, which could be expanded and made available as storage assets, she said.

Whichever way Australia ends up dealing with its grid challenges, the outcome will likely be instructive for many other markets worldwide.

“All of the issues that we're grappling with in Australia, we've grappled with in New York and we've grappled with, frankly, throughout the industry,” she commented. 

Zibelman also believes she is in the best place to solve them. “The issue is not so much the technology; technology is happening,” she said. “It's the regulatory regimes and the market regimes that need to be adapted to the future power system."   

“What's really gratifying is to see the number of solutions that are coming on board, and that the industry has an opportunity to make this transition in a very efficient way for the benefit of consumers," said Zibelman.